The Hancock-Henderson Quill, Inc.

The Celebration of 100 Year-Old-Courthouse

by Dessa Rodeffer, Quill Publisher/Owner

October 22, 2008

It seems that it is always the same when it comes to accomplishing something great. There are just a few dedicated hard working and focused people that build our communities and a few organizers that work to celebrate their accomplishments while many others sit back and wonder why.

Many do not even have any idea of the wonderful things they enjoy because someone else took the time to develope it.

Saturday, in Hancock County's county seat of Carthage, many lawyers and judges who had worked in this beautiful and efficient 100 year old courthouse, do understand its importance as they returned to celebrate its history.

Speaker and Retired Judge of the 9th Judicial Circuit Max B. Stewart told in his 18 minute address to the crowd who had gathered for this special centennial program, that he always enjoyed coming to work in this beautiful courthouse where justice is served.

But, on this special time of celebration its centennial, he found that he too, had overlooked just what it took to bring justice to our rural communities.

"The main reason for a court house is to have a central place where people can bring their grievances and disputes in civilized manner for resolution and to enforce the law."

Illinois became a state in 1818 and Judge Stewart said the COURT SYSTEM was pretty confusing. Court was held twice a year in each county. Court week was a time that farmers came from all over the county by wagon, horseback and even by foot, met old friends, swap stories, make trades, learn the news and to hear the speeches of the lawyers and to decide who to vote for in the Legislature."

"It was better than a traveling circus" -"Something to talk about all year."

"The most exciting event was the arrival of the Circuit Riders (the judges and lawyers), crossing the prairie to hold court. They probably carried a worn copy of the IL Revised Statue and maybe "Blackstone's Commentaries on the Law."

"Formal learning was less important than common sense-plain talk, a good memory, a persuasive manner and shrewd judgment of people and situations.

When they arrived, people hurried to be first to grab the best lawyer before someone else did. There were favorite lawyers or one a friend told you to hire. You might grab them while they were still on horseback. At one time, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were leading lawyers and one of the few cases Lincoln lost was a murder trial he lost in Carthage.

"Between court sessions the Lawyers amused themselves with conversation, debates, and Political speeches -enjoyed by the citizens."

The court systems improved in 1870 when the state was divided into 17 Circuits and 3 Judges in each Circuit, a County Judge and Justices of the Peace which was the case in Hancock County until 1964. The Justice of the Peace could be one in each township and cities had Police Magistrates - not trained in the law - did a lot of good in their communities. They knew the citizens and handled many family disputes, but criminal matters were different. They were only paid their fee if they found the defendant "Guilty" Judge Stewart said.

The Constitution of 1971 abolished Magistrates and established one court consisting of Circuit and Associate Judges.

When Hancock County became a county in 1829, county business was conducted in homes. The first courthouse was a log building built for $1,833.00, then a brick two story building 50 x 50 built in 1839 for $3,700. The first case was the murder trial represented by Abraham Lincoln which he lost and the man was hung.

In 1906 bonds were sold for $125,000, Architect Joseph Mills was hired, and the present building's cornerstone was laid in 1907 and dedicated on Oct. 20, 1908 with over 10,000 present. It has over 700 light bulbs and each principal room has its own toilet at a time when few had electricity or running water. It was built for $7,000 under the $125,000 and remarkable how the supervisors of the county accomplished this great task.