IAGenWeb Project - Clayton co.

The Counties and Courthouses of Iowa


Established:  December 21, 1837
Organized:  September 10, 1838
County Seat:  Elkader

Clayton County, (796 square miles) was named for John Middleton Clayton (1796-1856), a U.S. senator and cabinet member from Delaware, who assisted in the passage of the Wisconsin Territorial bill.
According to some accounts, the first white man first set foot on Iowa soil in Clayton County on June 17, 1673, when the French missionary Father Jacques Marquette and trapper-explorer Louis Joliet, on their way down the Wisconsin River from Green Bay, are said to have crossed to the west bank of the Mississippi River and beached their canoe at a point just below McGregor now known as Pike’s Peak.  However, most historians now believe that Marquette and Joliet did not touch Iowa soil until eight days later, on June 25, 1673, when they landed at a point near the mouth of the Iowa River in Louisa County, and were met by friendly Indians.
The first white settlers in Clayton County arrived in 1832.  One of the first celebrations in observance of the anniversary of American Independence in what is now Iowa took place on July 4, 1838, at Table Rock, about two miles northeast of Elkader.
Clayton County had a “county seat on wheels” during its early years.  The first county seat was a Prairie La Porte (meaning Door of the Prairie.)  Laid out in 1837, the town has been called Guttenberg since 1847, in tribute to Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of movable printing type.  According to the sheriff’s census taken in 1838, there were 274 persons living in the county at that time.  The first court was held in 1838 in rooms rented for $5 per day in Graybill’s Tavern.
At a meeting held on December 5, 1839, the county commissioners “ordered that the be a court-house built on the public square at Prairie La Porte, by the first of September next, size and quality of building to be here after mentioned….”  The board then contracted with Robert Hatfield “for the delivery of the stuff necessary for the erection of the county building, and with David Hastings for the construction thereof.”  On August 3, 1840, the $73.50 claim of Robert Hatfield for building material, and the $23 claim of David Hastings for erecting the county building were allowed.  Thus, Clayton County’s first county building cost $96.50. 
An act to relocate the county seat received approval of the Territorial Governor on January 14, 1840.  The commissioners selected a site and name it Allotat (a Sauk word meaning Gander).  However, a majority of the voters at the August election favored retaining the county seat at Prairie La Porte. Another Act to relocate the county seat was approved on February 15, 1843, and the commissioners again drove their site stakes.  This time the location was one-eighth of a section south of the one selected in 1840 and was named Jacksonville.
A courthouse was erected at Jacksonville at a cost of $675, and was accepted on April 4, 1844.  It was on May 27, 1846, that the town’s name was changed from Jacksonville to Garnavillo, after a town in Ireland.  Garnavillo remained the county seat until 1856 when it was changed to Elkader—named for a famous Algerian leader, Abdel-Kader.  At the time, he was fighting the French who had been trying for 15 years to take over his country.  His deeds inspired the founders of the little village in Clayton County to name their settlement for him.  Elkader was the county seat for only one year before it was returned to Guttenberg.  However, the county records went back to Elkader in 1860, and Stone Hall was rented by the county to serve as a courthouse.  In September 1866, the old courthouse at Garnavillo was sold at auction for $3,000.  There were other efforts to move the county seat to McGregor and Garnavillo, but without avail.
The county’s third courthouse was built at Elkader in 1867 and was enlarged 10 years later.  This substantial red brick structure is two stores high, and has hollow walls and arched windows.  The stone for the foundation came from a local quarry.  An addition was contracted for on April 6, 1877, and this became the main part of the courthouse, the old building being about one-third of the courthouse as it now stands.  The cost of the addition was $10,000, half of which was paid by the citizens of Elkader.
The cornerstone of this building was laid on July 4, 1877, or 10 years after the first third of the courthouse was erected, and bears the inscription “July 4, A.L. 5877.”  The A.L. stands for Anno Lucis, or Year of Light, a dated used by Freemasons to indicate the number of years that have elapsed since 4000 B.C., which is assumed to be the date the Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses.  Thus, 4000 is added to the date 1877 to arrive at A.L. 5877.
At the time it was built, the courthouse was described as “a neat and commodious one,”  reflecting credit on the community and the county.  While the county seat of Clayton County changed several times in 20 years, it has been located at Elkader since 1860.  Some of the early court records date back to 1838, or more than eight years before Iowa became a state.  Located in a park overlooking the Turkey River, the red brick Clayton County Courthouse with its white trim, truncated hip roof, and railed widow walk are typical of an earlier era.  The front windows are round arched and the cornice is bracketed.
The cupola was expanded in 1896 to include a clock tower.  The cost of constructing the tower--$$1,120—was paid for by the county, as was the 800-pound bell, which cost $190, but the clock, costing $550, was purchased by citizens of Elkader.  The tower stands approximately 45 feet above the courthouse roof and is 16 feet square at the base.  It is surrounded by a four-foot-wide walk. 
A concrete parking lot was added in 1936 and enlarged in the 1960’s.  The courtroom was remodeled in the 1950’s and again in 1974.  A new entrance was added to the building in 1971 and the exterior was sand-blasted and tuck-pointed.  The clock tower was repaired and painted in 1974.
A Civil War monument, dedicated May 30, 1919, stands before one side of the courthouse.  Memorial Day services are held here each year.
Until July 1975, Clayton County was the only county in Iowa with two county homes—one primarily for mental patients, the other for indigents.  At that time, new quarters were completed for these residents and the old Clayton County Mental Health Institute, built in 1897, was remodeled for a county office building.  The brick and stone, two-story building is located about three blocks from the courthouse and now houses some of the county offices formerly located in the courthouse, courthouse annex, and rented space.  The old brick courthouse annex was then leased to the Elkader Historical Society.
The history of the splendid stone bridge near the courthouse at Elkader is also of interest.  Prior to construction of the bridge, the Turkey River, about 90 miles in length, had been spanned at this point by several double iron trusses of the Truesdale patent.  These bridges became defective and required frequent repairs.  This location was considered suitable for a stone arch bridge which would be permanent and would avoid the heavy annual expense of replanking the floor of either an iron or wooden bridge.  In addition, Cole’s quarry, near town, was able to provide sufficient magnesium limestone of fine quality, free from all imperfections and resistant to the action of frost and water.  Furthermore, bids received by the board of supervisors were higher for an iron bridge than for the stone bridge.
The bridge contract was awarded in 1889 to Byrne and Blade, stone masons and contractors from Dubuque, for $13,000.  The designer was M. Tschirgi, Jr., who had also engineered the high bridge at Dubuque.  The plans called for two spans, each 84 feet in the clear, with a center pier 19 feet wide at the foundation.  Other dimensions were:  clear height of each arch, 27.9 feet; outside width of bridge, 34 feet; clear width of bridge, 30 feet; total length of bridge, 346 feet. 
Work was begun on the bridge in August, and it took nine months to complete it.  A total of 4,161 cubic yards of material went into the bridge.  Its estimated weight is 18,618,255 pounds or 9,309 tons.  The difficult and dangerous work was completed with any accident.
The Elkader bridge was claimed to be “the finest and longest stone arch highway bridge in the State, or in fact anywhere west of the Mississippi River.”

Both the stone bridge and the Clayton County Courthouse at Elkader have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.


~Excerpt from: The Counties and Courthouses of Iowa, by LeRoy G. Pratt, Copyright 1977, First Edition
~Transcribed for Clayton co. IAGenWeb by Linda Ziemann

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