For over 137 years, the Clinton County Courthouse has not only been part of Frankfort’s history but has been witness to the ever-changing downtown throughout the generations. Standing among the original wooden structures that surrounded the square to the larger brick-and-mortar buildings that replaced them over the years, the courthouse has mostly remained unchanged – though there was once talk in the 1950s of demolishing it to make more parking available downtown.
When Frankfort was founded in 1830, it was made the county seat and therefore had need of county offices and a courthouse. Completed in 1884, the present courthouse is actually the third. The first was no more than a 20-foot-by-24-foot log structure that was built in the winter of 1830-31 using the trees that were on the property to build it and stood where the Farmer’s Bank property is currently located. It was only used for court while other county offices occupied various locations nearby. The cost of the construction was a whopping $20. However, another source showed the final cost to be around $100. This structure served the county until there was a need for a larger courthouse.
In the winter of 1837-38, construction began on a two-story brick building that housed county offices on the first floor and the court room on the second. This building was located on the south side of the Square and had a $12,000 price tag. But as Frankfort and county grew, so did the need for a larger courthouse. Beginning in 1870, calls for a new building began, and so did the controversy. There were some who opposed the idea, for economic and political reasons, but in 1877 the decision was made to go forward with plans for the construction of a modern courthouse.
In September of 1881, plans drawn by architect George W. Bunting were accepted, and the construction bid went to Farman and Pearce. Unfortunately, Farman passed away during the early construction leaving Mr. Pearce to complete the job. Bunting also designed seven other Indiana courthouses in Davies, Greene, Johnson, Montgomery, Union, Wells and Madison counties. The courthouse in Anderson, Madison County was identical to the Clinton County design with the exception that the Madison building was done in red brick whereas the Clinton County Courthouse was covered with white Indiana oolitic limestone facing. The Madison County Courthouse was torn done in the 1970s.
In December 1881, the old courthouse was ordered to be sold, and on February 25, 1882 it was auctioned off. The bid went to David A. Coulter for $300 and agreed to have the building removed by April 1, 1882. It was noted that the bricks from the second courthouse were used in the construction of the “new” Coulter Opera House that was located on the southeast corner on Washington and Jackson where Nickel Plate Flats is currently located.
Construction of the current courthouse began early in 1882, and on September 2, 1882 the cornerstone was laid in a grand ceremony with dignitaries and citizens from all over the county and beyond in attendance. Placed inside the cornerstone were copies of local newspapers, including the Frankfort Crescent which was the predecessor to the Frankfort Times. Also placed in the cornerstone were local seeds, a Bible, a copy of the Declaration of Independence and photos of the previous courthouses.
Both the original bell and clock inside the clock tower are still in use, though there have been times when the clock has been out of service due to repairs and upkeep. The price of the clock in 1883 was $1,450, and the bell was purchased for the sum of $600. The bell, located beneath the clock room, was made in 1883 by the McShane Bell Foundry in Baltimore, Maryland. That company was founded in 1856 and is still in business. The bell came with a two-year guarantee that it would not crack.
Four grand stairways at the ground level provided access to the building. However, all four stairways were removed due to deterioration in 1956.
Upon the building’s completion in 1884, County Surveyor James R. Brown commissioned Frankfort photographer Luther Heichert to go to the top of the freshly finished courthouse and photograph all four sides and all four corners of the town in order to have a pictorial map of Frankfort. Those 8x10 glass negatives are archived at the Clinton County Historical Society. The final price tag for the new courthouse was $200,000.
Over the years, some of the original metal ornate decorations that once covered the outside have been removed, and two of the original statues on the North and South are missing. The East facing statue is in serious disrepair. From the ground, the statues look like stone but in fact are made of thin metal. There have been several renovations and repairs to help preserve the courthouse and updates to make sure it remains functional in a modern world. The Clinton County Courthouse is a testament to the quality of craftsmanship and engineering of the late 19th century and to the care of past and current county commissioners who continue to maintain an important part of local history.
The Clinton County Courthouse was entered in the National Register of Historical Places on December 5, 1978.