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The Making of Monroe County’s First Permanent Courthouse

Blog post by Randi Richardson

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Sketch of the Monroe County courthouse as it appeared about 1826.

Charles Blanchard in his History of Morgan, Monroe and Brown Counties published in 1884, noted that John Ketcham was given the contract to build Bloomington’s first permanent courthouse in 1820, but the courthouse was not complete until 1826.  He supposed the reason for the delay was that Ketcham was paid most of what he was due for the work before the work was done and, thus, lacked the motivation to finish the job in a timely manner.

Before drawing any conclusion, let’s take a look at other information known about John Ketcham (1782-1865).  For instance, he was a native of Maryland who lived in several different states before coming to Indiana in 1811 when it was yet a territory.  He became quite prominent while living in Jackson County, Indiana, and donated the land on which the Jackson County courthouse is situated.  He served two years under the Northwest Territorial governor, William Henry Harrison, to subdue an Indian uprising and was subsequently honored with the colonelcy of a regiment of state militia.

In the fall of 1818, Ketcham settled with his family in Clear Creek Township, Monroe County, Indiana.  It was there that he built the county’s first water-powered grist mill.  Meanwhile, the county commissioners were making plans to build a permanent and substantial courthouse utilizing a design drawn by William Lowe, Monroe County clerk and signer of Indiana’s constitution.

The first contract was given to Robert Stafford in May 1819.  Because he was unable to furnish the required $20,000 security bond, the contract was subsequently re-let to John Ketcham for $7,965. After posting a bond without difficulty, Ketcham began the work on the courthouse in June 1819 and was paid $1,000 of the amount due him in August of that year.  A year later the rough work on the courthouse was complete, and Ketcham was paid an additional $4,000 in August 1821.  But, as it so often happens with new construction, some changes were made.

According to the original specifications, as reported in the Bloomington Progress of July 27, 1881, the building was to be 40 by 45 feet inside, the floor to be paved with brick, with two huge fireplaces four feet wide for the lower story and two in the upper story two and a half feet wide.  Two stairways were to provide access to the second story going up from the courtroom.  There was to be a steeple with a wooden ball and above the ball was to be placed “a fish of polished brass 12 inches in length and the make of a perch.”  All the sills for the doors and windows were required to be of marble procured from Hamilton’s quarry near Ketcham’s mill.

At some later point before the courthouse was finished, David Armstrong was hired to build a cupola on top of the courthouse that was to include a clock and bell.   As the work progressed a dispute arose with Ketcham over changes made to the cupola.  Ketcham maintained the tower, as it was being built by Armstrong, was not stable.  He asked the commissioners to be exempted from any damages that might occur to or from the cupola and wanted to be relieved of any responsibility for the cupola’s construction.  Armstrong stuck to his guns and declared his part of the work was substantial.  After a lengthy debate among the commissioners, Ketcham was granted the exemption he requested.

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In the 1850s, wings and columns were added to the Monroe County courthouse as shown above.

Finally, in May 1826, the courthouse was complete.  Austin Seward had by then painted the building a bright red and “penciled” it with white.   Blanchard described it as a fine building for the day.

For reasons unknown, Ketcham was never paid the full amount due to him.  And by the time the building was complete, Ketcham owned nearly all of Section 6 in Clear Creek Township, had fathered 12 children, was one of the first trustees of Indiana Seminary later known as Indiana University, and later served twice as a member of the Indiana State House of Representatives.

Pop Hall included a lengthy sketch of Ketcham’s life, including his obituary, in Historic Treasures.  According to Hall, Ketcham was “probably the most popular and well-known man among the pioneers of Indiana and especially Monroe County…whose titles showed great honor, as he was known as Colonel Ketcham, Judge Ketcham, and the Hon. John Ketcham, as representative in the legislature.”  An eloquent sermon preached at Ketcham’s funeral described Ketcham as a man of bravery, honorable character who was generous with his neighbors.

In light of Ketcham’s many and varied achievements that can easily be verified by reports and documents created close in time to when the event occurred, and the fact that Blanchard never knew Ketcham and penned his words well after Ketcham’s death, it seems likely that the real reason for Ketcham’s delay was due to his dispute with Armstrong and NOT a lack of motivation.  Longevity is  testimony to the quality of his construction.  Completed in 1826 and enlarged in the 1850s, the building remained in use until it was replaced by a new and much larger courthouse in 1908.

Sources:

Charles Blanchard, editor, History of Morgan, Monroe and Brown Counties (Chicago IL:  F. A. Battey & Co., Publishers) 1884, p. 383.

Bloomington (IN) Progress, July 27, 1881, p. 3.

Bennett P. Reed, “Col. John Ketcham One of Early IU Trustees,” Bloomington (IN) Daily Herald Telephone, May 12, 1951, p. 12.

“Indian Fighting of 1811-1813 Recounted by Pioneer of Monroe County—Work of Rangers against Savages,” Forest M. “Pop” Hall, Historic Treasures (Bloomington IN:   privately published) 1922; p. 9-14, reprinted by Ye Olde Genealogie Shoppe, Indianapolis IN, 1979.  Available online at https://books.google.com/books?id=dhQqAQAAMAAJ&pg=PA9&lpg=PA9&dq=%22John+Ketcham%22+indiana+state+legislature&source=bl&ots=ZN1ksEJ6k8&sig=ACfU3U239wRRWei-xQUMBzW45gxagk6NjA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjvksn-_Z7mAhXKl54KHbpiC5k4ChDoATABegQIChAB#v=onepage&q=%22John%20Ketcham%22%20indiana%20state%20legislature&f=false

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