Courthouse History

The Effingham County Courthouse: A Sense of Permanence and Community

If you were to seek within our county a tangible object which provides to all citizens a link between past and future, which illustrates the pride and respect accorded by our forefathers to the legal institutions, which creates for all citizens without regard to age a sense of permanence and community so vitally needed in today’s world, what would that object be?

Although there initially might be several answers given, after serious reflection, there is only one object which meets these criteria for all citizens. That object is the county courthouse, a historic building which from the time of its creation was and has remained a source of pride and, for those with a knowledge of its history, a bold proclamation of the spirit and direction of this part of Illinois. It is a reflection of the cultural foundations important since the first settlers came into this area.

The United States Congress has stated that such structures “give a sense of orientation to the American people,” that “the preservation of this irreplaceable heritage is in the public interest,” that there is a “vital legacy of cultural, educational, aesthetic, inspirational, (and) economic . . .benefits” which can be used to enrich “future generations of Americans.”

The courthouse which dominates the square in Effingham was not the first one in the county. In fact there have been four - two in Ewington, the original county seat, and two in Effingham. In less than forty years time from 1833 until 1871, all the structures were built.

The Historical Records Survey, a WPA agency, in its Inventory of the County Archives of Illinois: Effingham County No. 25(Chicago: September 1940) described the history of the Effingham County courthouses from the beginning of county history through its first one hundred years. The account follows:

On May 20, 1835, the county officially accepted its first courthouse located in Ewington, a real “boom town” on the Illinois frontier. Unfortunately not much is know about the building. information concerning the erection of this building beyond brief mention at infrequent intervals. Nor do the records explain the fact that though the courthouse was formally accepted early in 1835, the first meeting recorded as having been held in the building occurred December 14, 1838.

The story of this courthouse as reconstructed from occasional memtion of it in the county board records, is necessarily sketchy. William I. Hankins and James Cartwright received $200 in county orders on March 5, 1834, in part payment for work done on the courthouse. There is no previous mention of the county board having awarded any contracts. Nine months later, on December 2, Hankins and Cartwright surrendered to the county the lumber intended for the courthouse and were therefore "released from a certain obligation" entered into on the fourteenth day of December, 1933, concerning the courthouse.

After Hankins and Cartwright had been released from their contract, the county board ordered the clerk to advertise the letting of the contract, and instructed the sheriff to make the award on January 1, 1935, to the lowest bidder.

Details of the actual letting of the contract are not entered upon the county board records, but on March 5, 1835, is recorded that James Cartwright and T. W. Short furnished bond for $1,177, with William I. Hankins and Miner Winn as sureties.

On May 20, the board accepted the building from, the builders, paying $580.97 1/2 in county orders to them for their work. The building was not completely furnished however, for almost three years later, on January 27, 1838, William I. Hankins was awarded a contract to finish it at a cost of $110.2 Time for completing the work was set for June 5, but later the date was extended to the first Monday in September and again, to the first Monday of October.

While the courthouse was being constructed, several terms of court were held in the houses of John C. Sprigg and William McConnell; other meetings convened in the homes of the county clerks.

Two years after this first courthouse had been completely finished, the county board decided on December 9, 1840, to erect a new one of brick, to be 40 feet square. The proposal of Stern C. Wright to build a courthouse for $1,550 was accepted February 1, 1841; he was to furnish bond on or before the March term of the county commissioners' court. But on March 2, new bids were called for.

At a special term hold June 15, a contract for $6,000 was awarded to Edward Cole and John Smith. One thousand dollars was added to the cost of construction six months later when Cole was allowed this sum for building a cupola, not included in the contract. The finished courthouse was accepted by the county authorities on March 8, 1844. There were offices for the count clerk, circuit clerk, the sheriff, and the probate justice of the peace. After March 7, 1850, the county clerk shared his office with the county treasurer and the circuit clerk with the juries.

This courthouse remained essentially as built until 1860 when the county seat was removed to Effingham. Less than $1,500 was required for its upkeep and repair during its seventeen years of service to the county.

As a result of an election held on the first Monday in September, 1859, in accordance with an act of the legislature, to relocate the county seat of Effingham County, the county board on April 16, 1860 ordered the removal of the county seat to Effingham. A block of land was offered and conveyed at no cost to the county by Samuel W. Little and David B. Alexander as a site for the new courthouse.

Samuel W. Little, John J. Funkhouser, John M. Mette, George M. Scoles, William B. Cooper, and George Wright were authorized to erect the courthouse free of expense to the county in accordance with the specifications of their bonds. They were to proceed with building should the block of land be accepted.

On December 12, 1860, Effingham was formally declared the county seat and the county offices and records were ordered removed from Ewington to Effingham. The courthouse was received by the county board on the same day, and the first meeting of the board was held there Decem¬ber 15. The cost of removing the records and furniture to the new courthouse from Ewington amounted to $66.

The new courthouse, the third in the county and the first in the city of Effingham, was a two—story brick edifice, 40 feet wide, 44 feet long, and 24 feet high, with a graduated cupola rising 27 feet above the roof. The Ewington courthouse was offered tentatively, March 6, 1861, to the Seminary Association when it would be legally organized. A year later, to conform with a county board order, the building was tendered as a poorhouse to persons contracting to care for paupers.

By 1869, the courthouse at Effingham was judged to be in an unsafe condition. On March 11, of that year, the board ordered repairs on the building which the grand jury had reported as unsafe for the purpose being used. But before anything could be done to remedy the situation a fire broke out on the morning of March 17, 1869, completely razing the courthouse.

Taking immediate action to provide quarters for county offices and the salvaged records, the county board on March 20, leased a brick house for the use of the county and circuit court clerks, and the sheriff from T. J. Gillenwater for six months at $30 per month with the provision that the lease could be extended for as long a period of time as the county desired.

Plans for the construction of a new courthouse were discussed by the board at various meetings without anything definite being done. Finally, on April 13, 1870, a committee of supervisors was appointed by the board to inspect the Douglas County courthouse. This body reported on the following day.

On April 15, the plans submitted by the architect, William Brown of St. Louis, were adopted by the board. At the same time, a committee was chosen and instructed to modify the interior plans, to advertise for bids, and to receive proposals in readiness for the next meeting when the proposals would be opened and the contract for the construction let.

The proposals were opened May 23, and the contract awarded to W. E. Grey (also spelled Gray in board records) for $28,268. This amount was increased by $1,385 when stone arches over the windows and quoins were added to the specifications.

To finance the cost of erecting the building, a committee, consisting of B. F. Kagay, J. R. Leith, and H. P. Simonton, was appointed to negotiate the sale of an issue of $32,000 in county orders in denominations of $100, $300, and $500, bearing ten percent interest. As soon as the procedure could be legally done these orders were to be converted into interest bearing bonds, payable one third in two years, one third in four years, and the balance in six years or sooner at the option of the board.9 In addition to the above-mentioned financing, the sum of $4,000 was contributed by the city of Effingham.

When work on the new courthouse was begun cannot be ascertained from county board records, but by June 16, 1870, construction was underway as on that day the board adopted a resolution to invite Effingham Lodge No. 149 of the A. F. and A. M. with other lodges in the county to perform the ceremony of laying the cornerstone on July 15, and to extend an invitation to the people of the county to be in attendance.

By the middle of December the building committee was able to report to the board the awarding of the contracts for frescoing for $300, for furnaces for $845, and office fixtures for $1,200.

Construction work was finished early in 1871, and after an inspection by the members of the county board February 15, the building committee was authorized two days later to receive the courthouse in the name of the county.

The actual cost of construction was $33,226.20. Fixtures for $3,279.60 and miscellaneous items not properly belonging to courthouse construction amounting to $1,436.70, raised the total to $37,942.50.

This courthouse, still in use at present, is a two-story brick building crowned by a mansard roof with a basement and an attic. In its dimensions it is 44 feet high, 70 feet wide and 82 feet in length. Rising above the roof is a large square clock tower. quoins at the corners of the building, and stone arches over the windows pleasingly break up the flatness of the walls. There are porches with slender pillars at the two entrances on the north and south. The south entrance is the main one.

Considering its many years of continuous use, the Effingham County courthouse has never been a burden to the taxpayers. No unusually large amounts have ever been spent on its maintenance. In 1879 it was painted at a cost of $220.00 and the treasurer's office decorated for $71.15. A new roof was erected in 1885 for $433.05, and some painting done for $165.00. Plumbing repairs in 1900 cost the county $528.95, a steam heating plant was installed for $1,813.83 in 1908; and painting and decorating in 1910 cost $894.60.

In 1935, the county board appropriated $3,000.00 as its share of the Federal Works Progress Administration project which painted the courthouse inside and out, installed lavatories, relaid floors with oak flooring, equipped the treasurer's office with fixtures, remodeled stairways, plastered walls, and laid cement floors in the basement.

Hours & Location

100 E. Jefferson Ave.,
Effingham, IL 62401

Daytime Hours:
(January-February)- By appointment only and some special evening hours, TBA
Phone: 217.240.2471 to leave a message

(March through December)
Tuesday and Saturday 10 a.m-2 p.m.

Evening Hours:
6:00-7:00 p.m. on night of lecture series, November-March
Other times by appointment: Call (217)240-2471 to leave a message

ECCCMA Meeting Schedule

Board Meetings are held on the second Tuesday of each month at 6:00 p.m. at the court-house first floor courtroom. For information contact Delaine Donaldson, President at:

General Membership Meetings are held once a month of the second Tuesday of the month at 6:00 p.m. at the court-house first floor courtroom.

Our MISSION is to preserve our Historic Register structure, to collect artifacts from county history, and to use them to educate our local and external communities, while immersed in the broader context of American history.

Our VISION is that the 1872 Effingham County Courthouse remains as an architectural gem that instills a sense of community pride and provides a venue to
educate and showcase the history, art, and transportation of Effingham County.

Get Involved

On November 11, 2012, the Museum opened its doors to the public. Currently there are exhibits on the first floor and the second floor. On the second floor there is exhibit space as well as room for lectures and other types of public gatherings.