The Old County Courthouse

by Terry Hogan

The Old County Courthouse. Or perhaps I should say, the old, old county courthouse. For I am writing not of the current, old county courthouse in Galesburg, but rather I write of the previous old county court house in Knoxville. It is a well-built building and has withstood the Midwest winter winds, the summer heat, and the periodic storms that have blown down or burnt down many other buildings. It is a sound, permanent building that could not be taken to Galesburg those 125 plus years ago when the county seat was whisked away from Knoxville to Galesburg.

I suppose lessor buildings might have been taken back by their loss of designed purpose. But the Knoxville Courthouse simply existed, serving what purpose it could, without regard to ego. It was a stately building when it was completed in 1839. It said things about the belief in tomorrow and the role that Knoxville would play in converting the sea of prairie to land under man’s control.

The old, old county courthouse served its intended purpose from 1839 until 1873. A 34 year reign isn’t all that bad by contemporary standards for a public building, but it was built to last and serve much longer. It would have probably served longer, but as most of you know, the county seat was wrestled away from Knoxville to Galesburg, where a new county courthouse was constructed.

But the Knoxville courthouse had the rock solid look of early prairie settlers who believed in the success of Western Civilization. Here, in a little prairie town, a mere island in a sea of wild grasses, stood a two-story red brick building with the audacity to "sport" Doric columns. The courthouse had six rooms on the lower floor, divided by a central hallway. The second floor was dedicated to the courtroom, the jury room and the sheriff’s office. It was an early form of one-stop shopping.

After its loss of role in life, perhaps a little like early retirement, it did whatever was asked of it. It hosted dances, games, meetings, operas, and even a part became a fire station. It no doubt was a humbling experience for this building that was constructed with great expectations and hopes for the future of Knoxville and Knox County.

But the old, old courthouse had its moments of historical significance. A District Judge by the name of Stephen A. Douglas held court within its fine walls from 1841-1843. Yes, that’s the same guy who provided a platform for Lincoln to gain national recognition during the debates. Lincoln lost that election, but won a bigger one later. Of course, one of the debates was to be held at Galesburg’s Knox College "Old Main." A plaque was to be added to Old Main some years later, commemorating the historical event. And even more years would pass before a Swedish lad by the name of Carl Sandburg would walk by Old Main and read the plaque while he was on the way to work. It stayed with him, and in a storybook fashion, the young lad grew up to become THE Lincoln biographer.

But Carl Sandburg wasn’t just locked into looking around Old Main. He even visited the somewhat quieter, and by that time, smaller town of Knoxville, that lost the county seat, but kept the county fair.

Carl had an eye not only on the plight of the working class of America and the life of Lincoln, but also on architecture. He recalled that there were four buildings that stood out in his youth: (1.) the First Church, in New England style, (2.) Old Main at Knox College, (3.) Old Main at Lombard College, and (4.) The Knox County courthouse in Knoxville. Sandburg waxed poetically (of course) about the old Knoxville county courthouse. He wrote "...the old Knox County courthouse in Knoxville, a small but massive one-story affair with thick colonial pillars in front- a unit, a poem of a building saying, ‘Like this should a temple of justice look.’" (Carl Sandburg. 1983. "Ever the Winds of Chance" page 3). Yes, I noticed he said "one-story," but this was his unfinished autobiography and if he had survived to finish it and do a little polishing, I have little doubt that it would have been corrected.

The old, old courthouse got a renewal of life through the efforts of The Knox County Historical Sites, Inc. It was formed in 1953 to restore and breathe life back into this structure. A lighter version of an old cupola that was removed in the 1800’s was replaced by the organization in 1973. The facility now functions as a home for the Knox County Museum, and which, according to information published on the Internet, houses the largest museum-owned collection of Abingdon pottery. (I trust that the collection is carefully guarded so that it isn’t whisked away to the Galesburg courthouse!).

I stopped by the museum. It was worth the stop. I’m not really a big fan of Abingdon pottery, but I admit it is a matter of personal taste only. But I really liked the building. It is a majestic old structure that was built by early Knox County settlers with grand visions. They were investing in the future of Knoxville and Knox County. It was the staking out of "law and order" in the wilderness prairie of 1839 by these visionaries. We owe them.

We also are indebted to those more recent visionaries who stepped forward and did what was needed to be done to protect this fine old building. The clearest vision of the future comes from the pinnacle of the best of the past.

Take a one or two gallon drive to Knoxville (free parking) and really take a look at the outside and inside of the old, old county courthouse. It’s worth your time. Give a little (tax-deductible, perhaps) donation to help keep up this building and several others that are maintained by this volunteer organization.

Be a tourist. It’s the best way to be in a courthouse.