2017-11-12 / Front Page

Old courthouse is Lapeer’s legacy

BY JOYCE BONESTEEL
Contributing Writer

LAPEER — The historic courthouse has a rich heritage that dates back to the early days when settlers lived in log cabins and the outlying areas were still wilderness. The weekly mail was delivered on foot from Pontiac and later by horse and buggy. Clothes were homespun.

The Greek revival-style courthouse was born of a feud between two pioneer families, the Harts and the Whites. Former magistrate Russell B. Franzen wrote a book about the courthouse wars, entitled “Squabble City,” because Lapeer earned the nickname when the factions were vying to establish their properties as the county seat. The Hart family won.

Although the pediment date says 1839, the courthouse was built by Alvin N. Hart in 1845- 46 according to the county government’s website. It was purchased by the county in 1853. The exterior is native white pine. Pictures in the courthouse today show what the walls looked like when they were exposed during renovations.

Franzen’s book said Alvin Hart, a Democrat, entered an agreement with the Lapeer County Board of Supervisors on Nov. 11, 1837, to build the courthouse according to Whig specifications, but in the lower village. This was the Harts’ side of town. Alvin Hart pledged a $10,000 bond sale to ensure the building was completed.

Chester Hatch and Lewis Bullock were hired by Hart to “lay the foundation, furnish materials, build and raise the frame,” for $1,250 and any other money he could get from the county, Franzen wrote. When Hart failed to honor the contract, his rival Jonathon Ripley White went around publicly calling him a liar. White had wanted the courthouse and county seat in the upper village, also known as Whitesville.

Franzen’s book said more than 70,000 feet of lumber needed to build the structure was hauled by oxen from four mills: Bullock’s in Elba Township, Higley’s to the south, Lombard's east of Lapeer and Lothrop’s north of town. A county brochure said Hart was the first judge to hear a case in the courthouse, in 1847.

Twin spiral staircases lead to the upstairs courtroom where the small tables and juror chairs are said to be originals. The three-tiered tower and rear entry were added to the south end of the building around 1880, though the date is uncertain, according to the late J. Dee Ellis, author of “Pioneer Families and History of Lapeer County, Michigan.” The tower’s dome is painted gold.

Ellis said the front entry was built at the same time. Four fluted Doric columns support the pediment. The front porch has been reconfigured a few times over the years. Also in 1880, about September, the courthouse was moved back 80 feet from the sidewalk. Supervisors had authorized the move in October, 1879.

A Feb. 20, 1880 newspaper article said stones for the new foundation were at the site, the old foundation was rotting and the building “was not worth moving,” Ellis wrote. Regardless, the work was done. The foundation today is brick.

Toward the end of 1880 supervisors directed the sheriff to rent out the empty courthouse rooms, charging not less than $60 a year for the offices in the front of the building and a minimum of $40 for the ones in back. The two rooms occupied by the Ladies Library were turned over to a judge.

Electric lights replaced the kerosene lamps in 1897 when the courthouse was wired for electricity. A Civil War cannon was set up on the front lawn by the Grand Army of the Republic in 1898. Sadly, the county donated it to Uncle Sam during a World War II scrap metal drive in 1942.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union sent a strong message to Lapeer folks in 1904 by installing the water fountain near the northeast corner of the courthouse square. The courthouse basement was expanded in 1937 to add two lavatories, four offices and the supervisors’ meeting room.

A landmark case was heard in this historic courthouse in

1918. It was Haynes v Lapeer

Circuit Judge, 201 Mich

138 (1918). The Michigan

Legislature in 1913 had authorized the sterilization of people in public institutions,

“in the interest of the patient or for the good of the community.” The Michigan State

Home & Training School, as it was then called, was by far the largest such facility in the state. And it was in Lapeer.

Superintendent Harley A. Haynes, M.D. had petitioned the sterilization of a patient by the name of Nora Reynolds. Her guardian objected, saying the state act was unconstitutional. The Lapeer County Probate Court dismissed Haynes’ petition and Circuit Judge William B. Williams ruled the sterilization was indeed unconstitutional. His decision was upheld by the Michigan Supreme Court.

In 1993, Circuit Judge Laura Barnard took the initiative to bring the case to light, and it became the 17th Michigan Legal Milestone, a program created by the State Bar’s Communications Committee. A ceremony was held at the historic courthouse in Lapeer during Law Week that year, dignitaries made speeches and a bronze plaque detailing the 1918 case was affixed to the front of the building.

The old courthouse served as a workplace for former governors Moses Wisner and John T. Rich, who grew up in Elba Township and was instrumental in building the state’s first institution in Lapeer in 1895. Lapeer County native Lewis C. Cramton also was a Lapeer circuit judge who heard cases in the old courthouse from 1934 to 1931. Later, as a congressman, Cramton championed the rights of minorities and earned the reputation of the “godfather of national parks.”

Joseph B. Moore, another Lapeer circuit judge who heard here, would become the longest serving justice in the history of the Michigan Supreme Court.

More than 50 years ago, Bob Myers, then owner of The Lapeer County Press, published a scathing editorial shaming county officials for the deplorable condition of the courthouse. Paint was peeling, the exterior boards were dirty, the molding inside was smudged. Cobwebs hung in the corners. Myers’ editorial sparked a widespread community effort to make the courthouse look nice again. He called it a grand old dame.

Sometime in this era, the 1960s or ‘70s, the courthouse was nearly razed when some members of the Lapeer County Board of Supervisors thought a parking lot would better serve the public in that spot. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed. For decades, the historic courthouse in Lapeer has held the honor of being the oldest of its kind in Michigan to serve its original purpose.

Three-part series begins today

Editor’s note: Today we are introducing a three-part series about the historic courthouse on Nepessing Street in downtown Lapeer. The series is designed to promote awareness of the Nov. 30 event, 2017 Holiday at the Courthouse, a fundraiser kickoff hosted by Friends of the Lapeer County Historic Courthouse.

The goal is to raise $100,000 for the completion of the courthouse restoration and to help cover maintenance costs. Sponsors’ names will be printed on the program, on the historic courthouse Facebook page and in The County Press. For more information contact committee member Adam Schlusler at 245- 2946.

Tickets are $50. Call 245-4794.

The series will continue next Sunday with a close look at the successful fundraiser efforts of the former Lapeer County Historic Courthouse Restoration Committee that culminated in a final courthouse gala and a case heard here by the Michigan Supreme Court in September 2007.

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