Built in 1839, the Putnam County Courthouse is Illinois' oldest active courthouse
HENNEPIN — There are many museums in Illinois honoring and cataloging the details and items related to the state's history. However, few places do so organically, and while not a museum, the Putnam County Courthouse shares many of the same attributes.
Completed in 1839, the courthouse has since absorbed the history around it for 180 years and shares a solid connection with the people of Putnam County, as well as with the state's most famous resident, Abraham Lincoln.
Initial construction of the colonial-style building cost $14,000, which included the decoratively carved and still active judge's bench, clerk's cubicle, courtroom benches and more.
Impressively, the blueprints, details and official records of the courthouse's long history, as well as that of the county, are still where they were originally placed. Many are still actively used and have become unique historical pieces. For example, the county has used only one book since the early 1830s to record the name of each elected official. With many blank pages remaining, the book will likely be in use well past its 200th anniversary.
In 1893, the courthouse's $4,780 northern wing was added. It contains room for vaults, a law library, and the room that now serves as the county board room.
A 1932 remodeling project painted the courthouse yellow and removed a cupola and engraved bell that had been added a year before the 1893 addition. It wasn't until a 1964 interior and exterior renovation that the outside was returned to its original brick facade. In 1975, it was honored with a place on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1996, the eastern addition housing the offices of the Putnam County sheriff and the 911 dispatch center was built.
Sheriff Kevin Doyle, now in his sixth term, also serves as the traditional caretaker of the courthouse. He's proud of the local history, but also well aware of the frequent challenges this role presents.
"Anything you try to do with a building of this age, whether it's maintenance or an addition, usually becomes very difficult, expensive or impossible. An example would be trying to incorporate technological advancements into a building of this age," he said.
Lining the halls of the first floor are several historical items, including a hand-written letter from Lincoln dated 1845. Lincoln is known to have visited Hennepin in 1832, 1845 and 1848, and historians have reported he attended to court business during his 1845 trip. To make reading the faded letter easier, an engraved copy has been placed next to it.
It's addressed to "Friend Durley" and refers to brothers Williamson and Madison Durley. Lincoln met and talked with the brothers as they dug for potatoes near what is now Route 26 and Hennepin's High Street. The letter is significant for both its length and the important political issues Lincoln discusses. The brothers were also the great-grandfather and great-great uncle, respectively, of long-time Putnam County State's Attorney Walter Durley Boyle. Boyle served in the courthouse as the state's attorney for 40 years and as an attorney for more than 70 years.
Other historical documents on display include the county's militia muster roll for the Blackhawk War of 1832 and an 1818 map of the bounty lands in the Illinois Territory. The bounty lands were set aside to be given as payment for the soldiers of the War of 1812.
Several original and restored portraits of the county's historical figures can be found throughout the building. Lining the top of the lobby of the sheriff's office are photos of each of the county's sheriffs. There are also many uncelebrated, yet thoroughly historic items to be seen within the courthouse, particularly in the clerk's office.
When looking into the office's small records vault, numerous old books from each of the county's villages can be seen filling the shelves. Look up, however, and you'll see a significant soot mark on the low ceiling that was caused by the oil lamps used by early clerks in the 1800s.
The county's original plat book is well-worn and regularly used, and countless other historical documents were easily accessed from their original files and displayed.
While the term "living history" often refers to educational events where the historical is recreated by actors, it also seems an appropriate way to describe the Putnam County Courthouse.
While new, modern buildings are often argued as being necessary, and sometimes they are, Putnam County's courthouse helps to show the importance of the past and the benefits of accrued continuity.
Official, day-to-day business is still conducted there, but history is right at the fingertips of those conducting that business. It also surrounds them and provides a direct line back to the county's early times and to those who helped build the community and the landmark courthouse.