Courthouse roots date to 1799

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By Brad Bowman

The historic commission report entering the Henry County Court House, jail and warden’s house on the National Register of Historic Places tells just one part of the courthouse and connecting buildings’ history.


The present courthouse and adjoining jail entered onto the registry in 1977, but the original site and government of Henry County had its first meeting at the home of Richard Rue on July 22, 1799. New Castle wouldn’t incorporate for another 18 years.

Through the tireless research of local historian Hammer Smith, no deed can be found for the public square on , which the  courthouse sits. Rue offered two acres of land and “…any part of his premises if the said two acres takes in my dwelling house for the use of the court.”

In the same proposal a George Holeman made the same offer if the court “…should they think proper to fix the seat on the ridge, viewed below on the big run, and Court be accommodated with the same house.”

The original plans and multiple surveys included the construction of a courthouse, jail, a stray pen for animals, and a stock and pillory. Stocks detained just an offender’s feet while the pillory would provide more humiliation for an offender by restraining both the hands and head. It also required the offender to stand and be the receiver of the occasional thrown rotten fruits, vegetables or rocks, from bystanders.

The courthouse was to measure 24 feet by 20 feet with the jail measuring out at 20 feet by 14 feet with oak logs. Both structures were to be roofed with walnut or poplar shingles.

At a meeting in October, the court decided the jail should be 14 feet square with two iron-grated windows for each room with an iron barred and hatchway in the middle floor. The court paid $20 for the two acres to be cleared, and authorized the construction of the stock and pillory.

James Barlett constructed the stock and pillory, and the court paid him $33 for completion in 1800. The platform consisted of a platform with, “…strong and sufficient oak plank through the post well joined to confine disorderly persons and be so constructed that four persons may be confined at the same time.”

Present day courthouse

There is conflicting evidence about which parts remain of the original courthouse. In an article from the Courier Journal from 1974, a Henry County court judge Roy C. Smith is credited with thwarting whisky smuggling to inmates. Smith hired a contractor to install outside lights around the jail to discourage smugglers who would throw a rock tied to a rope through the vertical slit windows into inmates’ cells. The inmates would carefully pull the rope through, which had a bottle of tied to its end to ease the pains of incarceration. The contractor discovered a worn stone plaque above the jail’s door and deciphered it as 1810 instead of 1870. Smith asked KIPDA to put the jail and courthouse on the preservation list. The Historic Commission later filed the courthouse, jail and warden’s home on the registry in 1977. In 1977, Judge-Executive Ben Elston proclaimed May 8 - 14 Historic Preservation Week in the county. Elston urged all historic, preservation and civic groups to, “…call public attention to the urgent need to save our historic landmarks for the enjoyment and edification of our people present and future and to demonstrate our lasting respect for our heritage.”

In its report, the commission states the first courthouse was a frame structure with up to five rooms with a jail attached. The structure would be replaced in 1804. The commission’s report states the second courthouse burned down in the early part of the 1870s and was replaced in 1875. The conflicting report states the jail has a stone plaque as well, but that it states the date as 1876 with the building commission names including the present court houses architect H.P. McDonald and builder Peter Pfeifer.

Construction features

H.P. McDonald headed the McDonald brothers’ Louisville architect firm. The Henry County courthouse stands as one of the firm’s first works. The firm did several courthouses throughout the state including Adair County Courthouse, Columbia the Hickman County Courthouse, Clinton and Carroll County. The rounded arch features on the second story windows are unique to the courthouse as the McDonald brothers, to cut masonry costs, abandoned this feature in later designs. The themes seemed to be a mixed bag of Romanesque and Italianate features with the French influence mansard roof on its bulbous tower.

According to Smith, Union soldiers once commandeered the courthouse and cut down its surrounding trees and fence for firewood. The soldiers built fires in fireplaces that were in each room. In 1931, a fire broke out at midnight underneath the closet under the iron steps leading to the grand jury room. In 1938, the Henry County Fiscal Court voted to have the then historic iron fence around the courthouse torn down. A Jas. H. Bovard, a New Castle merchant, pleaded for the removal of the fence. The court reported the iron fence’s age could not be determined as it had been a fixture for so long. In 1973, Donnie Tipton, Hammer Smith and the Henry County Jaycees completed restoring wooden seats from the Old Brown Theatre in Louisville for the Circuit Court room. The benches replaced the seats and only the iron fence separating the jury from the public remains.

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