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War for the County Seat | Center Township Library

Physical evidence of the struggle for the placement of the courthouse and county seat location in 1873 still exists on the front of the remodeled Center Township Library in Centerville, Indiana.

Above the door on the front of the building you can see holes in the brick from iron scrap fired at the building from a cannon in an effort to block the movement of the county records to the new courthouse in Richmond.

Although the effort was temporarily successful, the records were soon moved to the new courthouse and Richmond became the county seat in 1873. [More details.]

Photo: Centerville | Center Township Library

Photos taken November 21, 2001

The War for the County Seat

The courthouse fight is one of the most interesting events in the history of Centerville.

The county seat had been located at Centerville because it was the physical center of the county and was more easily reached during the early days of the settlement of Wayne County. (The first county seat was located in Salisbury, to the south of Centerville. Salisbury no longer exists.) No section of the county had a majority of business or population at that time, so that did not factor into the determination of the location of the county seat.

Richmond Grows in Population

However, by 1870 Richmond had surpassed Centerville in population and number of businesses. Richmond had become a railroad center and was now the easiest place to reach in the county. It offered greater advantages to the farmer, merchants, and manufacturing interests. And finally, the population of Wayne Township was nearly equal to the balance of the county and were paying a large part of the taxes. All these factors were considered when a cry went up for a new courthouse for Wayne County.

New Jail Begins the Fight

Prior to this time (1867), a contract for a new jail had been approved to be built in Centerville at a cost of $80,000. This had raised a storm of protest in Richmond as they felt that it had been a move to get the county buildings to remain in Centerville, since so much money had been invested in the community. The new structure was a jail of twenty cells, the warden's office and residence. To add to the indignation of Wayne Township, an iron fence costing $10,000 was placed around the public square.

Now, when time came to build a new courthouse a bitter newspaper fight arose over the location of the proposed courthouse. Both sides wrote scathing articles, with some truth on both sides, creating indignant feelings between the two towns.

The Fight Begins in the Courts

Citizens wishing to have the court located at Centerville submitted an application to the court to force the commissioners to act on their behalf. A majority of the voters saw this as a repetition of the proceedings to get the $80,000 jail built. The jail was only to have been remodeled but when the transactions were over, Centerville had gotten both an expensive jail and a fence! The citizens of Richmond felt if they had gone so far overboard on the jail, a half a million would not suffice Centerville for a new courthouse. Thus, the fight began.

In the meantime, Centerville filed a petition with the commissioners asking for the erection of fireproof vaults and offices, estimated at $75,000. Richmond thought this was simply a plan to get the money approved piecemeal so that the county seat could never be moved.

The commissioners took the matter under consideration for a time, but the petitioners went to court to compel them to act at once.

Majority Rules

Richmond felt the issue was forced to a climax. It was felt that the majority of voters wanted the courthouse moved so they started a petition hoping to get the approval of 55% of the voters, which was required by state law before the the location of the county seat could be moved. If at least 55% of the voters approved the petition and if the petitioners could secure the value of the county buildings within three months of the approval of the petition, the relocation would proceed.

Centerville retaliated via circulars to show how great a loss the removal of the county seat would be to the community, how low the appraisal of the county buildings was compared with what was needed to erect a new building at Richmond, praising the convenience and central location of Centerville, and lamenting how property owners would suffer; and numerous other objections.

Centerville fought a losing fight as most voters felt it was in their best interest to have the county seat relocated.

Cambridge City Voters Are a Factor

A little known fact, Cambridge City also had hopes of getting the courthouse. When the petition was circulated, the eastern part of the county voted for the removal of the courthouse so that it would be closer to them. The western part also voted for the removal in hopes that the county would be divided and Cambridge City would become the county seat. This was not to be.

After the petition was approved, a site was chose for the courthouse at a cost of $42,000, which was paid for by private subscription. The petition and the report naming the location of the site for the new courthouse was given to the Board of Commissioners in June 1872, fulfilling the requirements of the law. In September of 1872 a deed for the ground was presented by the petitioners to the Board, accepted and approved.

Courthouse Declared Fixed and Located in Richmond

The fight continued as legal proceedings to prevent the removal were filed in Wayne County Circuit Court. After two weeks, Judge Haynes ruled in favor of the Board of Commissioners and on Saturday, March 8, 1873 the courthouse was declared fixed and located at Richmond. The following Monday, work began in preparation for building the new courthouse.

When the new courthouse was finished and Richmond was ready to move the books and records, new trouble began.

Trouble Begins

The Richmond wagons drove to Centerville where county officials had worked all night packing the records. When they tried to drive the loaded wagons out, they found the gates locked and chained with guards around them. The books were taken back to the old courthouse.

The next night it was rumored that a crowd of Richmond people were coming and the Centerville forces were ready, but no one arrived. On the third day, a guard from Richmond was brought in to protect the records.

To further prevent Richmond from removing the records, Centerville rounded up "Black Betty", the three pound town cannon on wooden wheels used to fire salutes on Independence Day. It was taken to the blacksmith shop and loaded with iron scraps. A crowd was led back to the jail and they demanded that the guards come out.

Cannon Fired!

When the guards refused, the cannon was fired with a terrific explosion. The door was blown off its hinges and the crowd rushed into the jail and forced the Richmond men to flee.

The next day, soldiers were brought in and the records were removed to Richmond and Centerville ceased to be the county seat.

To get the fence, a wagon and two men were sent for each two sections of fence. They quickly surrounded the courtyard and all at once jumped out of the wagons and with axes, chopped off the braces of the fence, loaded it into the wagons and were gone before Centerville really knew what was happening.

This fence was re-installed at Richmond where it stood for many years. The jail was also torn down and reused in Richmond.

Evidence of "War" Remains

The holes from the cannon shot can still be seen over the door of the former courthouse, now the Center Township Library.

Adapted from
Chapter XI, Courthouse Fight, page 42 & 43
in the book,
History of Centerville, Indiana
by Walter E. Spahr
Wayne County Historical Society
Volume 1, Number 3

Available at:
Center Township Library
126 East Main Street
Centerville, Indiana



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Did You Know?

The first county seat in Wayne County was located in Salisbury, a town that no longer exists. The county seat was moved to Centerville in 1818 and finally to Richmond in 1873.