The Early Days.
On December 6, 1800, General Arthur St. Clair, Governor of the Northwest Territory, proclaimed the County of Clermont, the eighth of the existing twelve counties so proclaimed when Ohio became a state on March 1, 1803 through an act of Congress signed by President Thomas Jefferson. Thus Clermont County predates Ohio statehood by two years and three months. Clermont County was established in 1804 after Ohio became a state under an enabling act passed by the Ohio General Assembly.
The original territory of Clermont County included that of the present boundaries and also a major part of the present Brown County. According to historical accounts, the Court of General Quarter Sessions made Williamsburg, which was near the geographical center of the county, the county seat in late February of 1801 by entering into a contract with Thomas Morris where he agreed to provide the court with “a convenient house, tables, benches, fuel, etc. for the purpose of holding court for the term of four years at twenty dollars per year”. Thomas Morris, who went on to be a State Representative, State Senator, an Ohio Supreme Court justice, and U.S. Senator, rented the county the log courthouse and log jail, actually was briefly a prisoner in his own jail for debt until released on an appeal bond from the General Territorial Court.
The contract with Thomas Morris expired in 1805, and the county commissioners entered into a new contract with Nicholas Sinks, who agreed to furnish “a room with convenient benches, tables, and seats for the purpose of holding court in the house that said Nicholas Sinks resided in, together with a room or rooms for the grand and petit juries to sit in, … and to keep the necessary fires for the comfort and convenience of the court and commissioners while sitting as aforesaid” for the contract price of eight dollar a quarter or $24 per year.
In June of 1805, the commissioners appropriated funds and construction of a new courthouse began soon after. The cost of the courthouse was $1,499 and was designed by the same Nicholas Sinks. The two story stone structure was rectangular and was located in the public square. The courthouse remained in service from 1810 until 1824. The building was eventually demolished in 1858 to make way for a new school.
The original judges of the Common Pleas Court of Clermont County were appointed by Northwest Territory Governor Arthur St. Clair. Clermont County’s first judges of the Common Pleas Court were Richard Allison, Owen Todd, William Buckingham, Joseph Shotwell, Robert Higgins, Peter Light and Phillip Gatch. They were designated as Trustees of the Court of Common Pleas of Clermont County, Ohio and were charged with the administration of Court procedures and also with the actual hearing of cases. At the same time General William Lytle was appointed as prothonotary which included, among other duties, the responsibilities now carried by the clerk of courts. At the same time, William Cary was appointed as sheriff of Clermont County. These appointments were made on February 25, 1801, and are included in the official court records of this county.
Philip Gatch was born on March 7, 1751, in Baltimore County, Maryland. Gatch was a Clermont County Common Pleas Judge, and was a very peculiar one because he was both a judge and minister. After convicting a suspect, he was known to visit them in jail and pray for their souls. U.S. Supreme Court Justice, John McLean, stated: “…He had a weight of character which justly entitled him to a pre-eminence over the other county judges… he did not profess to be learned in the law, but he had the great practical knowledge of human affairs and he aimed to arrive at justice of every case brought to him… Judge Gatch’s opinions were always distinguished by good sense…His mind in its actions was deliberate.” Gatch sat on the bench for 20 years, and after retiring wrote, “By the grace of God I have left it with a clear conscience.”
The first case of record of any interest was held in Clermont County on May 26, 1801. It was a suit termed “trespass on the case” and asked for the sum of $150 for merchandise sold and delivered. Jacob Burnet was the attorney for the plaintiff. This case involved a suit by Samuel Mount against the administrator of the estate of Elijah Mount, but the Court in New Richmond entered a verdict for the defendant, which was affirmed by the judges of the Supreme Court. While the petition is of great length (over four pages) the record does not disclose the name of the judge who tried the case or why the defendant won. The records are very limited as to other cases held in Williamsburg or the cases tried during the three terms of court in New Richmond. The judges of the Common Pleas Court in New Richmond were Judge Torrence, Judge Alexander Blair, and Judge John Morris.
On the same date the court held a trial in the first instance, that being a divorce case, George Hunt vs. Jane Hunt. The hearing was on default and set out willful absence for a period of three years. In that case Thomas Morris, who later became United States Senator, was attorney for the plaintiff.
The Era of the Horse Thieves
Clermont County criminal justice of that time had a “wild west” aura to it, as evidenced from these accounts of it published in 1880:
“This was the jail legally made so in February—4th Tuesday—of 1801, and so continued for some time, till the authorities built one-still of logs, but larger and stronger-on a site by itself; concerning which, the records and history are silent as to the precise time of its construction. It contained at various times many luckless debtors, but its chief offenders were horse-thieves, —the terror of the early settlers, and on whom the law had no mercy, and, like in all new countries, it was visited on them sternly and promptly, —with occasionally parties held for larceny, and sometimes for robbery or burglary.
In front of this jail stood the whipping-post, or, rather, posts. Two sticks of oak about six, inches square were planted about five feet apart, and projected the same distance from the earth. To the top of these the culprit was tied by the extended hands, while the “cat-o’’-nine-tails” was applied on his naked back with cruel vigor. There several unhappy offenders satisfied the majesty of the law for misdeeds of the body, principally horse-stealing, the most heinous of crimes in early days.
At the October term of Common Pleas Court, in 1808, John Clark, for stealing a horse of John Gaskins, was found guilty, and sentenced to be whipped twenty-five stripes on his naked back that afternoon at three o’clock and pay said Gaskins fifty dollars (the value of his horse), also a fine of ten dollars and costs; to be imprisoned three days in jail, and not to be let out till the restitution, fine, and costs were all paid. On the same day this same culprit, John Clark, for stealing a bell of Conrad Hersh, was sentenced to be whipped with five stripes, make restitution to said Hersh of the value of the bell (one dollar), pay a fine of one dollar, and be imprisoned twenty-four hours, and not to be released till restitution-money, fine, and costs were fully settled. On same day Mordecai S. Ford, who in 1801 bought, in Washington Township, some seventy-five acres of land from Philip Buckner, was up before the court for stealing a horse from James Johnson. He was found guilty, and sentenced to pay said Johnson, the owner of the stolen horse, twenty dollars as restitution, pay a fine of ten dollars and costs, be imprisoned three days, and not discharged till restitution-money, fine, and costs were all paid, and be whipped twenty-five stripes on his naked back that afternoon at three o’clock. A big day’s work in court, —three trials and three convictions, with two public whippings in the afternoon as early as three o’clock; but justice did not sleep on horse-thieves.
The hour came, and Sheriff Levi Rogers—or rather his deputy and court constable, the stout and quick William Stout—administered the two judicial whippings, to the complete satisfaction of the court, bar, public officials, townspeople, and, in short, all save the two downcast and back-sore offenders, John Clark took the other five stripes for purloining the bell the next week, and soon after Ford died between Felicity and Calvary meeting-house, in the graveyard of which he was the first person interred. Three men, Brown, Ferguson (both flogged by Sheriff Oliver Lindsey), and another man, name unknown, were tied to the whipping-post and whipped, being all non-residents and all guilty of the same then terrible crime of horse-stealing,
After Brown was whipped he said, in a spirit of’’ braggadocio, that he was a much better man than the sheriff or any of the spectators, and no one felt like disputing the assertion.
At one time two horse-thieves, named Killwell and Joseph Knott, were confined in this old log jail, when Killwell slipped off his handcuffs and fled. Pursuit being instituted, he changed his appearance as much as possible in a successful disguise, and joined in the effort to recapture him, asking the people, in his going through the sparsely-settled country, whether they had seen anything of or heard of the whereabouts of the notorious outlaw and horse-thief, Killwell, and succeeded, by his coolness and daring, in escaping for good, and excelling “Dick Turpin” for his bold effrontery.
Joseph Knott, tried for horse-stealing, escaped thus: When the jury returned their verdict, “Joseph Knott, guilty,” his attorney exclaimed, “Joseph, not guilty! Put, Joseph!” and before the court recovered itself or the sheriff had collected his wits, Joseph had ‘put’ for the woods, and escaped for that time, but was afterwards shot on Stonelick by the infuriated citizens in a posse who had suffered from his continual depredations.”
The Court Moves To Batavia
When Brown County was established in 1817, a large chunk of Clermont County went with it and that placed Williamsburg at the edge of the county. During this time the General Assembly moved the county seat to New Richmond despite protests from Williamsburg. A site was planned and set aside for the courthouse in New Richmond but nothing was ever built. The General Assembly convened again and changed the county seat to Batavia in 1824.
Court was held in Batavia from May 1824 until January 1827 in the Methodist church building. The record does disclose that the first case tried in Batavia was tried in the June, 1824, term and was heard by two judges of the Supreme Court, Judge Peter Hatchord and Judge Charles Sherman, and it referred to a case in the Common Pleas Court which was held in New Richmond.
The Commissioners held a contest for the design of the courthouse and chose the plans from Ezekiel Dimmit for $3,484. The courthouse was designed in a combination of the Federal and Greek Revival styles. The building was rectangular in shape and contained a central projection containing a clock and capped by a cupola. A description of the 1824 Court House is contained in a program of the dedication of a new court room in 1967, and in part reads as follows:
“The first County Court House erected in Batavia was built by Ezekiel Dimmit and was occupied on New Year’s Day 1829. Dimmit was the first settler in the Batavia area and was quite prominent as a builder and civic leader in the village.
“The interior of this first Court House consisted of a foyer with ascending stairways on each side. Four large square second floor rooms housed the county offices and served as a jury room. The tall cupola formed the enclosure for the famed Court House Bell which announced the return of the jury and summoned the villagers for fires, emergencies or noted events. This old bell is still a proud county possession and a cherished relic of this historic old building.
“When the original court house was torn down in December 1935 it had served its county for 106 years and was the oldest court house still in use in Ohio.”
An 1880 description of the original Batavia courthouse praises it as follows:
“While the courthouse is not an imposing structure, and does not conform to modern style of architecture, it has ever been the testimony of all the judges who have held court in its sacred temple that in the matter (and the most essential and important requisition) of acoustics, it has no superior in the State. It has been the theater of many hard-fought legal battles, its old walls have resounded with many able and eloquent speeches, but its full history cannot be written—its bygone scenes and incidents, its secret associations and deliberations—until the future historian shall write the lives of the individual actors who have participated in the acts that have rendered it so famous in the county’s history.”
Please note the sign on the column to the far right, which reads “Do Not Spit on the Floor.”
Noteworthy in the history for this courthouse is the role of John Jolliffe, the Clermont County Prosecuting Attorney from 1833 to 1837. A historic marker stands outside the current courthouse commemorating John Jolliffe as part of the Clermont County Freedom Trail; in particular for his work in defending fugitive slave Margaret Garner. While the Garner trial did not occur in Clermont County, the saga is part of the fabric of county legal history.
John Jolliffe and Margaret Garner
John Jolliffe’s first known legal involvement in the anti-slavery movement occurred in 1839, after leaving the Clermont County prosecutor’s office, when he, former US Senator Thomas Morris and Owen T. Fishback (future Clermont County Judge and brother-in-law of Charles Huber) defended Reverend John B. Mahan, Brown County Underground Railroad Conductor, Amos and John Pettyjohn on charges of criminal riot. The three defendants were accused of causing a riot while attempting to assist Moses Cumberland, a fugitive slave, to escape from Brown County, Ohio authorities. Thomas Hamer, Joliffe’s former law partner, was called in as a special prosecutor. The three defendants were convicted and sentenced to 10 days in jail on bread and water and fined $50.00, but the Ohio Supreme Court overturned the conviction because the Judge erred in empanelling the jury.
Jolliffe was involved in seventeen other cases defending fugitive slaves including his most famous client, Margret Garner, who killed her own daughter rather than see her returned to slavery. Margret Garner’s story has inspired many plays and books such as ““Modern Medea”” by Steven Weisenburger and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison.
On January 28, 1856, a pregnant Margaret and her husband Robert, together with their four children, escaped and fled to Cincinnati, Ohio, along with several other slave families. Robert had stolen his master’s horses and sleigh along with his gun. Seventeen people were reported to have been in their party. In the coldest winter in 60 years, the Ohio River had frozen. The group crossed the ice just west of Covington, Kentucky at daybreak, and escaped to Cincinnati. The party then divided to avoid detection.
Robert, his father Simon and wife Mary, together with Margaret and their four children, made their way to the home of a former slave named Joe Kite, Margaret’s uncle, living along Mill Creek, below Cincinnati. The other nine slaves in their party made it to safe houses in Cincinnati and eventually escaped via the Underground Railroad to Canada. Kite went to abolitionist Levi Coffin for advice on how to get the group to safety. Coffin agreed to help them escape the city. He told Kite to take the Garner group further west of the city, where many free blacks lived, and wait until night.
Slave catchers and US Marshals found the Garners barricaded inside Kite’s house before he returned. They surrounded the property, and then stormed the house. Robert Garner fired several shots and wounded at least one deputy marshal. Margaret killed her two-year-old daughter rather than see the child returned to slavery. She had wounded her other children, preparing to kill them and herself, when she was subdued by the posse.
The entire group was taken to jail. The subsequent trial lasted for two weeks, after which the judge deliberated another two weeks. It was “the longest and most complicated case of its kind.” A typical fugitive slave hearing would have lasted less than a day. The core issue was whether the Garners would be tried as persons, and charged with the murder of their daughter, or tried as property under the Fugitive Slave Law. As defense counsel, John Jolliffe argued that Ohio’s right to protect its citizens should take precedence. The slave catchers and owner argued for the precedence of federal law over the state. The defense attempted to prove that Margaret had been liberated under a former law covering slaves taken into free states for other work. Jolliffe proposed that she be charged with murder so that the case would be tried in a free state (understanding that the governor would later pardon her). The prosecuting attorney argued that the federal Fugitive Slave Law took precedence over state murder charges. Over a thousand people turned out each day to watch the proceedings, lining the streets outside the Cincinnati courthouse. Five hundred men were deputized to maintain order in the town.
The presiding Judge Pendery ruled that Federal fugitive warrants had supervening authority. Defense attorney Jolliffe then tried a strategy of arguing that the Fugitive Slave Act violated the guarantee of religious freedom, by compelling citizens to participate in evil by returning slaves. In the end, Judge Pendery rejected this argument.
On the closing day of the trial, the antislavery activist Lucy Stone took the stand to defend her earlier conversations with Margaret (the prosecution had complained.) She spoke about the interracial sexual relationship that underlay part of the case. Recalling to everyone’s memory the faces of Margaret’s children, and of A. K. Gaines, Stone told the packed courtroom: “The faded faces of the Negro children tell too plainly to what degradation the female slaves submit. Rather than give her daughter to that life, she killed it. If in her deep maternal love she felt the impulse to send her child back to God, to save it from coming woe, who shall say she had no right not to do so?”
Margaret Garner was not immediately tried for murder, but was forced to return to a slave state along with Robert and her youngest child, a daughter aged about nine months. When Ohio authorities got an extradition warrant for Garner to try her for murder, they were unable to find her for the arrest. Archibald K. Gaines, her owner, kept moving her between cities in Kentucky. Ohio officials missed finding Margaret in Covington by a few hours, missed getting her again in Frankfort, and finally caught up with her master in Louisville, only to discover that he had put the slaves on a boat headed for his brother’s plantation in Arkansas. Margaret Garner disappeared into slavery in the South. A later researcher located Robert who said Margaret had died in 1858 of typhoid fever, in an epidemic in the valley. He said that before she died, Margaret urged Robert to “never marry again in slavery, but to live in hope of freedom.”
A detailed account of the Margaret Garner case and John Jolliffe’s legal arguments and tactics is contained in the book “Modern Medea” by Steven Weisenburger, (Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998). Using contemporary newspaper accounts, the author is able to recreate large parts of the hearing record, even though the offical transcript has been lost over time. The picture of John Jolliffe on this page comes from that book and is reproduced with the permission of the author.
Garner’s life story was the basis of Frances Harper’s 1859 poem “Slave Mother: A Tale of Ohio”. She also inspired Kentucky painter Thomas Satterwhite Noble’s 1867 painting, The Modern Medea. (Medea was a woman in Greek mythology who killed her own children). The painting, owned by Cincinnati manufacturer Procter and Gamble Corporation, was presented as a gift to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, where it remains on permanent display. Please see http://www.freedomcenter.org/underground-railroad/history/people/Margaret-Garner/.
Post Civil War
In addition to the judges originally appointed, the following judges served between 1801 and 1852: William Hunter, Amos Ellis, John Hunter, Houston Clark, and Alex Martin. Clermont County was a part of a district, the number of which changed from 1, to 5, to 10. Primarily, however, Clermont County was united with Adams and Brown counties from 1852 to 1914. The judges from this district, particularly those from Clermont County, are:
Shepherd Norris 1852-1862
Thomas Q. Ashburn 1862-1876
Allen T. Cowen 1876-1888
Frank Davis, Sr. 1888-1898
John S. Parrott 1898-1903
Frank Davis, Sr. 1909-1914
In addition to these, there were two judges from Brown County who served Clermont County during the time they were elected; these were David Tarbell who served from 1871 to 1881, and John Markley who served from 1897 to 1913. Both were from Georgetown. After the Constitutional Convention in 1912, effective in 1913 and 1914, each county of the state had at least one common pleas judge. These judges are:
Frank Davis, Sr. Harry Britton
William A. Joseph M. Dale Osborne
Charles G. White Harold D. Nichols
Prominent among the local bar of Batavia was Hugh Llewellyn Nichols (1865-1942) [pictured left], who served as the 32nd Lieutenant Governor of Ohio from 1911 to 1913 and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio from 1913 to 1920. A graduate of Batavia High School and Ohio Wesleyan, Nichols received his law degree from Cincinnati Law School (now known as University of Cincinnati Law School) and practiced in Batavia as Nichols and Nichols starting in 1886. Mr. Nichols was appointed to a vacancy in the Lieutenant Governor position on March 1, 1911, and was elected to the same position in November of 1912. Also in 1912, the voters of Ohio amended the 1851 constitution to create the elected office of Chief Justice. Prior to that time, the position as chief justice rotated among the members of the Court. Lieutenant Governor Nichols was appointed Chief Justice, the first person to hold the newly created position under the amendment, and took office September 22, 1913. He was elected to a full six year term on 1914, where he served until defeated in the election of 1920. Chief Justice Nichols presided over major changes in Ohio’s legal system, including the use of depositions for trial testimony, and was commended for his handling of the numerous transitions. Chief Justice Nichols was also praised for creating a model of a non-partisan judiciary and impartial supervision of lower courts. After leaving the bench, he returned to the practice of law in Cincinnati and devoted considerable time to civil and charitable work. A portrait of Chief Justice Nichols is displayed in Courtroom 204 on the second floor of the Courthouse.
For the official Ohio Supreme Court online biography of Chief Justice Nichols, please click here.
1936 to 1998
The 1824 courthouse remained in service for nearly 108 years until the county decided a larger courthouse was needed. Unfortunately for the county, an elaborate courthouse was not immediately feasible at the start of the Great Depression.
The Clermont County Courthouse is presently located at 270 East Main Street in Batavia, Ohio, the same corner as the 1827 courthouse. The older section of the building, now containing the Clerk of Court’s offices and Courtroom 204, was constructed under the Works Progress Administration, with a start date of December 2, 1935 and completion in December of 1936. The current “old” courthouse was designed by the architectural firm of Hunt & Allan in the Neoclassical style. The cost of construction was $96,504.90. The building has a rectangular footprint and is two stories high. The facade of the building is lined with red brick and limestone trimwork. The building’s main entrance is accessed by a flight of stairs and is framed by four large Tuscan piers, two on each side of the main entrance, supporting an entablature above. A window is located to each side of the central door with a window directly in line on the second floor. The wings to either side of the entrance projection contain three broad windows on each floor, allowing light into the main courtroom. The flat roof is hidden behind a solid balustrade.
At the time of the construction of the new courthouse, two large metal plaques were installed on either side of the front door to Main Street. The marker for the new building read:
“This building, erected in the year A.D. 1936, replaced what was then in the state of Ohio, the oldest structure used for court proceedings exclusively. Under the sponsorship of Clermont County local government it was built by the works progress administration of the United States of America. It represents one of the monumental public projects erected under a program designed to relieve unemployment during the great depression years of the third decade of the twentieth century. It furnished occupation to hundreds of individuals who had become idle as a result of the greatest economic crisis the nation had ever suffered. Clermont County was represented in the construction of the building by this committee: Frank Willis, Ezra Seyler, Charles W. Ross and Charles Stroup. County Commissioners: Frank A. Roberts. Prosecuting Attorney: Blythe Jones, County Auditor, and Carl H. Rush Deputy County Engineer. Hunt A. Allen, Architects Engineers.”
The companion marker on the opposite side of the main door read: “On the site of this building there stood formerly a structure which at the time of its demolition was the oldest courthouse in Ohio. It was time honored and venerable. For one hundred and eighty years it served the people of Clermont County. It was the seat of just government, the symbol of equity. When it was erected, its surroundings were primitive. Deer, bears and other wild life abounded. John Quincy Adams was then President of the United States. The removal of the county seat from Williamsburg to Batavia in 1877 necessitated the construction of a courthouse. Ezekiel Dimmitt, pioneer builder, undertook what was in those days a hard task for the then considerable sum of three thousand eight hundred dollars. The building was dedicated on New Year’s Day in 1829 by settlers who, braving bitter cold, came from far and near by wagon and on horseback. As a tribute to the sturdiness and true patriotism of those whose lives ran concurrently with the life of the old courthouse there appear above the entrance of the present building carved likenesses of senator Thomas Morris and General Ulysses S. Grant. Illustrious sons of Clermont County.”
Today both original markers are preserved on the hallway wall outside the Clerk of Court’s office on the first floor.
The new courthouse was formally dedicated on Saturday, December 19, 1936 with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Ohio, the Honorable Carl V. Weygandt , delivering the dedicatory address. Judge Hugh L. Nichols opened the proceedings with a speech entitled “The Old Court House”, followed by Construction Superintendent Louis Strausberger’s address “The New Court House.” Remarks of the WPA officials followed. The new building was formally presented by L.A. Gillett, Ohio 16th District WPA Director, to Judge Charles G. White, who accepted the structure on behalf of the County Commissioners. Judges Edwin Ely and F. M. Hamilton spoke on behalf of the Court of Appeals. State Senator and former Clermont County Bar Association President Harold D. Nichols presented the Chief Justice for the final address of the day. Eli H. Speidel was chair of the Dedicatory Committee. Guided tours of the new courthouse followed the formal ceremony.
Accounts in the Clermont Sun noted: “This building is already attracting statewide recognition as one of the most modern court houses to be found in any city.” and “The building is a magnificent one; material is of finest to be found in construction work; workmanship in the classes, unsurpassed; detail, down to the most minute item, has been carefully executed.” The Clermont Sun also reported that high school bands performed and that the featured musical organization was the Union Gas & Electric Band of Cincinnati.
The Modern Era
With the growing population of the county, the 1936 Courthouse was eventually too small and in 1959 an addition was made, filling in the space between the newly erected Court House and an older office building. In 1967 the old office building was completely remodeled and the second floor was made into a second Common Pleas Court room. That building was originally constructed in 1863 and for many years contained the quarters of all the public officials with the exception of the Common Pleas Court. The program for the dedication ceremony for various county buildings, including court related buildings, held December 16, 1967, related this history of the county courthouses:
The first County Court House erected in Batavia was built by Ezekiel Dimmitt and was occupied on New Year’s Day 1829. Dimmitt was the first settler in the Batavia area and was quite prominent as a builder and civic leader in the village.
The interior of this first Court House consisted of a foyer with ascending stairways on each side. Four large square second floor rooms housed the county offices and served as a jury room. The tall cupola formed the enclosure for the famed Court House Bell which announced the return of the jury and summoned the villagers for fires, emergencies or noted events. This old bell is still a proud country possession and a cherished relic of this historic old building. [Editors note–the bell has been lost and its current location is unknown. Anyone with knowledge of its whereabouts is urged to contact the Common Pleas Court.]
When the original court house was torn down in December 1935 it had served its county for 106 years and was the oldest court house still in use in Ohio.
The present court house was built as a W.P.A. project, at a cost of $100,000, and dedicated December 19, 1936. On the first floor were offices for the County Treasurer, Auditor, Recorder, Probate Court and a room for the County Commissioners.
The second floor held the Common Pleas Court room, the office of the Clerk of Courts and office space for the County Engineer, the County School Superintendent, and the County Sheriff.
A garage, to house county road equipment, was built, with materials left over from the court house job, to the rear of the court house on the alley. In 1959 this garage building was remodeled as a county court room and court offices and in 1966 further remodeled to house the County Engineer offices for which it is used and will be rededicated as such today.
A major enlargement of the Court House and a relocation of offices was accomplished in 1959. On the first floor the Auditors space was doubled and new offices were built for the County Recorder. The former Recorder’s office space was enlarged and remodeled and became quarters for the County Commissioners. Also additional office space was provided for the Probate Court.
In the basement remodeled space was provided for the County Health Department, the Planning Department, the County Agriculture Extension Office and the County Service Officer.
The County Engineer and the Clerk of Courts enjoyed additional space on the second floor and the Sheriff was provided space near the Court Room. A corridor was constructed to join the main building with the newly remodeled County Court room.
This year major renovation to construct a new Juvenile Court room and offices were accomplished in the basement of the Court House. These offices will be dedicated today. A county data processing room is also located on the basement floor.
Other renovations completed this year have joined the Court House with Annex No. 1 on the first and second floors, have provided second floor public rest rooms and new and enlarged rooms for the expanding law library.
Annex No. 1
The County Offices Building, now to be identified as Annex No. 1, is to be rededicated today starting a new era in the long and glorious history of this old building.
As the county and the demand for government services grew, the old Court House and a group of small brick buildings between the Court House and the Jail, became inadequate to the needs. In March, 1863, during the Civil War, the Commissioners contracted with Robert Haines for an additional county office building. This building was completed within a year at a cost of something over $4000.
One can marvel at the simple beauty and architectural design of this fine old structure but what can more attest to the genius of its builder, than this fact, that now, in 1967, after 103 years of constant use this building, in a new dress, continues on in the service of its county.
For better than half a century the building housed offices for the County Auditor, the Treasurer and the Clerk of Courts on the first floor and the Recorder, Probate Court and Engineer on the second floor.
Numerous county offices and services have occupied space in this building throughout its long history. Too many to record here.
A complete renovation of the building was started in 1966 and completed this year. Today attractive modern offices for the County Extension Services and new and additional office space for the Auditor occupy the first floor [currently the Probation Department]. The basement was remodeled for storage space.
The second floor has been majestically transformed into a new Common Pleas Court Room [currently Courtroom 205] and offices for the judge and his staff including a new jury room [currently the mediation conference room.]”
In 1998, additional courtrooms were added to the courthouse to accommodate the county’s rapid growth. The addition was finished in 1998 and is located to the east of and is connected to the old courthouse. The design was approved by the commissioners and was submitted by Steinkamp, Steinkamp & Hampton of Milford. The building addition was designed in Greek Revival style and contains a central pediment supported by Tuscan columns with brick bases. The pediment contains an elliptical window. A drum rises from the roofline and is topped by a clock tower capped by a dome. The final cost for the new addition and renovation of the existing buildings was $5,176,906.18. The original entrance to the 1936 Courthouse was transformed into a stained glass window commemorating the history of Clermont County in images of its townships, villages, and cities.
The 1998 addition was dedicated on May 14, 1998 during a ceremony attended by the then Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer and the associate justices of the Supreme Court of Ohio. The judges on the Common Pleas bench as of the dedication were Judge Jerry R. McBride, Judge Robert P. Ringland, and Judge William Walker.
At the dedication ceremony, Clermont County Commissioner Bob Proud noted “This is a beautiful building and it’s dedicated to the people of this county.” Chief Justice Moyer in his remarks observed “All the people who have gathered here today to celebrate the new building have a shared past and a bright future.” The Chief Justice also stated that “… a courthouse is a strong symbol of where we’ve been and principles that cannot be compromised. It is our heritage and our destiny. A courthouse serves as a daily affirmation of the rule of law. It’s never easy to spend money on the justice system; it is simply not popular. Many citizens simply don’t understand the need for the expenditure of the kind of funds it takes to build a courthouse. Also, they forget that courthouses have always been the center of the community. A courthouse is no less important today than it was 200 years ago. To those who say we have become a nation of drifters with no connections to our community, I wish they were here today.”
History gives us both context and instruction. The history of all the courthouses in Clermont County, and by extension the judges and attorneys who presided and practiced in them, shows us the growth and improvement of the local justice system and the broader community it serves. Whether it was criminal or civil matters, the Court adapted and evolved to meet changing times and the needs of the county and its residents. More than two centuries have passed since the first suit in 1801. As the Court has moved from the era of the whipping post to the era of Wi-Fi, we can greater appreciate the value of ready access to impartial courts, public service, and dedication to equal justice under law by knowing the history of our local trial court.
Sources: The Law in Southwestern Ohio, by Members of the Cincinnati Bar Association, George P. Stimson, editor (1972).
History of Clermont County, Ohio, J.B. Lippencott & Co., Philadelphia, (1880).
Selected historic photos from the Oscar H. Sharp Collection at the Doris Wood Branch (Batavia) of the Clermont County Public Library, the Ohio History Connection, and the private collection of retired Judge William Walker.
Clermont Sun newspaper quotes obtained from microfilm at the Doris Wood Branch (Batavia) of the Clermont County Public Library.