HJ - Clark Courthouse History Book

Former Page County auditor Judy Clark has written a book on the history of the Page County Courthouse. Clark discussed the courthouse during the First Sunday program held May 5 at the Nodaway Valley Historical Museum in Clarinda. (Herald-Journal photo by Dan Eshelman)  

Establishing a permanent location to house the functions of Page County government was an endeavor that was not accomplished quickly.

The effort to build a courthouse in Clarinda was “really difficult,” said featured speaker Judy Clark at the First Sunday program May 5 at the Nodaway Valley Historical Museum in Clarinda.

Over a period of six years, three elections were scheduled on the proposal -- in October of 1867, in June of 1870 and in October of 1873.

“All failed,” said Clark, who was elected Page County auditor in 1988 and served until retiring in March of 2011. “The voters voted ‘no’.”

Responding to the latest setback in 1873, the county supervisors “were so frustrated and angry that they took matters into their own hands and built a small building” on the downtown block designated as the “public square,” Clark said.

The wooden structure, which cost $7,456.16, “wasn’t fancy,” she said, “but it was enough to get them by at the time.”

As Page County’s population increased and more government activity evolved, it became apparent that this building was not adequate to meet the needs of county residents -- who then petitioned to have an actual courthouse built.

“So in November of 1882 an election was held” and the proposal passed, Clark said, with a cost amount “not to exceed $75,000” stipulated.

The cornerstone for the building was laid on July 4, 1885, and the project was completed in 1887. The actual finished cost for the courthouse was $86,000. That included $71,000 for the building itself, plus expenses for such items as a steam heat system, furniture, fresco paintings, a vault and a safe for the county treasurer’s office.

When work on the courthouse had been completed, Clark said, “someone at that point called this the ‘Beautiful Temple of Justice’.”

Obtaining information about the origin of the courthouse was one component of research Clark undertook in writing and publishing a book about the building. She shared other facts about the structure during her May 5 presentation.

In 1921, clocks that had been in the South School in Clarinda were moved to the tower on the courthouse, where they remained until 1950 -- when the tower was determined to be unsafe and was removed. The clocks were put in storage in the courthouse basement and stayed there until the early 1990s. Two of them were moved to the museum, and one was returned to working condition by Wilbur Siefering.

Christmas lights were first strung from the courthouse to other buildings around the square in 1928, an annual tradition that has continued since then.

In 1931, separate 8-foot statues located on the north and south sides of the building were taken down because they had been seen swaying in the wind. It was believed that the statues had been placed at the spots in 1887, “but no one seems to know what happened to them,” Clark said.

In 1949, a surfaced parking area was placed on the north side of the building for county employees.

That was also the year in which what Clark described as “ugly” metal stairs were installed on the lower level of the courthouse. They were removed in 1989. Space became available in the rotunda for a large Christmas tree.

Aesthetic improvements were made in the building throughout several decades, including the painting of hallways to match the décor of earlier eras.

In producing a history of the courthouse, Clark had to include information about an incident that was especially difficult for her to recall -- the fire in December of 1991 that caused severe damage to the building.

“This fire shouldn’t have been us,” she said. “We kept the courthouse very well maintained, probably the best in southwest Iowa and maybe across the state. We took such good care of it.” The devastation that occurred, she said, was “like a death. We were grieving.”

The blaze, which started in an upper level on the southeast corner of the building, did not reach the first floor. “We didn’t lose any historical records,” Clark said. “That’s one of the questions that people always ask.”

The cause of the fire was left as “undetermined,” she said. “The fire marshal came about six times. It didn’t start with the Christmas lights. There was nothing in the attic, nothing for it to start.”

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, county government operations were temporarily moved to a vacant building that had been a retail store, Sernett’s. “We were open in less than a week, and continued our day-to-day work,” Clark said.

Along with her regular duties, she then assumed a major role in deciding what the next step for the county should be -- build a new courthouse or restore the existing one. She was among county residents who favored restoration, and that was the course chosen.

Voters in the county overwhelmingly approved an $875,000 bond issue for the project. An additional $211,000 was raised to put a clock tower back on the building. Proceeds from insurance also helped fund the $2,390,000 restoration, which was finished in 1994.

Clark said that when she initially contemplated writing a history of the courthouse, “I thought it would be about the fire and the rebuilding, but then I decided, maybe it should be a total history of this beautiful and important building.”

Her research material included minutes from supervisors’ meetings dating back to the 1860s. “I started going through them,” she said. “The unfortunate thing was, at the time they didn’t really keep accurate or specific or detailed minutes. And they didn’t meet every week. Mainly what they were interested in was the beginning of the new county, the county roads, establishing boundaries and paying bounties on animals.”

She conducted further research in the archives at the museum, and with digitized issues of Clarinda newspapers. “I also pulled some really old files from the courthouse that I knew were there for different construction projects that had been done over the years,” she said.

Clark said her late husband, John, encouraged her to write the book, as did other people.

“When I retired in March of 2011, I thought I would start writing immediately, but that didn’t happen. The project has taken far longer, and it became much larger, than I ever expected. Even after I finished, I thought of other things to add, but I had to stop somewhere.”

She added: “My goal was to provide accurate information, and I’ve done my best. The people of Page County get the credit for this beautiful building as it stands today, and I’m lucky that I got to tell the story.”

Clark’s book is available at the museum and at other locations in Clarinda, including Taylor Pharmacy, the Clarinda Regional Health Center gift shop, and offices of the Clarinda Chamber of Commerce and the Clarinda Foundation.

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