Another IAGenWeb Project

The Counties and Courthouses of Iowa

Established: January 15, 1851
Organized: January 22, 1853
(effective August 3, 1857)
County Seat: Spirit Lake

Dickinson County (403 square miles) was named for Senator Daniel Stevens Dickinson (1800-1866), lawyer and distinguished statesman of New York. It is the highest in altitude of Iowa’s counties, lying on the great watershed between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, and is distinguished for its numerous lakes. However, in land area only, it is the smallest of Iowa’s counties (380 square miles). Long before white settlers came to this lake region, it has been a rendezvous of the Dakota Indian Tribes, which included the Sioux, Omaha, Ioways, and Yanktons. The area was later frequented by hunters, trappers, and adventures, but they left no written accounts. The white population of the entire county in 1856 was only about 40 people, of which half were children.

In July 1856, Rowland Gardner and his family came from Cerro Gordo County to stake a claim and erect log cabins in what came to be known as Gardner’s Grove. Others soon settled in the area and also built log cabins. The winter which followed was a severe one. Game was scarce and the white settlers had no crops from the year before. Under the guise of seeking food, a renegade band of Sioux Indians, led by Inkpaduta (also called Scarlet Point, or sometimes Red End), clashed with the white settlers around the lakes of Dickinson County in March 1857. All except four were murdered on the spot. Of the four captives, two, Mrs. Noble and Mrs. Thatcher, were murdered soon after. The other two, Mrs. William Marble and Miss Abigail (Abbie) Gardner were later rescued, in Many and June of 1857. For six days the Indians ravaged the settlement, burning and pillaging, and killing livestock. When word reached Fort Dodge of the massacre, Major William Williams headed an expedition of volunteers in pursuit of the Indians. Their main job, however, turned out to be burying the dead pioneers.

Following the Spirit Lake Massacre, the first election of county and township officers was held on August 3, 1857, and the county was formally organized. Two years later, a courthouse was proposed at the town of Spirit Lake, which had been laid out in 1857 on the shore of the lake of the same name, and had been selected as the county seat in 1858. Construction was begun on this first courthouse in 1859. Harvey Abbot was the architect. The bricks were burned locally by William Barkman, a brother of the contractor, Henry Barkman. Lime was burned from limestone boulders picked up along the lake shores and transported by flatboats to the kiln. The lumber, principally oak, came from Prescott’s sawmill at Okoboji Grove. The walls and roof of the courthouse were erected by 1860, but work then drew to a halt and building stood uncompleted for nearly eight years.

From 1862 through the remaining Civil War years, soldiers were quartered in what was to become the courthouse. In August 1862, during the Indian attacks on settlements along the Des Moines River, the unfinished courthouse was used as a central gathering place for settlers for their mutual protection. There were from 25 to 40 families represented in the encampment. Many were “in a high state of excitement and laboring under constant fear of an attack by the Indians.” No one present knew the nature and extent of the outbreak. During the emergency, loose lumber was thrown over the joists of the uncompleted building to form a floor. Doors and window opening were barricaded as well as possible. Provisions were scant. Cooking was done over a campfire. Sleeping arrangements were crude and simple – the best anyone had was a bunch of hay and a few blankets. Sentries were posted a night. After a cavalry detachment arrived, a stockade was completed around the courthouse. When the settlers went back to their claims, the soldiers remained in possession and established headquarters at the courthouse.

In August 1863, a buffalo (bison) was killed in Dickinson County. This is said to have been the last one killed on Iowa soil. Other wild animals – bears and lynx – were still being seen in the late 1870’s. Untied States troops remained in the courthouse until July 1865, and the building was subjected to very hard usage while used as a military post. But with the close of the Civil War in 1865, work was resumed on the courthouse, and it was finally completed in 1868, only to be destroyed by fire on November 21, 1871. Only a portion of the county records were saved, and settlement with the insurance company was made at a loss of about 50 cents on the dollar. This old courthouse had been used for almost every imaginable purpose. People came there for revival meetings, dances, entertainments, traveling shows, and political gatherings, and the second floor also served as a schoolroom. In fact, the local school district bought and installed the seats in the courtroom in exchange for its use for school purposes. Since there were only two terms of court annually, the conflicts were kept to a minimum.

For a time following the fire, the county offices were located in a storeroom across the street from the courthouse grounds. The question of removal of the county seat to another location was discussed, but a second courthouse was built in Spirit Lake in 1872 –upon the old foundation—using the bricks from the building that had burned a few months before. This structure did not prove to be very satisfactory and, in 1880, it was condemned.

In September 1889, a proposal was made to issue bonds in the amount of $15,000 for building a new courthouse. The question was submitted to a vote and carried by a fair majority. The election was declared void by the court, but the proposition was ratified by an even larger majority at the second election, and construction begun on the new courthouse.

Work on this third courthouse was commenced on October 4, 1890, on the site of the old courthouse-stockade which had been built in the 1860’s. T.D. Allen was the architect. Completed in 1891, this courthouse of brick and stone construction cost $15,000. Bricks used in the first and second courthouses were mixed with concrete for the foundation. A new addition, including a jail, was built in 1957.

Excerpt from the book The Counties and Courthouses of Iowa, By LeRoy G. Pratt, Copyright 1977, First Edition
Transcribed and Contributed By Linda Ziemann.