New life for Hamilton County’s first courthouse

Thanks to funding from Hamilton County, restoration of the nearly 160-year-old courthouse will be complete this spring

A drone captures the first Hamilton County Courthouse, under renovation, at Wilson Brewer Historic Park. (Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Kent Bailey/OHP Marketing Services)

Today’s trivia question: what’s the oldest courthouse in the state of Iowa? It’s the Van Buren County courthouse in Keosauqua, completed in 1843, and said to also be the second oldest courthouse in continuous use in the nation.

The second oldest courthouse in Iowa is very likely our own first Hamilton County courthouse, located today in Wilson Brewer Historic Park. Built as the Civil War was ending, moved twice, and used for many purposes over its long life, it’s a building with many stories to tell, stretching back to the early years of Webster City.

For a new town in a new county — a new courthouse

November 1857 saw the first recorded murder in Hamilton County. It happened in Isaac Hook’s tavern at Hook’s Point, just north of present-day Stratford. Charles Gatchell was shot by his friend, George Smith, after a heated disagreement over a fence rail. Smith was apprehended and held at Sheriff Leonard’s home in Webster City, escaped overnight, and was never seen again. For the first time, ordinary Webster Citians clearly saw the city needed a courthouse with a secure jail.

This was confirmed a year later, when The Daily Freeman Journal reported 90% of Webster City’s population wanted a courthouse. And no wonder; a murderer and counterfeiter were known to be at large in the county.

In May 1858, Captain Grenchnek, the county surveyor, presented a plan for a courthouse. In July of that year, ground was broken for the new courthouse at the corner of Superior and Bank streets, which was then at the commercial heart of Webster City. Judge J.D. Maxwell helped dig the foundation. In July 1858 the firm of Hyde & Huskins, of Des Moines, completed the cellar and began laying the foundation stones. The newspaper reported work was substantially delayed by heavy rains. Poor management plagued the construction site that fall. Materials were ordered, and used, but not paid for; laborers went unpaid.

Work ground to a halt.

In 1859, a number of civic-minded men, who had a vested interest in the success of Webster City, stepped into the breach. Sumler Wilson traveled to Chicago, an exhausting journey by stagecoach, to sell county bonds, but failed. A certain Mr. Hyde sold some bonds in Fort Dodge. Walter C. Willson reached into his own pocket and paid for workers’ lodging and meals himself.

Just when things were looking up, tragedy struck. Hyde & Huskins employees Joseph Grandidier and Andrew Wheeler were digging the well that would ultimately serve the courthouse, when, without notice, earth collapsed around them. John Nolan, a stonemason, rushed to the scene and tried to save them but was, tragically, buried and suffocated in the cave-in himself. With this, Hyde & Huskins declared the worksite unsafe and withdrew from the project.

In December 1859, Judge Maxwell drafted a new contract for courthouse construction with a value of $50,000. The job was rather quickly awarded to a partnership of S. B. Rosenkrans, prominent merchant and future mayor of Webster City; E.W. Salsbury, a businessman; and Benjamin Millard, a farmer. All was set for construction to begin anew when, in January 1860, citizens attending a town hall meeting expressed outrage at the new contract for a variety of reasons. Matters couldn’t be immediately resolved peacefully so, once again, nothing was done.

Aside from discontent with the courthouse contract, the Civil War was probably a key explanation for the next delay in construction of Hamilton County’s first courthouse. It wasn’t until May 1865 that construction resumed. Work progressed in orderly fashion over the summer. Hamilton County’s new courthouse opened its doors October 1, 1865, at the southeast corner of Seneca and Bank streets. Its cost was a thrifty $1,934.

Newspaper accounts say the building was 28 feet by 50 feet in size, two stories in height, of wooden frame construction, with two county offices on the main floor and a courtroom upstairs, which was reached by an exterior stairway. There were three exterior doors on the south side, two of which opened into the ground floor county offices. Those three doors now face north at Wilson Brewer Historic Park.

The county recorder and auditor shared one of the offices.

In what sounds to be an extremely crowded arrangement, Judge Isaiah Doane, Treasurer Hiram H. Bennett, Sheriff H.C. Hillock, Superintendent of Schools O.A. Holmes, Drainage Commissioner David Carroll, Surveyor James Fraught, and Coroner Richard Sackett shared the other. The two offices did not connect, so to go from one to the other one had first to go outside.

The local Methodists, with a growing congregation but no church, rented the courtroom from the county for $25 a year. With no court proceedings on Sundays, it was a comfortable arrangement. Besides, the county needed the income.

In May 1868, a small riot erupted when railroad workers grading and building tracks east of Webster City for the Dubuque & Sioux City Railroad had their wages cut. The angry men came to Webster City to drink their problems away and, after the saloons closed, began destroying local property. Sheriff McMiller and a band of citizens arrested them, detaining them in the new jail recently built at the southeast corner of “courthouse square,” which is today’s West Twin Park.

1869: An Eventful Year in Webster City History

Not quite a year later — on April 4, 1869 — the first train on what would become the Illinois Central, steamed across the brand new Boone River bridge and into Webster City, instantly ending the little settlement’s isolation and connecting it to the nation’s growing railroad network.

Regular freight, passenger, mail and express service meant Webster City was joined to the rest of the country in a way that secured its future. Now it was possible to travel to Chicago in a day, visit relatives or do business there, or make onward connections over lines running east and south. It all seemed like a modern miracle, and in a very real way it was.

But the year 1869 wasn’t all good news in Webster City. On the morning of June 23, 1869, John S. Ross, owner and operator of Ross’s Mill, (previously known as William’s Mill), six miles south of Webster City, was shot in the back in the mill’s bran room. The body was found that evening. Ross’ nephew, also named John Ross, the chief suspect, was arrested.

The younger Ross had come from Janesville, Wisconsin, five weeks earlier, had asked his uncle for money to return home, but was denied. Although he at first claimed not to have been at the mill that morning, witnesses unquestioningly placed him there. Eventually he admitted he was in the mill briefly at 9 a.m., but left to help another uncle, John Meeks, with plowing.

The trial opened December 3, 1869. It was the first murder case to be tried in the new courthouse, with Judge D.D. Chase presiding.

The trial lasted three days, gained statewide attention, and ended December 22 with the acquittal of the young Ross. He left the county, never to return, and the murder remains unsolved to this day. Today, the trial is re-enacted at Wilson Brewer Historic Park during the springtime visits of Webster City school students. A combination of how counties are organized, how courts and laws work, and colorful local history easily holds the attention of students, even in the digital age.

On July 4, 1876, the second Hamilton County courthouse, an ornate public building of its era, of sturdy brick construction and trimmed in decorative stone, opened its doors. It was three stories tall with a jail in the basement. It remained in service 100 years until the third Hamilton County Courthouse opened at 2300 Superior Street. The county had difficulty finding funds for the building, so it tried selling some of what it had in abundance — swampland. Tiling fields to contain and control runoff was still decades in the future. It was ultimately built by a Chicago contractor for less than $38,000, nearly 20 times the cost of the first courthouse.

New Life for an Old Courthouse

J.W. Kearns, who moved to Webster City in 1871, served as Hamilton County recorder until 1883; then, after a hiatus of three years, was elected recorder a second time, serving 12 years, through 1886.

Sometime in 1903, Kearns bought the now-empty first courthouse for his residence, moving it to the southwest corner of Bank and Union streets. At an unknown date, an interior staircase from the first to second floors was built in the middle of the building, being more conducive to

a home than the original outdoor stair. In 1950, the Kearns family built a new home in Webster City, but retained ownership of the old courthouse, using it for rental apartments.

Here, an important fact emerges in the long history of the first courthouse: it was saved from demolition in the years after its public service role ended, earning its keep by remaining useful.

The Daily Freeman Journal of Wednesday June 2, 1983, carried the happy news that: “Mr. Kearns’ daughter, Mrs. Margaret Arbogast, donated the (first courthouse) building to the Hamilton County History Society in 1981 and, after a successful fund drive, the society moved it to the south end of the Bonebright Museum complex where it is awaiting renovation.”

It cost $7,500 to build a new concrete block foundation and basement for the courthouse in Wilson Brewer Historic Park and move it there. Restoration work, to both the interior and exterior, began almost immediately. The Daily Freeman Journal of May 2, 1984, was full of information concerning the work up to then:

“The big project of restoring Hamilton County’s first courthouse, erected during Civil War days, is well underway with plywood sheathing being applied to the old structure. Old-style cedar siding, such as used on the building when new, will be installed later. The upstairs is being renovated, making it into one big courtroom as it was originally when the building stood in Twin Parks. A $2,475 grant was received from the Job Works Program and matched by funds from the Webster City Historical Society. The first floor will be turned into a country store on one side, and old-time post office on the other.”

The Hamilton County Historical Society opened the building to visitors each fall during its Jubilee Day celebrations. Both the country store and post office continued as popular exhibits for visitors until comparatively recent times. Like all buildings in the park, the courthouse was closed with the onset of the COVID pandemic, in March 2020. It’s been open on a limited basis since.

A major breakthrough in the life of the old courthouse came in fall of 2022 when the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors approved a $180,000 donation toward its restoration. At the time, it appeared that would cover most, or all, of the planned restoration. But subsequent pandemic-induced rapid inflation, in both material costs and labor, increased the final cost. Nevertheless, it was s grant that is finally supporting the restoration of the building as a museum.

A pioneer attorney, a railroad, and a magnificent desk

John L. Kamrar came to Webster City in 1869; he was hired as an understudy of Judge D. D. Chase, the man who presided over the Ross murder case already mentioned. Kamrar passed the bar to become an attorney in his own right, eventually being named principle counsel to the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad, which was then building a line north through Hamilton County.

Kamrar’s primary responsibility was contracting for land for the railroad’s right-of-way. He developed a reputation for dealing fairly with farmers and other landowners and performed his work so satisfactorily that the railroad’s real estate subsidiary, The Western Town Company, named the town of Kamrar in his honor.

But the railroad’s esteem for Kamrar didn’t stop there. It conferred on Kamrar special status among the numerous attorneys working for it across Iowa: that of “preferred counsel.” Although the title was unofficial and largely honorary, it meant a steady stream of business for Kamrar from a customer that never failed to pay its bills. C&NW was, in fact, a dream customer for an attorney making a living on the Iowa prairie.

What came next was extraordinary.

Sometime in the early 1880s, the C&NW gave Kamrar a Wooten Patent Secretary desk, “in recognition and gratitude for meritorious service to the company.” It also gave him, and his family, lifetime passes valid on all C&NW passenger trains across its 10-state system. The judge and family used it numerous times over the years.

Made from select hardwoods from old-growth forests in central Indiana, the desks were manufactured by the Wooten Desk Company in Indianapolis. Recipient of several patents for “adaptable furniture,” Wooten’s desks were both large and heavy for their time. They were among the first to be equipped with permanent casters, allowing them to be rolled if required.

The design was an all-in-one combination of writing surface, filing cabinet, storage drawers and locking compartments. Even the simplest models had two wings — one on each side of the knee hole — that swiveled open, surrounding the user and putting all its features within easy reach with no need to get up from a chair. It conferred instant status on its owner, something important to lawyers wishing to convey a sense of permanency and reliability to new or existing clients.

Five years after its founding in 1870, Wooten desks were sold in Britain, Europe and Central America, in addition to the USA, Canada and Mexico. Its British distributor, the Richards, Terry & Company of London, England, did not hesitate to tell its customers the many reasons a Wooten desk belonged in their office. Witness this from its May 1884 catalog:

“One hundred and ten compartments, all under one lock and key. A place for everything and everything in its place. Order reigns supreme. Confusion avoided. Time saved. Vexation spared. With this desk one absolutely has no excuse for slovenly habits in the disposal of numerous papers, and a person of method may here realise that pleasure and comfort which is only to be attained in the verification of the maxim, ‘a place for everything, and everything in its place.’ Every portion of the desk is immediately before the eye. Nothing in its line can exceed it in usefulness or beauty, and purchasers everywhere express themselves delighted with its manifold conveniences. Hundreds in use in Great Britain.”

Owning a Wooten desk was the ultimate status symbol for a successful, self-made Victorian businessman like Kamrar; simply having it in his office put him in good company. Wooten desks were used by Ulysses S. Grant, 18th president of the United States; John D. Rockefeller, Standard Oil tycoon; G. B. Grinnell, founder of Grinnell College; Iowa Governor Larrabee, and Joseph Pulitzer, publisher. In 1875, Spencer Baird, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, ordered a custom-made Wooten desk for his Washington, D.C. office. It remains in use today. Two other Wooten desks are displayed as artifacts, including Grant’s desk, in the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology.

Robert G. Remley came to Webster City in 1912 as a young attorney in the Kamrar law firm. Eight years later, in 1920, upon Judge Kamrar’s retirement, Remley bought the practice. The Wooten desk, used for 40 years by Kamrar, was included in the purchase agreement, as was the building at 805 Des Moines Street that housed the practice. Still functional, still practical and still impressive, Remley continued to use the Wooten desk throughout his career.

Gary Groves, well-known local attorney and chairman of the Wilson Brewer Historic Park commission, bought the Remley law practice in 1970. The Wooten desk was part of the deal.

Groves said recently: “It was just a nice old desk to me. I really couldn’t appreciate its historical value.”

Groves used it a number of years himself before moving it to the outer office where it was used by his secretary, Vickie Hagenson, for the next 40 years.

Groves was appointed to the Wilson Brewer Historic Park commission by the city council of Webster City in 2015, and re-appointed in both 2016 and 2020, each time for four-year terms. Elected chairman by the Commission in 2016, he focused its work on restoring the six historic buildings at the park.

Beginning with the historic pioneer cabins, one of which was a home to his forebears, the commission has made steady progress. Both cabins, a country school and church are largely restored.

Now, the first Hamilton County Courthouse is nearing completion.

“I’m told the courthouse project will be completed no later than June first of this year,” Groves said.

When the building is complete, Groves will donate Judge Kamrar’s Wooten desk to the museum.

“It’s historic. It has strong ties to both Hamilton County and Webster City,” he sadi. “It belongs in that building.”

Final restoration work began last fall

In September of 2023, the final push to finish restoration of the first Hamilton County courthouse began in earnest. Designed by Schlotfeldt Engineering, the work will be carried out throughout the courthouse. Peterson Construction, Webster City, is the construction contractor.

The previously damp basement will have a sump pump and a new exterior entrance. It will offer much needed storage in the park and, with improved ventilation as a result of the restoration work, will now be a safe place to store materials and artifacts not used in current museum displays.

New heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment will be installed, and be distributed throughout the main and second floor.

Climate control of this type is essential to protect museum artifacts from dampness, mold, mildew and dry rot. The first Hamilton County Courthouse will be only the second historic building on the Wilson Brewer Historic Park campus to have such equipment; Mulberry Center Church is the other.

The building has been completely rewired. Lighting fixtures for the main and second floors are being supplied by the Wilson Brewer Historic Park commission, and will have a historic appearance.

Windows throughout the building will be replaced with vinyl-clad replacements for the old wooden ones. Much of the windows’ historic appearance will be retained, but the new windows will be efficient. Insulation is being installed in exterior walls wherever possible. New drywall will replace the original lath and plaster interior walls.

The main floor will be one large room, with partial walls that don’t reach the ceiling to suggest those in the historic building. Two of the three exterior doors on the courthouse’s north side will open; the center door will be fixed in place. New steel doors will replace the old, wooden ones.

The most noticeable change for visitors is removal of the old, center stairway. Its replacement runs along the west and south walls from the main to second floors.

Before work ended in fall 2023, most of the new framing was installed. Drywall and paint will have to wait for warmer weather this spring. A minimum 50 degrees is required for this work.

Nothing remains of the original, second-floor courtroom, and even a description of its historic appearance has been elusive; research for this article found no photos or newspaper accounts to describe its layout or appearance. The original courtroom likely had seating for the public, as reference is made to this in newspaper stories about the Ross murder trial.


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