Webster County Courthouse has seen much history

Whenever Kathleen Hay is asked where she works, her answer is simple:

“Look for the building with the big green clock on top,” she says. “That’s how we tell people how to find us on Central Avenue.”

As Webster County deputy treasurer, she has had lots of company. Thousands of county employees like her have come to a workplace each day that is steeped in history. Their work venue: the Webster County Courthouse, a four-story stone structure at the corner of Central Avenue and Seventh Street that carries atop its shoulders a green clock tower that has been the centerpiece of downtown for 115 years.

The building and its clock tower have witnessed so much history since they were erected in 1902 at a time when horse and buggies traversed Central Avenue. That evolution of transportation continued with the Model A to the modern-day automobiles that on Friday and Saturday nights paraded past the courthouse, shagging the drag.

The two have witnessed parades of all sorts — returning veterans marching down Central at the end of each of the two world wars, presidential candidates such as John F. Kennedy in town seeking caucus support, Frontier Day festivities, summertime Market on Central. And last year, the Rock n’ Rail 1850 Bike Race. They’ve witnessed a once-flourishing business center now trying to find its way back. And more.

The courthouse building — whose stone walls are 36 inches wide in some places — is on the National Register of Historic Places and the focal point for Webster County government and the 38,000 residents it serves. About 50 county employees work in the building.

It’s where you perform such functions as registering to vote, renewing your vehicle registration, paying property taxes, applying for permits, searching for recorded documents, attending a supervisors meeting, tending to a rural farm road issue and all assessments of property. It’s where you may be called to serve on juries in one of two courtrooms presided over by district court judges.

And in election season, it’s where the voting choices of the county’s residents are recorded.

“The courthouse is the center of democracy,” said Alan Wooters, who worked 44 years in the county auditor’s office before retiring in 2008. “When you walk in the door, history comes down on your shoulders. The ornate lobby, the murals and fine marble, you take on that feeling. This is history and government at its basic level.”

Fort Dodge’s Mark Cady, chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, started his career there as a law clerk to then-District Court Judge Albert Habhab.

“The courthouse is a symbol for a community and it represents its best hope that we achieve the justice that’s in all of us,” Cady said. “A lot of credit goes to this county to preserve it, to be sure it stands tall in the community. It’s an honor to work there.”

This is a courthouse that was built to last — and the third time proved to be the charm. After the county was organized in 1852, the community of Homer was designated county seat and a courthouse was built there. As the story goes, John F. Duncombe, an attorney and pioneer journalist of Fort Dodge, wanted the county seat to be moved from Homer (population 600) to his city (population 50), so he began telling people that since the land office was in Fort Dodge, so too should the county seat be. John D. Maxwell, a prominent Homer lawyer, heard the rumor and tried to prevent an election from being held, but failed to do so.

Both factions resorted to ballot box stuffing, the story goes, but Fort Dodge proponents were more adept at the art. In the town, children and transients voted, eligible persons voted again and again, and everyone who could be found was rushed to the polls. The final vote, 407 to 264 — representing three times as many votes as had ever been cast at any previous election — registered a victory for Fort Dodge.

Legend has it that Maxwell was infuriated and challenged Duncombe to a wrestling match to determine the final location of the county seat. Duncombe, although slighter in build, won the match, and Fort Dodge became the county seat. Shortly after the match, the county records were removed from Homer and taken to Fort Dodge in a prairie schooner. The population of Homer decreased rapidly, while Fort Dodge’s population boomed.

A two-story courthouse was built but was quickly outgrown, so the building was destroyed and a new four-story courthouse — the present-day one — was built on the same site and opened in 1902. The cost of construction was about $40,000. The building was designed by Henry C. Koch, a German-American architect from Milwaukee who in 1895 designed the 15-story Milwaukee City Hall. Its signature feature: a clock tower built of copper.

As time marched on, however, the courthouse began to show signs of age and was in bad need of repair and renovation. The white marble steps were covered with an unsightly sealant and the once-majestic lobby was divided into two offices with a narrow hallway between them.

“When I first came here in 1974, the county attorney’s office was in a makeshift location in the foyer,” said Kurt Wilke, chief judge in Judicial District 2 that encompasses 22 counties. “The courtroom ceilings had been dropped way down, covering half the windows and artwork on the walls. The aesthetics were awful.”

Wooters recalled that the question arose — does the county leave this old building in the downtown area as that area became less vital? There had long been pressure from downtown business owners to keep the courthouse on Central Avenue where employees ate at downtown restaurants and shopped in downtown retail stores. The Webster County Board of Supervisors studied the options and decided it should remain downtown, but receive some tender loving care. A new roof was needed, windows needed replacing, the marble floor refurbishing.

“It was generally accepted (in the decision to stay) that there was a lot of value there, and that the courthouse was very important to the city,” Wooters said. “The supervisors agreed to set aside millions of dollars to start the process of transforming the building back to where it once had been.”

“During the renovation, it was so neat to see this building come alive,” said Allison Ripperger, a software specialist at the courthouse who has worked there since 1984. “Sometimes, I am taken back by everything that’s gone on in that building. There is a sense of pride to work there. It has changed, but the objective always remains same — assess the property, law enforcement, to serve the public.”

Ripperger said that her old office was in an area that once was the county sheriff’s bedroom. There were once apartments in the building for the sheriff and for the jailer.

The need for renovation also held true for the clock tower atop the four-story building. It never consistently operated over the years. The county supervisors in 2016 authorized $20,000 to renovate the clock, and a Minneapolis company, Mechanical Watch Supply, was hired to carry out the task.

The company installed a modern contemporary system tied to GPS that makes the clock keep time as accurately as a cell phone, said its president Rory Demesy. The original four clock faces – which face north, south, east and west — were copied and new clock hands made from redwood. The clock now adjusts for daylight savings time and power outages, and chimes on the hour with the same 600-700-pound bell that was in the original clock.

The green clock — the green the result of oxidation of the copper — is unique, said Demesy, whose company installs and maintains clocks primarily in the Midwest. “It’s always rewarding to do — they’re public clocks. Sure, everyone carries a phone in their pocket. But when a public clock doesn’t work, you get numerous complaints. People do use them.”

County Auditor Doreen Pliner said she often hears from the public “how well the building has been maintained. The marble floors, brass railings, paintings on third floor, skylight on fourth floor – people will say how beautiful a place it is. It makes you feel good to hear. I feel pretty privileged to work in a courthouse as well maintained as this one.”

County Treasurer Jan Messerly’s office on the first floor still uses old oak desks that have a long history in the courthouse. The office walls display a collection of Iowa vehicle license plates from over the years and historic photos that can be seen by customers who come in to renew their plates. Speaking of the solid walls that surround her, Messerly said, “I feel a bit more secure in this building than almost any other if we had a tornado.”

On the third floor are two courtrooms where jury trials are held, as well as a small equity courtroom.

“This old building just seeps with history,” said District Court Judge Tom Bice, who practiced law with the Johnson law firm 36 years before he was appointed judge in 2008. “Not a lot before my time, some of the old judges came in on the railroad, the old Illinois Central, brought their bags up and stayed in the courthouse during their trial term.”

“As you come up the stairway from the third to fourth floor,” he added, “there was an old bell on the door that was locked all the time. You rang the bell to get the attention of the jailer. All the offices have changed, but the bell remains there to this day. The other thing about the building I find remarkable is the artwork in the ceiling of the building. It is remarkable, the detail and quality are really something. It’s something most of us take for granted.”

Next door to the courthouse is another building with a long history on Central Avenue — that housing The Messenger, Fort Dodge’s daily newspaper. It was built in 1906 and there’s a story relating to the two buildings, separated by an alley, involving a young Messenger editor named Walter Howey.

Howey enjoyed being first with the news — a trait that would carry him on to success on much larger newspaper stages in Chicago — where he was the prototype for the crusty editor Walter Burns in the famous Broadway play “The Front Page” — and later in Boston.

When a major murder trial being conducted in the courthouse next door neared conclusion, Howey ran off two editions of The Messenger — one with a “Guilty” headline on the front page and one with a “Not Guilty” headline. He held both editions in the pressroom until he received a flash from the courtroom by a reporter signaling from a courthouse window to another reporter in The Messenger across the alley, and then let news boys rush out hawking the verdict even before the judge had dismissed the court. He beat the competition.

Wooters recalled a “ghost in the courthouse” story from the 1970s:

“On the third floor, the Webster County law library is on the same floor as the courts. In the mornings, we would find leftover paper and little pieces of food on the floor and wondered, what’s going on here? A sheriff’s deputy was finally posted outside the locked library and we found that a down-and-out lawyer who still had his key to the library had been sleeping there in the winter.”

The future of the courthouse appears bright.

“It’s in good structural condition now,” said Doug Vincent, who is in charge of maintaining all of the county buildings. “There’s a capital improvement plan of things we want to fix. Right now, we’re working on repairing some wind damage now to the clock tower that blew some of the copper off.”

Mark Campbell, chairman of the Webster County board of supervisors, said that besides the clock tower repair, some restoration work is also underway in the main courtroom.

The supervisors are in early discussions with the newly formed Main Street Fort Dodge and its executive director, Kris Patrick, on making a total restoration of the clock tower one of its first projects. Main Street Fort Dodge is working to make the downtown area more vibrant, as a place to live and to shop.

“The courthouse is a magnificent building,” Campbell said. It is pretty unique when you walk in and realize how old a structure it is, but how current it is — it’s a high-tech building in an old shell.”