Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Macoupin County Courthouse, in Carlinville, Illinois. (1870-In Use)

The first courthouse was built of logs on the property. Now City Square and Seth Hodges won the contract for the structure. The record shows that construction costs totaled $128.66.

Ten years later, the county had outgrown this 18' x 24' log structure and planned a larger one on the same site. The new brick building measured 50' x 50' and - costing roughly $15,000 - was considerably more expensive than the first. The contractors were Harbird Weatherford and Jefferson Weatherford.

Abraham Lincoln frequently represented his clients in this courthouse. In fact, when the State Preservation Agency examined the Courthouse records in the 1990s, they found over 3,000 documents with the signature of A. Lincoln. Those original documents are now in Springfield, but copies are on file in the Macoupin County Courthouse.
The courthouse that Lincoln practiced in no longer stands in the center of town because shortly after the end of the Civil War in 1867, elected officials decided that the prosperous county needed an even larger structure.

Four prominent citizens were commissioned to erect a new courthouse: A McKim Dubois, George H. Holliday, T.L. Loomis and Isham J. Peebles. They selected E.E. Meyers as the architect and determined that the construction not begin until there were sufficient funds in the county treasury.

The court also ordered that a property tax of 50¢ per $100 is assessed in Macoupin County and that the monies be used for county purposes, i.e., a new courthouse.

Bonds totaling $50,000 were issued for ten-year terms and bore interest at 10%. Over $13,000 had been spent by September, and the cornerstone was set in place in October. The cost escalated dramatically from then on. By January 1869, nearly $500,000 had been paid, and the building was still incomplete. The great dome and roof would cost an additional $125,115. More bonds were issued, and by the time the courthouse was officially completed in 1870, the project had cost a staggering $1,342,000. Thus evolved the nickname, the "Million Dollar Courthouse."

The courthouse was an exorbitant expense to the taxpayers, and rumors of a scandal involving misused appropriations also tarnished the project. Initially, the blame was laid on Judge Thaddeus Loomis, and George H. Holliday, county clerk, and Judge Loomis were apparently innocent of any wrongdoing. However, we may never know the truth about Mr. Holliday because one night in 1870, he boarded a train out of town and simply disappeared.

Upon completion, this courthouse became the largest county courthouse in the United States, with the possible exception of one in New York City. It was even larger than the Illinois Statehouse. While the courthouse still serves as the seat of county government, it has also become a showplace that attracts tourists, architects and artists from across the country and overseas.

Despite the scandal and the expense, citizens supported this project with amazing dedication. In 1910, a mere 40 years after the cornerstone had been set in place, the last bond was burned, and the debt retired. To mark the occasion, 20,000 people gathered in Carlinville for a memorable two-day celebration on July 20 and 21. At a pre-determined hour, all mine whistles, church bells, alarms and anything else that could make a loud noise raised quite a ruckus. However, the noise wasn't limited to one mighty blast because history records that athletic contests, balloon rides and even airplane rides gave the citizens plenty to cheer about. A parade of cars stretched over a mile also entertained the crowds. That seems like a minor event today, but it was impressive at a time when so few people owned cars.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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