The Missing Bell – The Clinton County, Iowa Courthouse War

Courthouses are, without a doubt, iconic structures within our civilized societies. However, many people would probably be shocked to discover the lengths – both legal and illegal – that pioneers would go to in order to get one

To many people, courthouses represent justice. They promise us law and order, that we will be judged fairly and equally, and anyone who commits a crime will be punished to the full extent of the law. While that may or may not happen, the promise remains nonetheless.

On a deeper level, courthouses are representative of bringing order out of chaos. It represents hundreds, perhaps thousands of years of tradition, of fair and just rules putting the “civil” into civilization instead of allowing us to turn to the baser law of the jungle.

Other places, like Clinton County, were mostly interested in the cash.

To be fair, they wanted all the truth and justice stuff, too, but there was a much more practical motivation for these places wanting a courthouse. And they were far from the only ones who felt this way.

You see, not all the pioneers who dared to break the sod of endless seas of grass in eastern Iowa were looking to start a nice little farm. There were several who came to start businesses and grow cities. These men and women wanted to push civilization further west with the expansion of the American frontier.

Their skill set didn’t always lend itself towards agricultural pursuits. Instead, they supplied farmers — and everyone else for that matter — other essential services. They were lawyers, doctors, stable keepers, dry goods merchants, cobblers, etc. And make no mistake, farmers, no matter how self-sufficient they might have been, still needed a place that they could go and get what they needed.

Farmers would come into town once a week or so and re-supply and do whatever else they needed to do. Then they would return to their fledgling farms and try to build it up into something to be proud of. Meanwhile, the people in the towns also were trying to build their area into something to be proud of. But, instead of tilling the earth and making crops grow, they had to attract people who would plant themselves into the area and spend their money there. To do that, they needed something to attract them to their town.

Unfortunately, for them, there just wasn’t much on the frontier most of the time. There was land and there was opportunity, but every frontier town had that. No, a town needed something that would set them apart, something that would shine like a beacon in an inky black sky.

That’s where courthouses came in.

A county courthouse, just like today, was a place where people could come and take care of all their legal needs. While it also served as a place where criminals were tried, any other mundane legal proceeding was held there as well, including the purchase and sale of land.

Successful farmers were looking to expand their land holdings and grow bigger farms. New settlers were looking to purchase any available lands for their own. It was an important process, and it was all conducted right at the county courthouse.

When a town was the home of the county courthouse, it gave everyone in the county a reason to come there. In pioneer days, travel could be a rough proposition. Weather could make going anywhere slow or even impossible. Roads, such as they were, would often become clogged with snow in the winter or turned into thick, unpassable mud during the rest of the year.

But business still had to be conducted. So now a farmer or an out-of-towner looking to do business in the town where the courthouse was, called the county seat, would need a place to stay for at least one night. That meant that the town needed an inn or hotel. The travelers’ horses would have to be seen to as well, requiring a stable.

As towns grew, they could acquire a more and more diverse selection of businesses, which in turn brought in more workers to town. Workers brought their families, and that meant a bigger populace. The bigger the populace, the more money people were spending in the city. The more money that was being carried around by people, the bigger and more prestigious your city could get.

On a very basic level, this was the growth model that many frontier towns followed. Essentially, it was growing something from nothing, and then turning that something into a destination city.

In the very early days, Clinton County, situated along the western edge of the Mississippi River, just didn’t have much to it.

Early settlement in the region was heaviest along the Mississippi River when the county was formed in 1840. The initial site chosen to be the center of government was the city of Camanche, a few miles back from the river. Because it had more people than the nearby town of Clinton, it was the default choice to serve as the center of regional government. Most of the initial development in Clinton County was within the area of the river, so it wasn’t a hardship to do business there.

Over the next year, more and more people began to flood into the region. While Clinton and Camanche grew, so did the number of farms spread out a little further to the west. Steadily, the population outside of the cities began to increase. These people needed the services that a courthouse had to offer, but the further from the river they settled, the longer they had to travel back.

By 1841, this began to become problematic for the fine citizens of Clinton County.

Outside of population density, one of the key factors in selecting a county seat was its location. Because of all the traveling issues, many county seats were located towards the center of their host county hopefully giving most everyone a relatively equal distance to travel.

In the winter of 1841, a group of county commissioners from three surroundings counties were chosen by the territorial legislature to find a new location for the county seat of Clinton County.

People from Camanche, who had been designing their own courthouse building and getting ready to reap the boons of being a county seat, were more than a little upset at having been passed over.

But their protests and complaints fell on deaf ears, as the first county commissioners decided to move the county seat to a location that was, more or less, in the middle of the county. At that time, the area they selected wasn’t even a town, but rather just a loose settlement of people. Regardless, the location was nearly ideal. It had good resources, plenty of room to grow, and a centralized location.

The county commissioners ordered that a new town be platted there. It was completed relatively quickly, and was named Vandenburg. It wasn’t much, but it was a good start.

By that summer, 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, 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.

As expected, Vandenburg began to grow. People moved there and started their businesses, also as everyone had projected. And while the courthouse was being broken in, the town even outgrew its name.

The town had been named by one of the three county commissioners. Everyone was fine with it, until they discovered that Vandenburg was the family name of his would-be love interest. Essentially, he had named the town Vandenburg in order to impress a girl. While everyone had to admit that it was a tough act to follow from a romantic standpoint (how many of us have had someone name a town after us?), they decided to give their town a more distinguished name. They called it DeWitt, named after DeWitt Clinton, a prominent New York politician.

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. It was a little bigger, a little cleaner, and, more importantly, it looked a whole lot cooler. It was representative of the growth and prosperity of the town and surrounding county.  This newer building would serve the county for nearly a decade.

In 1854, a new, even grander courthouse was built. Their idea was to build it to rival the courthouse in nearby Scott County. One of the neater features about it was a brand-new bell, paid for by five citizens of DeWitt. 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 1860s.

By then, the lumber industry had begun to flourish in the cities of Clinton and Lyons, a town directly to the north of Clinton, and both had subsequently experienced a boom in both population and fiscal growth. With all 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 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 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, then 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.

1 thought on “The Missing Bell – The Clinton County, Iowa Courthouse War”

  1. As always, I enjoyed this article. Thanks, John. I wonder if the man who named the town after a woman was able to win her…

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