Clay County celebrates anniversaries

A crowd gathered outside the Clay County Courthouse last Friday to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the building, and the 150th anniversary of the county itself.

(Photo by David Lias)

Clay County celebrated two milestone anniversaries last week.

On Friday, Sept. 21, area residents gathered for a celebration to designate the 100th anniversary of the Clay County Courthouse, and the 150th anniversary of the county itself.

A plaque commemorating both dates was dedicated by Clay County Commission Chairman Leo Powell, which was followed by comments regarding local history by Jim Wilson and Judge Arthur Rusch.

"We're glad that we have this courthouse, and I would like to compliment the present county commission and all their predecessors for doing such a wonderful job of preserving it and keeping it the way it should be," said Wilson, who represented the Clay County Historical Preservation Committee.

Rusch agreed, adding that the building is "one of the nicest little courthouses in the state."

"It's also been well-maintained by the county commissioners," he said. "In contrast, Yankton's courthouse was built in the same era, in 1905, but was not as well-built originally and not well-maintained by the county. It's been torn down now."

The courthouse located in Elk Point that was built in 1898 met a similar fate, he said.

The building was designed by Omaha architect Lloyd Willis, and the cornerstone was laid in June 1912.

Construction was completed in April 1913, Rusch said.

"The date (of the presentation) was picked to celebrate the birthday of the courthouse kind of midway while it was still under construction," he said.

The total cost of the project was approximately $95,000, an amount Rusch said would never be viable today with the marble, mosaic tile, light fixtures, ornate railings and woodwork featured in the completed building.

"Obviously, it would be a pretty expensive proposition," he said.

During the ceremony, Wilson unveiled a book that explores these features, as well as the history of the building. Free copies were distributed to all interested attendees.

"The book is primarily an article by Judge Rusch, some additional research by myself and the architect, a lot of help on pictures from Tom Thaden and really beautiful present-day photographs of the interior and exterior," Wilson said.

Wilson called these photographs "remarkable, because they show you things you normally would just walk on by. People who are in the courthouse all the time have been looking at the book and saying, 'Wow, I didn't notice that before.'

"The nicest historic room in the courthouse other than the courtroom is the men's bathroom on the first floor," Wilson added with a laugh. "It's really nice. It is well-preserved. I guess only half the audience can go look at it."

Rusch said he was happy to be involved with the project, as he has long held an interest in courthouses, going so far as to visit and photograph many of the courthouses throughout South Dakota.

He started that project 25 years ago and hopes to publish a book about it next year, he said.

"This building is of particular interest to me," he said.

Part of that interest stems from the fact that the very first court session was held in the Dakota Territory was held in Vermillion on Aug. 6, 1861, Rusch said.

While he added that he is unsure where the hearing was held, he thinks it might have been in a store on Broadway Street.

The first building officially designated as a courthouse was located above Jensen's Drug Store on Broadway.

"They rented a hall, and in that hall they could have public meetings and trials," Rusch said.

The second courthouse was built on what is now Court Street, in the location of the current post office, he said.

"That courthouse is unique as far as any other courthouse I've been able to find records of anywhere because as far as I know, that's the first courthouse – or the only courthouse – where a university was started (inside)," Rusch said. "Old Main was under construction, so the first classes couldn't be held there."

As a result, classes for the University of Dakota – as USD was then called – were held in the courthouse.

The current facility was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1983.

Rusch said that over the course of his research, he discovered a number of humorous stories involving the building, including one about a group of prisoners who made nightly escapes from the county jail to raid an area restaurant of food.

Another featured a lawyer who was disbarred because it was discovered he had removed one of the glass blocks in the jail window so he could encourage prisoners to request that he represent them in court.

"Now all kinds of advertising is permissible, so I don't know if he would have been disbarred for that or not," Rusch said.

Following the dedication ceremony was a presentation on historic barns in Clay County by Jim Stone.

Judge Arthur Rusch gives a presentation on the history of the Clay County Courthouse as Clay County Commission Chairman Leo Powell listens.

(Photo by David Lias)

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