HENRY COUNTY AND IT'S COURTHOUSES
December 7, 1836
According to most sources, Henry County (440 square miles) was named for Henry Dodge (1782-1867), who served in the Black Hawk War and other Indian wars and governor of Wisconsin Territory (1836-1841); others credit the county's name to General James Dougherty Henry (1797-1834), a hero of the Black Hawk War.
The first white man to settle on land embraced within the limits of Henry County was James Dawson, whose claim was one and one-half miles west of where Mount Pleasant is now located. This was in the spring of 1834. In the fall of 1834, Presley Saunders came from Springfield, Illinois, and selected a building site near a spring on wooded land which today comprises part of Saunders Park in Mount Pleasant. His claim was bout 30 miles northwest of Burlington.
Settlers continued pushing up the valley of the Skunk River in increasing numbers and, in the summer of 1836, the town of Mount Pleasant was first surveyed and town lots were staked out for sale. An official government survey was made in April 1837, and on January 25, 1842, the town was first incorporated when the Iowa Territorial Legislature granted it a charter.
In the meantime, the First Legislative Assembly of Wisconsin Territory had recognized the need for more convenient areas of local government by dividing Demoine County, on December 7, 1836, into seven new counties, one of which was called Henry County. The present county seat, Mount Pleasant, was favored from the first as the most acceptable place for the county government because of its size and central location. However, Mount Pleasant was not permanently selected without opposition from the rival communities of Millspaugh's Mills, Trenton, and Paton Wilson's location near Oakland Mills. Even though Mount Pleasant had been designated the county seat by the Legislature of the Territory of Wisconsin, there were proposals to repeal the Act and name a place on the "navigable" Skunk River. But these proposals were unsuccessful and the county seat was not relocated.
The citizens of Mount Pleasant, then a town of over 100 inhabitants, proposed that a courthouse be erected in the center of the public square and at the second scheduled meeting of the county commissioners on Monday, February 13, 1837, an order was issued to raise money for a "Suitable house for County purposes" that would be "Respecable (sic) in size & quality." The order to receive sealed bids for the work was rescinded, however.
The first district court in Henry County was held on April 14, 1837, in a log cabin on the west side of the public square. A bill presented for payment by the owner of the house, Tillman Smith, was disapproved by the commissioners.
On June 24, 1837, it was decided "to Let the Building of the Court House...30 feet Long By 18 feet wide, ten feet high between the Joice the same to be completed with sleepers and Joice Door and Window frames and to be delivered to the Supervisors on or before the first day of September next," and the work to be done "in workmen like manner." This plan, which called for erecting the courthouse on the east side of the public square, did not meet with public favor and, for the time being, nothing further was done.
Agitation for a courthouse continued, however, but county officials refused to take action. A citizens committee was then formed in the spring of 1838 to proceed with plans for a courthouse. Instead of a cheap, one-story frame structure, they proposed to erect a brick building, 24 feet square and two stories high. Brick and lumber were delivered to the public square and work on the first permanent courthouse began in 1839, but progress lagged.
After much controversy and delays in the construction, this two-story brick building was finally completed in 1840, in the center of the square. The cost is estimated to have been between $3,000 and $4,000 - the first brick or stone courthouse to be built in Iowa. A cupola, which was in the original plans, was never built. It would appear that the courthouse was constructed and paid for without a bond issue or special tax levy. Funds came from subscriptions, notes, and the sale of lots. At the time of its completion, the building was considered "the finest and largest courthouse in the Territory of Iowa." This courthouse served its purpose "right well," but the one-time "handsome building" with its grand staircase, which was once "a matter of county pride," was eventually demolished in 1871. A bronze tablet on a red granite boulder, erected by the James Harlan Chapter of the DAR, marks the site of this first courthouse, built in 1839 in the center of the town square.
The second courthouse for Henry County was the remodeled "Hill Hall," located on the extreme northwest corner of the Courthouse Block. The county jail was on the same block. This courthouse was used from 1870 until 1914, when it was replaced and put up for sale.
According to the Mount Pleasant Weekly News of Wednesday, August 12, 1914, there was little interest in the public sale of the old courthouse on the preceding Saturday. Only three men bid on the building, which brought $247.50, although, as the paper pointed out, "it is seldom that a man had the opportunity to own a court house all to himself." Everything was sold and, before that night, had been carried from the site - "a clean sweep." The "big heating plant went for a song" ($100), and was installed in a local greenhouse. All pipes in the courthouse were sold for $15, and the radiators were "sold for the ridiculous sum of $25." However, "the desks and chairs and stuff of that kind went high, considering their condition. As a matter of fact, all of the best stuff had been taken into the new court house or out to the County Infirmary or sold at private sale."
Work was being "pushed with rapidity" on the demolition of the old courthouse, but farmers were divided over the questions of finishing up the new building program. "One man insisted that the old court house was as good as the new one, which shows that the fight against the new one has not died out."
There was trouble with the contractor (English Bros. of Champaign, Illinois) for the new courthouse, particularly in regard to the plastering. One of the inspectors stated that "in his opinion the workmanship was the first class, but that the cold weather was at the bottom of the trouble." In any event, the cost of the necessary repairs was estimated to be as little as $20 and not more than $100. Ant "it was pretty evident" that the board of supervisors and the advisory committee "were not looking for a law suit." The controversy ended when the board unanimously adopted a resolution of acceptance, and payment for construction of the new courthouse was made to the contractor, who went home on August 5, 1914, "with a draft for every dollar due him on the building." The new courthouse then became the property of the citizens of Henry County, and it was reported that everybody was satisfied. This present courthouse was dedicated in 1914.
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