Have you ever been on the losing side of an argument? Not just any argument, but one that you felt so strongly about that no matter how things turned out, you still felt that you were right? It sucks. Most of us have probably been there, but even though you don’t like it, you concede and move on with your life.
But you always want to get the last word in. You want to have that one last parting shot to the gut that the winner remembers more than the win. And the more memorable you can make it, the better.
So what happens when an argument isn’t just between individuals, but entire towns?
Courthouses are really an iconic structure in our society. They represent justice, and give the hope that it will be served when the time is right. But to the pioneers of Clinton County, a courthouse meant even more.
In the very early days, there wasn’t much to Clinton County. Early settlement in the region was heaviest along the Mississippi River, so when the county was formed in 1840, the initial site chosen to be the center of government was Comanche. As more people migrated in, government, by both demand and necessity, had to grow more complex in order to deal with new challenges and changes. One of these was to have a place to conduct formal legal business that ran the full spectrum of the law, from criminal cases to real estate. It became, in essence, the legal centerpiece for the county.
In the winter of 1841, the first county commissioners met decided to move the center of government, or county seat, from its location in Comanche. The town chosen would be where the courthouse would be built. Eventually they chose DeWitt, toward the middle of the county. They did this so that all of the people that would have to travel to the courthouse for their business were travelling toward a centrally located town.
Being the county seat was a big deal for pioneer counties. Your town would have the prestige of being the county seat, which would make the name of your town known through the county. But people also had a reason to go there. Travel by horse was slow, so overnight stays would be common, especially if your legal proceedings had to take more than a day.
Hotels could be built to accommodate travelers, and maybe give them something to eat. Stables could charge to keep your horses for however long. And so, an entire commercial enterprise can start to build out of being the county seat. Plus, you get the added bonus of them going back home and telling others about how wonderful a place you have. Word spreads and maybe, just maybe, other people start moving to your town. As the population grows again, other opportunities and business arise, and your town really becomes something.
By Summer of 1841, the first Clinton County Courthouse was built. It was a log structure, about twenty feet wide and a little over thirty feet long, consisting of two rooms and an attic. One room served as a courtroom, and the other a room for the jury. In the very early days of Clinton County, the members of the court would sleep in the attic, cook their food outside the building, and then eat in the courtroom. Later, the courtroom was moved to the attic space. Business offices for different county officials were also placed here.
Rough as it may have been, the log courthouse served its purpose well for about five years. As the county grew, so did legal business, and in 1846 a new, wood frame courthouse was built. This newer building would serve the county for nearly a decade.
In 1854, a new, grander courthouse was built. Their idea was to build it to rival the courthouse in nearby Scott County. A brand new bell was paid for by five citizens of DeWitt and hung in the belfry. A year later, a jail was built directly behind this new building. Although it was to serve the county well for the next several years, trouble was starting to stir by the mid 1860’s.
By the 1860’s, the lumber industry had begun to flourish in the cities of Clinton and Lyons, and both had subsequently experienced a boom in both population and fiscal growth. With all of the new business being conducted in that area, there became an increased need for legal advice and proceedings. The problem was that they had to travel to DeWitt in order to get anything done.
When the county seat was re-located to Dewitt in the 1840’s, the idea was to put the courthouse in the centrally-located town so that everyone in the county had about an equal distance to travel. Over twenty years later, the majority of the business of Clinton County was now taking place on the very eastern edge.
So, in 1866, a movement was started to move the county seat to either Clinton or Lyons. For their part, the people of those cites didn’t mean to do any personal harm to DeWitt, they just thought it made better business sense to move the courthouse to where most of the business was being conducted, which just happened to be in their backyard.
For DeWitt, it was a matter of business as well. They didn’t want the courthouse moved because it would hurt them in both terms of prestige, as being the county seat, but also in financial terms. Everyone who came to the courthouse for their business would need different services, such as a rented room to stay in. If they no longer had a reason to come to town, then the businesses that had grown up around the courthouse would suffer, or maybe even close. This, in turn, would hurt the city itself.
For the next few years, DeWitt and Clinton would argue the point back and forth, but nothing much came of it. Instead, the major fighting came between Clinton and Lyons. Both cities wanted the courthouse, and they argued aggressively back and forth for it, neither side wanting to give the other any ground or advantage.
Finally, in 1869, the two cities decided to join forces in order to take the county seat. A meeting was held that decided a new courthouse would be built in North Clinton, with compromises and improvements made that would benefit both cities. After all was agreed upon, steps were almost immediately taken to move the county seat.
After submissions and votes by the Clinton County Board of Supervisors, a majority of the electors of the county voted on the issue once and for all later that year. Things were finally coming to a close.
Unfortunately for DeWitt, Clinton won the day. DeWitt claimed that voters in southwestern Clinton County were told that if they voted for the move, then a new county would be formed with Wheatland as the county seat. But it didn’t matter now. The courthouse would be moved.
After the decision was made final, Clinton constructed a brand new wood-frame courthouse, complete with a belfry in which to hang the courthouse bell. The problem was that the bell was still in DeWitt, hanging in what was already the old county courthouse. So, Clinton demanded that the city of DeWitt send it to them straight away.
At that time, the sheriff of Clinton County was a man named Robert Hagle. He had found out that some people from Clinton were going to come to DeWitt and take the bell. Hagle quickly sent news to some of his friends about this, who just happened to be on the DeWitt side of the argument. While the idea of the bell being moved to Clinton probably upset a lot of people, some, like these friends of Sheriff Hagle, were absolutely livid. DeWitt had bought and paid for that bell, not Clinton. They had no right to it. For them, it was the final straw.
The day before the bell was to be collected, some of these friends took some tools and went to the belfry of the DeWitt courthouse early in the morning. Taking some old rags, they carefully wrapped up the bell clapper and any other moving parts of the bell. They also oiled the bolts and other parts. Satisfied that the bell wouldn’t make any sound, they came down again and went back to their homes.
Later that same night, the men gathered again at midnight. They had a few drinks, and then crept back to the courthouse.
As quietly as they could, they sawed a hole in the ceiling of the main courtroom about four feet by four feet, than set up a block and tackle. Then, taking their tools, they undid the bolts that held the old bell in place, and silently lowered it down from the belfry. Carefully, they carried the bell downstairs, and then out of the building and into a waiting delivery wagon.
The men drove through the night to an old cemetery, where a body had recently been removed from its grave to be reburied at Elmwood Cemetery on the north side of DeWitt. Because of this, the dirt of the grave had already been recently disturbed, so no visitors to the graveyard would see anything out of the ordinary and ask unwanted questions.
Taking shovels, the conspirators set about digging out the grave once again. Once their task was complete, they lowered their precious bell into the ground, and refilled the grave. It looked exactly as it had before, with no one any the wiser as to the location of the bell. The men then swore each other to secrecy, promising that they wouldn’t divulge the location of the bell until the town needed it once again.
Clinton never did claim the old courthouse bell from DeWitt. For several years, the bell lay in its earthen tomb, its location only known to a few. Finally, when the Lutheran Church was built on 5th Avenue and 10th Street, the old conspirators decided that the bell’s time had come once again. Gathering for a final time, they dug up the bell and left it at the church, leaving many to wonder where it had come from and where it had been all that time.
And so it was that Clinton never did claim their prize, and DeWitt ended up getting the final word in their feud.
Today, not a lot of people even remember the argument over the courthouse and the bell. The towns have changed drastically since those long ago days. The grand courthouse in DeWitt is gone now, and a majestic building built of red sandstone near downtown Clinton has served as the courthouse for decades now.
But the bell is still there, chiming its cold, clear tone, echoing to anyone within earshot that as far as it’s concerned, DeWitt still had the last word in that forgotten feud.