Reminiscences of Old Oswego Courthouse

History / Tuesday, April 30th, 2019

The following paper was read at the old settler’s picnic in Oswego, IL, Thursday June 23, 1904 by Honorable George M. Hollenback, the first white child born in Kendall County and this part of the Fox River Valley.

Your committee has awarded me as a subject “Reminiscences of the Old Courthouse.” It is so long since I had an office in the old courthouse that many reminiscences that would be interesting have, with the fleeting years, passed from my memory. Before reminiscing about anything of a personal nature it will be well to go back and state a few things related to the matter in jurisdiction. It will be remembered that the State of Illinois was known in the latter part of the last century as “Elinoy Country.” It was erected into a county of the commonwealth of Virginia, which claimed under its English charter, the whole of what is now included within the boundary of the state. It so remained until the deed of cession in 1788, by which Virginia relinquished to the United States all claims to the so-called Northwest Territory.

Virginia government was established very early, including the organization of the state into counties. This organization continued in force in Illinois until changed by the constitution of 1848. The first board of (Kendall County) County Commissioners was composed of the following persons: Jeremiah J. Cole, Levi Hills, and Reuben Hunt. They organized by electing Marcus A. Fenton, Clerk. The County Commissioners held the court four times a year for the transaction of all county business, the same as their successors, the local Board of Supervisors, do now.

The Circuit Court exercised the same jurisdiction that it does now. The County Judge appointed his own clerk. A Probate Judge was provided for by law. The Probate Judge exercised the same Jurisdiction and powers the County Judge does now in the settlement of the estates of deceased persons and matters of guardianship of minors. A Recorder of Deeds was also provided for. The first Recorder to fill that office was Almon Ives.

A Board of Commissioners appointed by the State Legislature located the county seat at Yorkville during the summer of 1841. The first session of the Circuit Court was held in August of that year. The Honorable Thomas Ford was Presiding Judge. Judge Ford had previously appointed Alonzo B. Smith Clerk of the Circuit Court. Smith held that office until the constitution of 1848 went into effect.

The County Commissioners Court provided for the erection of county buildings in 1847. Sometime during the spring or summer of that year the cornerstone of the first courthouse in Yorkville was laid. The work progressed so the offices were occupied and courts held some time in the following year. The erection of the courthouse and provisions for its payment were about the last duties performed by the County Commissioner’s Court, consisting of a judge and two associates. At the election held in November of that year, Joseph W. Helme was elected Judge and Samuel C. Collins and Edward Walker, Associate Justices. This court, as organized, became the successor of the County Commissioners Court. In 1850, a township organization of county government was adopted. At that time, a Board of Supervisors became the successor of the county court in regard to county affairs. Thus in the short space of less than three years, county affairs underwent three different kinds of jurisdiction.

George W. Hartwell was elected the first Clerk of the County Court at the election of November 1848. He held the office for years. Chapman and Reynolds had the contract for the erection of the courthouse. To appearance it was a rather imposing structure of two stories, colonial in style, facing west. Entrance was gained by stone steps leading to a porch, which extended across the entire front of the building. The porch was some 15 or 20 feet wide. Four large columns supporting the roof added much to the appearance of the building. Double doors in front opened upon a spacious hall 10 or 12 feet wide. On the right of the hall, were located the offices of the Clerk of the County and the Clerk of the Circuit Court. Fireproof rooms, in which records and papers were kept adjoined each office. On the left side of the hall was a kind of general office for the accommodation of the County Treasurer and Superintendent of Schools. The Clerk of the County Court always carried the key to this office and he occasionally used the room when the County Court or Board of Supervisors was in session. Adjoining this room was the grand jury room. The Board of Supervisors also occupied it when in session. At the rear end of the hall was a smaller door than those at the front. The courtroom above was reached by two stairways leading to the vestibule. A wide door opened into the courtroom. Here was a large hall extending to the bar. At the further end of the hall was a large stove set up for warming the courtroom when court was in session in cold weather. The auditorium was situated on either side of the hall. The seats of which would seat comfortably 150 or 200 persons. The seats directly behind the bar were on a level with the floor. The balance of the seats rose as they approached the rear. The bar occupied about one third of the floor space and was separated from the auditorium by an appropriate railing. The bar was provided with armchairs and a long table covered with green baize. The bench was situated on an elevation at the west end of the hall facing the bar and was reached by three or four steps. The Clerk’s desk was on a level with the floor in front of the bench and was surrounded by a neat railing.

There was dissatisfaction in various parts of the county for the location of the county seat in Yorkville. The legislature in the winter of 1845, provided for a relocation of the county seat by a vote of legal voters of the county. The first election was held the first Monday of September in 1845. A number of sites were voted for at the election. None of which received a majority of the votes cast. At the election held a month later it was found that Oswego had won. Oswego remained the county seat until June 7, 1864, when the records were again removed to Yorkville and into the new courthouse, which had been erected for their reception pursuant to the vote of the legal voters of the county some three years before.

My connection with the courthouse, except attending two years as a bailiff, began on the 1st day of December 1856, which was my 25th birthday. I had been elected Clerk of the Circuit Court of Kendall County the preceding November. I continued to hold that position for eight years, having been re-elected in November 1860.

When I entered upon the duties of Clerk of the Circuit Court, Benjamin Ricketson was County Judge, having succeeded Joseph W. Helme in 1853. Jeremiah J. Cole was elected Clerk of the County Court at the same election. He succeeded George W. Hartwell in that office. Henry M. Day succeeded Mathias Beaupre as sheriff in 1852, and was in turn succeeded by Jonathan Raymond at the election of 1856.

During the whole of my service as Clerk of the Circuit Court and for some years after, the Honorable Madison E. Hollister was Judge of the court. During that period many of the leading lawyers in this part of the state attended its sessions. From Ottawa came the rival firms of Glover, Cook & Campbell, and Gray, Avery & Bushnell and Colonel T. Lyle Dickey and General W. H. L. Wallace. At the first session of the court Mr. Washington Bushnell was States Attorney. Many members of the Kane County bar, then as now, were much in evidence at sessions of the court. Among them William B. Plato, John F. Farnsworth, Gust Herrington, Benjamin F. Parks, Charles Wheaton, R. G. Montony, and others whose names I do not now recall. The home talent of the period consisted of J. W. Helme, Alonzo B. Smith, John M. Crothers, Benjamin F. Fridley, George A. Tucker and Albert Snook of Oswego. Irus Coy and George W. Watson came from Newark. James H. Felch and W. H. Clark came from Yorkville. Lewis Steward of Plano was a licensed attorney but did not practice. All of the persons bearing these names have passed from life, except the Honorable Charles Wheaton and the now venerable Judge Montony of Aurora.

This sketch will now be confined to some recollections of persons connected with the courthouse during the time I had an office therein.

John Milton Crothers was a native of Greenfield, Ohio, and son of the Reverend Samuel Crothers, a Presbyterian minister. He chose the profession of lawyer and came west in 1839 or 1840, settling first at Ottawa. On the organization of Kendall County in 1841 he, in company with Jesse S. Pitzer, removed to Oswego and opened a law office. At the November election in 1848 he was elected Clerk of the Circuit Court. He held that office for eight years, having been re-elected in 1852. In 1856 he was elected a member of the General Assembly of the State of Illinois. At the close of the session he resumed the practice of law in Oswego. He had been appointed Master-in-Chancery while still Clerk of the Circuit Court. He held that office at the time of his death, which occurred in 1860 at Greenfield, Ohio, where he had gone for his health. It was the beginning of Mr. Crother’s first term as Clerk of the Circuit Court that the offices of Recorder and Clerk were united and have so remained.

Joseph Warren Helme was a native of Orange County, New York. He was born during the latter years of the last century. He was educated at Princeton College, New Jersey, and chose the legal profession. Before coming to Illinois he resided some years at Pulaski, New York, coming to this state about 1836. He was elected County Judge of Kendall County in 1848. He held that office until November 1852. He was an excellent lawyer and was well qualified to discharge the duties of any judicial office from Justice of the Peace to the highest station. He had a judicial mind of the highest order and was well qualified by education in his practice. Unfortunately in his dislikes he often said sharp things in his lawsuits and the ordinary transaction of business, which made him unpopular with some. He was a good conversationalist and a delightful companion to meet socially. A gentleman of the old school.

Jeremiah Jackson Cole was a native of Rhode Island. By instinct and practice a bookkeeper. When I first saw him in 1843 or 1844 he was deputy assessor of Kendall County. One Colquhoun Grant had been elected assessor. Grant did not qualify or for some other reason did not perform the duties of the office. Cole was appointed and performed the duties to the satisfaction of the county authorities. He was a member of the first board of County Commissioners. In 1848, he was elected County Treasurer. As such he assessed the county in 1849. In 1852, he was elected Clerk of the County Court and was twice re-elected to that office. He died in office in April 1864. At the time of his death he was about 65 years of age. He was an accomplished accountant, accommodating officer and most agreeable companion.

Jonathan Raymond was elected Sheriff in November 1856. He served in that capacity two years. He was born in Massachusetts in 1806 and came to Illinois in 1834. He was a very agreeable man and took great pride in his office as Sheriff, opening and closing the Circuit Court after the forms and ceremony that he had witnessed in Massachusetts when a younger man. He was very successful as an auctioneer, and a good all around citizen and neighbor. He died in Bloomington, Illinois, in 1884.

Wright Murphy succeeded Raymond as Sheriff in 1858, serving two years. He made an excellent officer. He later served as a common soldier during the rebellion and was broken in health in his service. He died a few years after the Civil War. He was a companionable man and a good citizen.

Dwight Ladd succeeded Murphy as Sheriff in 1860, serving two years. He was a most excellent and conscientious officer. He served with credit to himself in the public service. He retired to a farm at the expiration of his service and died comparatively young.

Ami D. Newton succeeded Dwight Ladd in 1862. He served two years until December 1864. He was the first Sheriff to occupy the Sheriff’s office and residence in the new courthouse. Some years subsequent he was elected Sheriff for many terms and died a few years since, respected by all that knew him.

Benjamin Ricketson was born in northeastern New York of Quaker parentage. He came west in what is now Kendall County sometime during the early thirties. He was elected County Judge to succeed Joseph W. Helme in 1852. He was subsequently re-elected and continuously held that office until 1867. The Honorable Henry S. Hudson succeeded him in office. Judge Ricketson was a popular and conscientious officer. He subsequently moved to California where he died a few years ago.

Upon the removal of the county seat to Yorkville and the erection of the new courthouse it seemed desirable to make a change in the county officers. It was thought the proper thing to do to replace the old servants of the county with those who had borne the heat and burden of the day in the tented field during the Civil War. Having been succeeded in office of Clerk of the Circuit Court December 1, 1864, by Captain Albert M. Hobbs, with some regret, I stepped down and out. I was invited by Captain Hobbs to remain with him in office until the following spring, which I did. My connection with the old courthouse ended when the records were removed to Yorkville, June 7, 1864.

Soon after, by authority of the Board of Supervisors, the courthouse site was sold and the title thereto passed forever from Kendall County.

During the time I was connected with the Clerk’s office at Oswego, I was the first public officer, so far as I know, in this part of the state to employ female help in the office as assistants. I found them more reliable and more attentive to business and they did their work just as well, or better, than that done by the other sex. I find in visiting other counties that most of the employees in the public offices are females.

In conclusion, permit me to say, I feel it a pleasure to respond to the invitation of your committee to appear before you today to make the feeble effort I have made in your hearing. The fleeting years since that morning of December 1, 1856, have borne away the voices and forms of so many that were then in life. Friends and acquaintances and in this gathering I can almost number on my finger ends the survivors of that year. I take this opportunity to thank your committee for the honor extended to me by saying something to you on this occasion, and I now bid you farewell.


George M. Hollenback, “Reminiscences of Old Oswego Courthouse,”
Kendall County Record, 6 July 1904

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