Established:  February 17, 1843

Organized:  February 5, 1844

(effective March 1, 1844)


County Seat:  Oskaloosa


Mahaska County (572 square miles) was named for the noted chief of the Ioway Indian Tribe 
(1874-1834), although he never lived in what is now the county bearing his name, which means 
White Cloud.  A statue of Chief Mahaska stands in the city square at Oskaloosa today, west of
the courthouse.  The statue was gift of James D. Edmundson as a memorial to his father, William
Edmundson, who was appointed organizing sheriff for Mahaska County in 1844.  It was James D. 
Edmundson, a Council Bluffs banker and lawyer, who established the Jennie Edmundson Hospital in 
Council Bluffs (a memorial to his first wife), and the Art Center in DesMoines (where he lived 
the final years of his life until his death in 1933 at the age of 94.)


Mahaska County was a part of the territory that opened for settlement by the whites on May 1, 
1843.  During the preceding month, many people collected and camped on these lands waiting for
the Indian claim to expire.


Three locations were submitted for the consideration of the commission of three men (Jesse 
Williams of Johnson County, Ebenezer Perkins of Washington County and Thomas Henderson of Keokuk
County) appointed to locate and establish a site for the county seat.  The sites considered were
Auburn, located on  Six Mile Prairie,  Mahaska Center, located at the geographic center of the 
county, about two and one-half miles north of present-day Oskaloosa; and the  The Narrows.   The
latter was the final choice, made on May 11, 1844, and the farm land was purchased from its 
owner, William D. Canfield, who had built a cabin there in October 1843.  The location was the 
narrowest point on the divide between the DesMoines and Skunk Rivers.  The new town first 
called Mahaska was later named Oskaloosa, meaning (there are many variations in spelling), who 
was a wife of the Seminole Indian leader, Osceola.  During its early days, Oskaloosa was 
prominent among those considered as a suitable location for the state capitol, and the State 
Fair was here there one season.


The first district court was held July 1, 1844, in the still unfinished log cabin built by Mr. 
Canfield within the present limits of Oskaloosa.  Flour barrels and a few boards were used to 
make a  desk  for the judge.  The first courthouse owned by the county was built the winter of 
1844-1845 at the northwest corner of the town square.  James Edgar was the contractor.  Money 
from the sale of town lots was set aside for construction of the courthouse and jail.  The 
timbers of the two-story 28 x 50 frame building was raised by the early settlers on a cold 
winters day occasion for lively frontier celebration.  The building was used for a variety
of purposes church, opera house, court, and even for Indian dances.  It was occupied in January 
1846, and served as a courtroom until 1855, when repair costs became excessive and the poorly 
constructed building was abandoned.  It was later sold on June 7, 1867, to Mitchell Wilson for 
$3,800 and moved to West High Avenue, where it partially burned some years later, and was 
finally torn down.


Although the citizens had earlier talked about the problem of building a new courthouse, the 
matter was not officially discussed until 1869, and many more years passed before another 
courthouse was erected.  A number of factors were involved economic conditions, high taxes, 
recollections of previous courthouse troubles, charges of graft, and just plain stubbornness. 
Meanwhile, county offices were housed in various downtown buildings, and the question of 
building a new courthouse was put before the voters a number of times.  Finally, at an election
held November 2, 1880, a bond issue carried by a vote of 2,536 to 2,075.  H.C. Koch & Co. was 
accepted as the architect in July 1881.  A contract or the construction work was awarded to O.J.
King of Corning, Iowa, for $75,000, but many delays lay ahead.  The three-story brick and stone 
courthouse was eventually built just east of the square at a cost of $132,158.80.  It was cold,
stormy day when the  permanent  courthouse was dedicated on February 27, 1886, following 
considerable controversy, the replacing of the original stone foundation with heavier material,
and the changing contactors.


To conclude his address at the dedication ceremonies, Judge LC. Blanchard gave this poem, 
written especially for the occasion.  


Ye son of proud Mahaska

Rejoice this happy day

The temple is completed

No more we brook delay.


High o er the towering building

The starry flag unfurled;

Proclaim the joyful tidings

Our triumph to the world.


No more in rusty hovels

Our records hid away,

But iron doors and safety vaults

Shield them till Judgment Day.


The temple, with its massive walls

Its tower lifted high

The scales of Justice balanced well;

Blind goddess hovering nigh.


Its halls and broad corridors, 

Its rooms all clean and neat

Its court room, frescoed walls and all

Fit place for Justices seat.


Here may the voice of mercy

Descend from God above, 

And temper well the justice

With law and right and love.


Here may the laws dominion, 

Forever  find full sway,

Here even wrong be righted

Without the laws delay.  


At the time of the courthouse dedication, Oskaloosas streets were unpaved, the public square 
was fenced in, board sidewalks were in use, and hitching posts for horses lined the streets.  
About $90,000 of the cost of the courthouse was paid by the time the building was completed and,
in two more years, the entire bond was retired.


Over the years, the interior and exterior of the building have been remodeled.  Two chimneys 
were removed above the roof when steam heat was installed.  The old tower was lowered in 1934 
and a new front entrance was built, but the 1886 building continues to serve as the courthouse.

Just across the street west of the courthouse, in the city square, is a steel and concrete 
bandstand, dedicated on July 25, 1912.  It was designed by F.E. Wetherell of DesMoines, using
suggestions made by Band Director Charles L. Barnhouse of Oskaloosa.  The bandstand was paid for
by public subscription and replaced an earlier wooden one, built on the site of an unusable 
artesian well sunk in 1874-1876.  Nearby, stands the bronze statue of Chief Mahaska, facing west
to symbolize the spirit of the pioneer.


Excerpt taken from The Counties and Courthouses of Iowa

By LeRoy G. Pratt

Copyright 1977

First Edition




Contributed by Linda Ziemann.