History of Manitowoc County's Courthouses

Officials of the County Courthouse with the courthouse in the background, Manitowoc, circa 1897

Officials of the County Courthouse with the courthouse in the background, Manitowoc, circa 1897

Manitowoc Rapids was the earliest settlement in Manitowoc County, settled by Jacob and John Conroe in the spring of 1836. The area was soon laid out and a public square was created. It was on this space that the first courthouse and jail were constructed by Jacob Conroe in 1839 at a cost of $650. It was “built on a ‘hill’, or high river terrace, north of the Manitowoc River.”

The courthouse was in operation until April 30, 1852 when it burned to the ground. A local citizen, Benjamin E. Lynde was placed in jail, which records say was a frequent occurrence. It was a few years earlier, in 1850, that Lynde tried to escape the jail by sawing an opening into the log structure and the county board decided that the jail “be spiked on the inside, above, below, and on the sides, including the outside door, with five –inch spikes driven into the timbers sufficiently thick and near together to preventing cutting or boring through the same.” When Lynde was again placed in jail in 1852, he took a fire poker and melted the lock on his jail cell. He threw the hot poker on the wooden floor, causing the structure to start on fire. The fire also spread to the courthouse, which was next to the jail. Both buildings were destroyed. Lynde was later found and taken to an insane asylum in St. Louis, Missouri.

Jacob Conroe soon began plans for the construction of a new courthouse in Manitowoc Rapids but residents in the Village of Manitowoc were interested in bringing the county seat there. Benjamin Jones, a Village of Manitowoc leader, was determined to make that happen. According to a newspaper article by John Harmon, Jones “personally visited each and every supervisor and presented his plan. Angry Manitowoc Rapids residents shouted ‘skulldugery’ at the top of their collective lungs.”

Jones succeeded in his efforts and the county seat was moved to the Village of Manitowoc in May, 1853. The Dusold building became a temporary county board meeting site, at the corner of Jay and Seventh Street in Manitowoc, for a rental fee of $30 a year. The county board set aside $10,000 for construction of a new courthouse but many citizens thought that was too much.

The Manitowoc Herald newspaper ran an editorial stating “Chicago is a place of some 40,000 people and yet it is satisfied with an ordinary, cheap building as courthouse. Milwaukee has a courthouse which can be built for $2,000. And yet Manitowoc County, with some 1,800 souls must feel need to have the most expensive courthouse in the state. We at the Herald feel this is a most high-handed outrage!”

Discussions continued as efforts were made by opponents to stop construction efforts. One interruption was “when a smart lawyer discovered bid advertisements were illegal because they were not printed in German language and therefore were not read by everyone in the county.”

By November 1853, it seemed all opposition had been overcome. Franz Goetzler was awarded the project and a tax levy was created with “for courthouse, 18 mills on the dollar; for state tax, 6 mills on the dollar; for county tax, 6 mills on the dollar; support of poor, 2 ½ mills on the dollar; county schools, 1 mill on the dollar.”

After construction issues arose with the previous contractor on the project, a new agreement was made with John Meyer to finish the courthouse for a cost of $8,000. The structure was completed in 1857 with the new courthouse located on the southwest corner of Washington and South 8th Street in Manitowoc.

The new courthouse was a three story brick structure with the sheriff’s residence and jail on the first floor. The second floor had county offices and the third floor was the location of the court proceedings. Local reporter Walter Wittmann wrote, “Exciting scenes were enacted there, especially during the war of the rebellion. Meetings were held rallying men to the font- speeches, declamations by bright-eyed little girls, music of fife and drum and waving of the starry banner supplying the inspiration; and glorification meetings were held when victory crowned the northern arms.”

“In 1859 Carl Schurz delivered a ringing speech from the steps of the main portal of the building. Referring to the fugitive slave law, he criticized the rulings of Uncle Sam’s supreme court which appears to have been catering to the southern land barons.”

The second courthouse building stood as a symbol of our community until it was decided in 1905 to build a new courthouse to address a lack of space. The former courthouse was moved one block to the south, next to the county jail, across from the present First German Evangelical Lutheran School on South 8th Street. In later years it was used as an armory hall and by the American Red Cross, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Soil Conservation Service and others. The old courthouse and jail were demolished in 1961 when a new jail and traffic center was built along South 9th Street, between Hancock and Marshall Streets. 

The cornerstone for the current Manitowoc County Courthouse was laid on Saturday, September 30, 1905. The cost of the new courthouse was not supposed to exceed $100,000 but the final price tag came to about $233,000. After committee and construction issues of its own, the courthouse was formally opened with impressive ceremonies on November 12, 1907. During the dedication of the new courthouse, Wittmann wrote “Anent the dedication of the new palatial residence of the county government, today, let us give a parting thought to the old structure which for half a century served the purpose and which, in that time, was the scene of many a stirring incident in matters political and the tragic sides of human life and strife.”