Big Horn County Courthouse celebrates 100 years

Note: A celebration marking the 100th birthday of the Big Horn County Courthouse has been planned for Friday, June 1, starting at 3:30 p.m. There will be cupcakes, ice cream, popcorn and drinks, plus live music by the Old Time Fiddlers. Commissioner Felix Carrizales will welcome guests and visitors at 3:45 p.m. and area historian Jeanie Cook will share some history of the area and the courthouse. The departments of the courthouse will be open for visitors to look at interesting exhibits. The following is a history of the building’s initial development. 

Although the Big Horn County Courthouse officially opened June 18, 1918, it became a dream nearly two years before that. The first mention of the need for a new courthouse was recorded in the minutes of the county commission meeting of Sept. 16, 1916. Undoubtedly there was talk among the people, officers of the county and the commissioners before that time, but a resolution was passed unanimously during the Sept. 16 meeting.

“Whereas, Big Horn County has no Court House, nor has it any Jail adequate for its needs; 

 “And Whereas the existing indebtedness of Big Horn County, Wyoming, which will be created by the proposed construction of a Court House and a suitable Jail will not exceed two per cent on the present assessed value of the taxable property, in said Big Horn County, Wyoming, as shown by the last general assessment preceding of said County; 

“Now, Therefore, Be It Resolved, that the question of whether the Board of County Commissioners, of said county shall be authorized to issue the registered coupon bonds of the County to the amount of Sixty Thousand Dollars and bearing interest at the rate of five percent per annum., payable annually, and to be issued, payable and redeemable in the manner following: Payable at the option of the County ten years after date, and absolutely due and payable twenty years after date; for the purpose of providing means for the construction of a Court House and an adequate Jail, and for the necessary furnishings and equipment of the same, be submitted to the electors of the said County of Big Horn, at the ensuing general election, to wit, on the Seventh day of November, A.D. 1916.”

Beginning then the first of October the commissioners proceeded to educate the voters on the need for the passing of the bond issue. There were many issues with the courthouse then in use. It was to small, poorly built, beyond is useful life and had been added onto many times in an effort to make it adequate. The county had been forced to rent offices around Basin for the court chambers for district court and reporters, the county and prosecuting attorney, the sheriff, the clerk of court, the superintendent of public instruction and the county surveyor. The county assessor’s office was so small and lacked records storage that according to an article in the October 20, 1916, issue of the Big Horn County Rustler, “The county assessor is cooped up in a small room, with his records piled on the floor and old tables and absolutely without any protection from fire of theft.”

When the dust settled after the election, the bond issue was passed by a majority of 584, the unofficial count, with two precincts missing was 1458 for and 874 against. Big Horn County was going to get a new courthouse. With this win, the commissioners could advertise for bids on the bonds, hire an architect, approve plans and then let the contracts for building and furnishing. The commissioners wasted no time and at a special meeting on Nov. 17, 1916, they instructed the county clerk to advertise for bonds. At this same election, Woodrow Wilson was re-elected president of the United States. 

By Dec. 15, the bond bids were back, a bond company was chosen and the commissioners chose Wm. N. Bowman as the architect. He then “visited with the county officers and went over the plans with the idea of getting suggestions for any changes which might be desired.” The public got a preliminary glimpse of what the courthouse might look like in the Dec. 22 edition of the Big Horn County Rustler when a picture of the courthouse at Douglas was printed. 

By the middle of February Mr. Bowman had an artist’s rendition of what the new courthouse would look like and the next step was entered. Mr. Bowman was certain that the courthouse would be ready for occupancy by Nov. 1. The request for construction bids was advertised and the bid opening was scheduled for March 19. 

The commissioners opened the bids on March 21 and got a rude awakening when it became obvious that the $60,000 they had allotted for the building and furnishing of the courthouse was not going to be enough. They awarded the bid to the lowest bidder “with the understanding that the plans and specifications would be so changed as to get the price within the limits of the amount on hand.”

Groundbreaking took place on April 17, 1917, and the contractor in charge of the excavation estimated that the excavation would be finished in a week. At the groundbreaking ceremony, Mr. C.C. Kirk, representing the Monarch Engineering Company which had the contract for the construction, assured the people of the town that local help would be used as much as possible and that from 30-40 men would be working on the building. By the middle of May the pile driver had arrived, the pilings for the foundation were going in, but supplies were not arriving as quickly as needed and the construction was not “proceeding as quickly as was planned.”

On a side note, at the time of the building of the courthouse, the nation was entering WWI and men were being recruited to serve the war effort. It was a turbulent time in the nation and even in the small counties of Wyoming. 

It was the first of June before the pilings for the foundation were in and the work of laying the walls could begin. Then, like all building projects, the news of note began to wane as the work on the building progressed pretty much along expected lines. As the building began to take shape, though, another problem presented itself: money, or lack thereof. 

In mid-October a meeting was announced asking people to come and give their opinions on how the commissioners should proceed. The bid for the furnishings came in at $13,000 and the funds necessary for them were not available. Then in the minutes of a special meeting the contract for fixtures and furniture was let to the Monarch Engineering Company “for $12,000 subject to modifications agreed upon between the Commissioners, the Architect, and the Monarch Engineering.”

News of the war and happenings overseas filled the papers during the winter and into January. In early February the architect, Wm. Bowman, informed the editor that “the courthouse would be completed and the furniture in place for use by the 1st of April.” 

On March 1st, 1918, it was announced in the Big Horn County Rustler that the “courthouse was completed and ready for the furnishings.”  

The writer of the article went over the building and made this report:

“I am much impressed with the completeness of the accommodations provided. On the first floor are the rooms for the county clerk, the treasurer, the assessor and the county commissioners. Each of these rooms is provided with an ante room and vault. On the second floor are the courtroom, the judge’s room, rooms for the court stenographer, the county attorney, the clerk of the district court and counsel rooms for visiting attorneys. On the top floor are to be found the headquarters for the jury, the janitor’s sleeping room, the bailiff’s room and a number of rooms which will be allotted later. In the basement are to be located the sheriff’s office, the office of the local justice of the peace, the farmers’ room in which the county agent and the county demonstrator will have headquarters and the janitor’s room.”

By the middle of March county officers were getting impatient and the County Attorney Gilmore Hartigan and the Clerk of Court F.I Rue moved into their rooms in the new courthouse. The courtroom furniture was partially in place, the rest of it was expected at any time. It was hoped that the courtroom would be in readiness for the session of court starting in the 20th of March, but Judge Metz wasn’t so sure as he postponed calling a jury. 

In a resolution adopted during the county commissioners meeting on April 2, 1918, the county officers were instructed to vacate their rented offices and move immediately to the new courthouse. The Commissioners stated that there would be no more rent paid after April 1, 1918.

And finally on June 18, the formal opening of the courthouse was held. People came from all sections to be present even though it meant many of them worried about high water in the rivers and creeks. The people of the county, to whom the courthouse belonged and still does belong inspected the premises and visited with the various county officers. The Basin Band gave a fine concert from the steps. Judge Percy W. Metz welcomed the people of the county “to see what the commissioners had done with the money entrusted to their care for building purposes.” Mr. W.E. Edwards of Germania Bench said that “there had been great changes in Big Horn County in the past few years. But just 18 years ago Judge Parmelee had held court in a shack located just to the west of the present courthouse and he had heard the judge tell of the hardships connected with holding court at that time.”  

“At the end of the meeting visitors again passed through the court house and noted its many advantages, after which they proceeded to Fraternity Hall, where the evening was spent in dancing. 

And so a little over 18 months after the commissioners first put out the request for selling the bonds, the people of Big Horn County had their new courthouse. The cost of the building was between $53,000 and $54,000. At the time of the completion of the construction the contractor stated that he was sure the building would cost between $90,000 and $100,000 to build. The cost of materials was going up at an alarming rate. The nation was at war, and the people were buying war bonds to finance that war. It was the beginning of a great time in the history of Basin and Big Horn County. One of the speakers during the program said this, “I am deeply impressed with the material evidences of progress, and believe that with the return of our boys after the war, the Big Horn Basin will enjoy a wonderful era of development. 

By Steva Dooley