IAGenWeb Project

Shelby County


Shelby County was named in 1851 by the General Assembly of Iowa after General Isaac Shelby, famous for serving in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 and becoming the first governor of the state of Kentucky.

Shelby County includes 591 square miles. The geography includes rolling hills, ridges, and groves. The main river is the Nishnabotna and its branches.

The Western part of the county was settled primarily by German Catholics. The southeastern corner includes a Danish settlement. Other nationalities who settled in the county are Norwegian, English and Irish.

The first court held in the county was in a farmhouse that doubled as a saloon and grocery. This building was located at the first permanent settlement in the county, Galland's Grove.

In 1857 there was a movement to construct the first county courthouse in Shelby County. It was to be located at Shelbyville, but the proposition lost by three votes in a special election. A second proposition limited to $3,000 was also defeated.

Following this there was a bitter county seat battle. The towns involved were Shelbyville, Soreida and Harlan. On April 4, 1859 Harlan was declared the county seat of Shelby County -- by a majority of only nine votes.

Following two failing attempts by the county to build a courthouse, one was finally constructed in 1860. The $2,500 brick courthouse was destroyed by a fire before it was completed. The county then purchased a building that was being constructed as a "store" building. The total purchase price was $5,000. This building was used until 1876, when it was replaced by a frame structure at a cost of $4,250.

After two years of heated controversy over whether the county could afford a new courthouse, in 1892 the present courthouse was completed in the town square of Harlan. The cornerstone laying ceremony was complete with a parade, bands, speeches and even a baseball game between the stonecutters and the brickmasons; it is not known who won the game.

The impressive looking building was built of stone and brick, at a total cost of $62,733.90, including furnishings. One significant feature noted was a private room and toilet room for ladies only adjoining the courtroom. Later, in 1907, the local Woman's Union asked the board of supervisors for another rest room in the basement. The original courthouse contained a large tower, but by 1899 it was causing the building to settle, and thus the tower was removed.

In the December 16, 1903 board minutes a resolution was adopted to prohibit the use of the courthouse basement "as a resort for bootlegging and drinking whiskey."

In 1978, the Shelby County Courthouse was designated as a national historic site. Around that time the courthouse interior was getting a $300,000 facelift. All of this was funded with federal money.

Sources: The above contains excerpts from History of County Governments in Iowa, published in 1992 by Iowa State Association of Counties, Des Moines, Iowa