Winnebago County’s Struggle to Save a Courthouse

The original courthouse as it appeared in 1944

The original courthouse as it appeared in 1944

At the end of  my previous post about the construction of the first Winnebago County courthouse, I briefly mentioned the attempt to save the structure. This venture never worked out, and the original building that stood for 100 years was dismantled. I thought it was important to tell a bit of the story of how a local organization, the organization that I am now the vice president of, attempted to preserve this landmark.

In 1938, the citizens of Winnebago County had just erected a new “million dollar” courthouse on the corner of Algoma Boulevard and what was then called Jackson Drive. The courthouse prior to this stood on the old county grounds between Otter and Ceape streets. As the move from old building to new took place, something needed to be done with the old property. The County Board voted 31 to 10 in favor to accept an offer from the City of Oshkosh to purchase the land and buildings for $8,000. A year later the county’s second courthouse was razed.(1)

A few blocks away, the original courthouse built sometime around 1849 was also standing. Nearly 100 years later it was used as a warehouse by the Marquart Millwork Company on Ceape Street.  Around 1944, the Winnebago Historical and Archeological Society considered the idea of saving the structure. The building was in poor shape and deemed a fire hazard. The society did not want to lose this historic building, so mill owners gave the building to the organization. In 1947, the building was successfully moved off the mill site and relocated to the original courthouse grounds owned by the city. The historical society was assisted by the county board and the city in moving the structure. The local newspaper expressed the historical society intentions to repair and preserve the old courthouse:

Designation of the original courthouse as an historical shrine will await repairs and improvements to the structure. An early fall program is contemplated by the Winnebago County Archeological Society (sic) at which time dedication exercises will be conducted in a public ceremony. ( July 10, 1947, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern)

The society had high hopes of restoring the building as a historical attraction in time for the state centennial in 1948.(2)20151218_023542058_iOS

An idea was proposed to have the County Board appropriate $5,000 towards the restoration. After all, it was connected to the county and would be a point of historical interest for visitors. Unfortunately, a majority vote was not reached and the motion failed.One of the opponents to funding the restoration said that the city should help pay for the cost of repairs.(3)

Suddenly the situation began to deteriorate. Herbert Wenzlaff, an alderman of the Eight Ward, proposed the building be demolished. The society was not making progress on the restoration, and the city grew impatient. Time and money were hindering the progress of the restoration.(4)

The society was desperately seeking donations to save the building. They asked that citizens help fund the preservation the  same way it had been built–through public donations. By March 1949, the common council voted that the historical society must have the courthouse moved or it would be demolished. The council stated that the historical society had “failed and neglected to meet the terms and conditions of the lease and the building is still in an unsightly condition.” The society was given 30 more days to do something with the old building. (5)

After the 30-day delay, nothing was done to move or improve the building. Despite this, the historical society once again came to the council in April 1949 and said they had secured a building contractor that would complete the restoration in about five weeks. The society asked for a 90-day extension to do so, which the council rejected. In May 1949, the society came back again asking for only a 60-day extension and that the exterior would be improved in that time. Again, the common council rejected the proposal and stuck to its original order to remove or dismantle the building.(6)

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On May 10, 1949, the city began dismantling the courthouse board by board and placed the pieces in storage. I am sure that shortly thereafter the materials were disposed of. The land on which the building sat was converted into city parking spaces. I am not sure why the historical society did not just move the building, which the council said they could do. Instead, Winnebago’s first courthouse was lost to history.(7)

Courthouse as it appeared before demolition (Courtesy of Dan Radig)

Courthouse as it appeared before demolition (Courtesy of Dan Radig)

It is a shame that this courthouse was unable to be saved. It is a common struggle we see today–old buildings being leveled to make room for parking lots. At least an effort was put forward to try to save this structure. Preservationists back then saw the historical significance and made an attempt. I think there were important people who did not see the importance of saving landmarks. In addition to strong support, there was some strong opposition that stated the public should not be paying for somebody else’s hobby–implying that historical preservation was not a necessity.  Had the building not been placed on government property, or if the society would have made a last ditch effort to move it, we may still have had this structure today.


 

(1) ODN 10/7/1937
(2) ODN 5/24/1947
(3) ODN 3/10/1948
(4) ODN 5/3/1948
(5) ODN 3/8/1949
(6) ODN 5/3/1949
(7)ODN 5/14/1949

 

Book Review

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, what a book! This should be a required read in schools. This changes my entire outlook on the Holocaust. Not only were innocent individuals slaughtered during the second world war, but they were murdered before and after the war. Stalin and Hitler both had twisted justifications for what they did. It really hit home when Snyder reminds us that these people need to be remembered for more than just a victim or a number. Each and every one of them had a life and a story– they were humans.

View all my reviews

History Gallery Wall

20151215_005352329_iOSMy wife, Molly, and I have been living in our home for one-and-a-half years now, and we have been making some improvements along the way. We have put in central air, a fence, new steps, and even remodeled a whole room! We have a small wall between our living room and kitchen that was bare and very plain. Molly found an awesome idea on Pinterest, and we devised a plan that would make this area a focal point for us and visitors.

Maybe some of you are familiar with gallery walls? I know I wasn’t until Molly showed me. It’s an artsy way of showcasing art, family heirlooms, or pictures. We decided to make one and create it so that it was a mixture of the things we both like. Molly knew I liked the history portion of the house, and she likes arts and crafts and current photos. We mixed our ideas together and came up with a past & present house gallery wall. It turned out quite nice. Molly picked out a great color for this room. I have to say I love the hanging pendant light she picked out as well. I dug up an old map of the city, a few old pictures, and a key from the door in our home.

This was such a fun and easy project. I would like to do another wall in the house, but make it a family tree with old family photos (ones that Molly doesn’t call creepy).  I think this is a great addition to a wall that was bare and just plain white. The wall is  now colorful and tells a story. I can’t wait to show visitors!

 

 

 

Winnebago County Courthouses- Part 1

As part of my job, I have been assigned to sort and organize our collection of blueprints for all of the county buildings. My first collection of prints is of the county courthouse constructed in 1937-38. It had me wondering about previous courthouses built in Oshkosh. I did some research at the Oshkosh Public Library and Oshkosh Public Museum and found some interesting information.

On January 6, 1840, an act of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature  divided parts of  Brown County  and established the boundaries of new counties, one of them being Winnebago. In 1842, an act of the Legislature formally organized Winnebago County. However, Winnebago remained attached to Brown County and then Fond du Lac County for judicial purposes until another act establishing a seat of justice in Winnebago County was passed in 1847. This is just some basic information of the county’s establishment. For more information, I recommend History of Winnebago County by Richard Harney published in 1880.

First Courthouse in Winnebago County-1849

First Courthouse in Winnebago County

A showdown occurred between Butte des Morts and Oshkosh over the location of the county seat. Augustine Grignon offered a plot of land in Butte des Morts for the county seat to be located in Butte des Morts. This was approved by the county seat commission and Butte des Morts became the first county seat in 1845, but the people of Oshkosh were not happy with the decision. Oshkosh had a larger population and was a central commercial area at the time. In the official act of the Legislature, the wording of the document was done so in a way that made Oshkosh the location of the seat of county government. It’s no doubt that special interests in Oshkosh had  a part in the scheme. A referendum vote in 1850 attempted to bring the county seat back to Butte des Morts, but it was swiftly defeated. The county seat remains in Oshkosh to this day.*

After the seat was firmly established in Oshkosh, the next step was obtaining land to build a courthouse. The county government accepted ten lots in the donated by Lucas. M. Miller, Samuel H. Farnsworth, and Sewell A. Wolcott.  This plot of land was located between Ceape and Otter streets in Oshkosh (Where Court Tower is today). The first courthouse was a two-story, wood building erected between the years 1847 and 1849. The first session of court was held there on April 9, 1849. In 1854, another building was erected to serve as office space and record storage. Within a few years, however, some began to clamor for a new courthouse. An Oshkosh newspaper expressed discontent of the county’s  first courthouse.**

Oshkosh Courier December 3, 1856

Eventually, a newer and larger courthouse was built to accommodate the needs of the growing population. The original courthouse was moved off the property to a local mill along the Fox River and stood for 100 years before it was demolished. There was an attempt to save this old courthouse by the Winnebago County Historical & Archaeological Society, but they were not able to raise the funds to do so. The Oshkosh Common Council ordered the building be taken down in 1949.*** Visit the archives at the Oshkosh Public Museum for some interesting information about this. There are pictures of this building being dismantled and correspondences between historical society members and the community in an attempt to save this courthouse.

Next time I will pick up with the construction of the second of Winnebago County’s three courthouses.

 


 

*Goff, Charles Davis,, and Martin Gruberg. A History of Winnebago County Government., 1998

**Harney, Richard J. History of Winnebago County, Wisconsin, and Early History of the Northwest. Oshkosh: Allen & Hicks, 1800.

*** “Present Courthouse is Third in County History.” Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 18, 1953, p. 4. Newspaper Archive.  http://access.newspaperarchive.com/us/wisconsin/oshkosh/oshkosh-daily-northwestern/1953/06-18/page-40?tag=history+courthouse.