Old Knox County Courthouse

Karen S. Lynch

History Speaks-Knoxville Celebrates 175 Years (Jan. 15, 1831)


   The four Doric columns in the front of the Old Knox County Courthouse in Knoxville demonstrate the grandeur of a Greek Revival Architecture building, in sharp contrast to the humble log structure it replaced. The two-story building, designed by John Mandeville and constructed by Alvah Wheeler and Zelotes Cooley, built from once locally produced brick at a cost of $15,450. The courthouse was completed in late 1839 and used from 1840 until 1873, when the county seat moved to Galesburg after a bitter battle; not the last between Knoxville and Galesburg when a similar battle took place over the location of the railroad.

  John Sanburn founded Knox County on Jan. 15, 1831, once named Henderson Town. The name of the town changed to Knoxville in 1833, named after General Henry Knox, Secretary of War in George WashingtonŐs first cabinet. When the Old Knox County Courthouse was in use in 1840 in Knoxville, the population of the state was less than half a million with Chicago incorporated for only three years. The largest city in Illinois at that time was Nauvoo with about twenty thousand people, mostly of the Mormon faith.

  Heating in the old courthouse was primarily by fireplace and most of the interior pine and butternut woodwork is original. Many of the original blown glass windows still exist. The east room, named the Henry Knox Room contains two fireplaces and mantles that are the originals. As space became insufficient, a separate Hall of Records was built in 1854, to hold the growing accumulation of records. The east room once held the old horse-drawn fire wagon and you can still see the outline where the doors were located on the north side of the building. The final expansion was the addition of the twin iron stairways, added in 1874 within the portico to provide a separate entrance to the second story courtroom and offices.

  The courtroom was on the second floor where Stephen A. Douglas was circuit judge and held court in Knoxville from 1841 to 1843. Douglas debated Abraham Lincoln for Congress. Lincoln stayed in the Hebard house in Knoxville the night before the debate at Knox College, held on Oct. 7, 1858. The top hat worn by Stephen Douglas, while he served as a circuit judge, is now part of the collection on the second floor museum. There is also the Lincoln buggy, used during his campaign in Oct. of 1858 for the Senate. The courthouse museum also contains the bed Lincoln slept in at Mayor SandersonŐs house on the corner of Broad and Simmons Streets in Galesburg, where the Galesburg Library is now located.

  The Courthouse fell into disrepair and a restoration project began in 1953. According to an article in the ŇJournal StarÓ in 1971, ŇThe carpentry of Franklin Burgess in the old courthouse borders on artistry. But he is hesitant to tell you about his work. The credit belongs somewhere else, according to him. Burgess and Carlisle Smith, former President of the Historical Site, Inc. insisted the other was responsible for the work.Ó Burgess replicated the original design of the cupola in 1973, but made lighter after removing the old one in the late 1800Ős because it was too heavy for the roof.

   The west room on the first floor contains the NationŐs largest collection of Abingdon pottery. That room also houses memorabilia from early schools that no longer exist. The entire second floor became a museum in 1961. It contains not only the Lincoln and Douglas artifacts, but also the first Brown Corn Planter, and the prototype for the Illinois State Flag, designed by Lucy Dervent, Rockford, who won a $25 prize for the winning DAR Chapter. There is a display of old Purington brick and photos of the old brick works. Old photos and a replica of the PEO home that once occupied a prominent block in the center of town, since demolished. There are displays of Civil war clothing, Indian artifacts, and old farm implements and tools that demonstrate early pioneer life.

   Tours of the Courthouse and other historic buildings in the center of Knoxville are open on Sundays from 2-4 p.m. May through September. Private tours may be arranged by calling the Knoxville City Hall at 309-289-2814 with no fee for the tour, but a freewill donation is appreciated.