Montgomery County Illinois History
The Historic Montgomery County Courthouse

The Historic Montgomery County Courthouse was built over a period of time from 1868 to 1872, but contains in its walls fragments of an earlier courthouse which was well known to Abraham Lincoln.

The building as it stands today was designed in the romantic style called "Second Empires" by a Chicago architect, G. B. Randall. This style originated in France, but was very popular in this country after the Civil war, especially for public buildings. Mr. Randall's plans for the building have not been located, but we know that they included the use of some portions of earlier buildings.

Only the first courthouse was not recycled by our prudent forefathers. It was a hewn log structure erected on the east side of the square in 1823, when the population of the county numbered only about 500 persons. Luke Lea Steel was paid $344.53 1/3 for building it. When the second courthouse was built, the log building and lot were sold.

By 1833 the population of Montgomery County had risen to over 3000, and a new, more stylish courthouse was ordered to be built in the center of the public square.

It was to be a frame building on a stone foundation, with a cupola on top. Aaron Knapp was paid $2 for drawing the plans, and the contract was awarded to Easton Whitten for $1800.00. Abraham Lincoln often spoke at political rallies held at this courthouse in the 1830's and 40's.

In 1852, the court called for proposals for repairing the courthouse and awarded a contract to Ira Millard for an unspecified amount. The "repairs" turned into a remodeling so extensive that some historians refer to this as the third courthouse. It has been described as a brick building with four white columns in front and may have looked somewhat like the present Hillsboro Public Library. The cost was over $4000.00.

The population of the county grew rapidly in the 1850's and 60's and, in 1868, the County Court held that ''the courthouse in this county is too small and entirely unsuited to the condition and wants of the people." This is understandable, as the 1870 census showed 25,314 living in the county.

The possibility of a new courthouse inspired a proposal that it be built in Litchfield and the county seat moved there. Either to prevent this or simply to save money, the court ordered only the ''change and improvement'' of the courthouse and jail and appointed Joseph C. Hanner to oversee construction. The cost of the improvements was to be paid entirely from the sale of swamplands owned by the County.

At the July 1868 term of court, Hanner reported that the offices of the County and Circuit Clerks had been moved to the Clotfelter building on Main Street. Space was also provided there for holding court. That three story building on the east side of Main Street is still standing.

In May 1869 Hanner reported that the courthouse and jail were ''covered in'' and that ''the old walls have been used as far as practicable, as well as the brick and stone where the same wails could not be used in their standing form."

The work seems to have gone rather slowly, but, even so, the County was forced to pay some contractors and suppliers with promissory notes instead of cash. These were redeemed when sufficient funds were received from swampland sales.

By September of 1870 the Circuit and County Clerks had moved back into the courthouse, although the building was unfinished. The Hillsboro News Letter estimated that, when complete, the cost of the building would be $100,000.00

which the editors felt was ''a very small amount for so fine a structure." Actually, the final cost would be over $130,000.00. but this included furnishings, the iron fence and sidewalk, architect's and supervisor's fees, etc.

The courthouse appears to have been completed by 1872, but final accounting was not made to the Court until the March term in 1873.

It would be interesting to know whether county residents of that day objected to the newfangled design or the cost of the building, but evidence is lacking. Early historians all seem to agree with William Henry Perrin, who wrote in 1882, ''It is a handsome and imposing structure and a credit to the county and its people.''

An unusual feature of the courthouse was the county jail which was located on the third floor, with the sheriff's living quarters on the second. At least one child was born in the courthouse When his father was sheriff. When a separate jail Was built in 1909, the Jail and living quarters were remodeled for offices and jury rooms.

In 1912 an addition was built on the northwest corner of the building to accommodate the County Court. The brick and stone trim match the original building so well that it is difficult to detect the addition. This space is now part or the Treasurer's office.

The greatest alteration in the appearance of the court- house was caused by the removal of the cupola on the southwest tower in 1952 due to its deteriorated condition. A close second would be the replacement of all the windows with metal clad sash in 1982. Other changes in exterior details were made at that time, also.

Very little of the original interior details can be seen today, as most of it has been covered with paneling, false ceilings and carpeting.

The neon sign over the front door dates from the mid- 1930's and has become famous in recent years, thus providing a new chapter in the history of the courthouse.

Although altered somewhat from its original appearance, the Historic Montgomery County Courthouse remains a ''handsome and imposing structure'' which is recognized as an historic landmark by people from all parts of the Country.

Idabel Evans
Historical Society of Montgomery County

(Note: Information for this history was obtained from County Court records and published historic documents.)

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