As part of my job, I have been assigned to sort and organize our collection of blueprints for all of the county buildings. My first collection of prints is of the county courthouse constructed in 1937-38. It had me wondering about previous courthouses built in Oshkosh. I did some research at the Oshkosh Public Library and Oshkosh Public Museum and found some interesting information.
On January 6, 1840, an act of the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature divided parts of Brown County and established the boundaries of new counties, one of them being Winnebago. In 1842, an act of the Legislature formally organized Winnebago County. However, Winnebago remained attached to Brown County and then Fond du Lac County for judicial purposes until another act establishing a seat of justice in Winnebago County was passed in 1847. This is just some basic information of the county’s establishment. For more information, I recommend History of Winnebago County by Richard Harney published in 1880.
A showdown occurred between Butte des Morts and Oshkosh over the location of the county seat. Augustine Grignon offered a plot of land in Butte des Morts for the county seat to be located in Butte des Morts. This was approved by the county seat commission and Butte des Morts became the first county seat in 1845, but the people of Oshkosh were not happy with the decision. Oshkosh had a larger population and was a central commercial area at the time. In the official act of the Legislature, the wording of the document was done so in a way that made Oshkosh the location of the seat of county government. It’s no doubt that special interests in Oshkosh had a part in the scheme. A referendum vote in 1850 attempted to bring the county seat back to Butte des Morts, but it was swiftly defeated. The county seat remains in Oshkosh to this day.*
After the seat was firmly established in Oshkosh, the next step was obtaining land to build a courthouse. The county government accepted ten lots in the donated by Lucas. M. Miller, Samuel H. Farnsworth, and Sewell A. Wolcott. This plot of land was located between Ceape and Otter streets in Oshkosh (Where Court Tower is today). The first courthouse was a two-story, wood building erected between the years 1847 and 1849. The first session of court was held there on April 9, 1849. In 1854, another building was erected to serve as office space and record storage. Within a few years, however, some began to clamor for a new courthouse. An Oshkosh newspaper expressed discontent of the county’s first courthouse.**
Eventually, a newer and larger courthouse was built to accommodate the needs of the growing population. The original courthouse was moved off the property to a local mill along the Fox River and stood for 100 years before it was demolished. There was an attempt to save this old courthouse by the Winnebago County Historical & Archaeological Society, but they were not able to raise the funds to do so. The Oshkosh Common Council ordered the building be taken down in 1949.*** Visit the archives at the Oshkosh Public Museum for some interesting information about this. There are pictures of this building being dismantled and correspondences between historical society members and the community in an attempt to save this courthouse.
Next time I will pick up with the construction of the second of Winnebago County’s three courthouses.
*Goff, Charles Davis,, and Martin Gruberg. A History of Winnebago County Government., 1998
**Harney, Richard J. History of Winnebago County, Wisconsin, and Early History of the Northwest. Oshkosh: Allen & Hicks, 1800.
*** “Present Courthouse is Third in County History.” Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 18, 1953, p. 4. Newspaper Archive. http://access.newspaperarchive.com/us/wisconsin/oshkosh/oshkosh-daily-northwestern/1953/06-18/page-40?tag=history+courthouse.