Pott County Courthouse’s Nomination to National Historic Register is Cause for Joy

Dru Clarke, Contributing Writer | The Manhattan Mercury

The Pottawatomie County Courthouse, whose long and storied history began in 1884 when it was constructed by local hands and stone, will now enjoy the status it so richly deserves: a place on the state’s historic register. On Saturday the Kansas Historic Sites review board voted unanimously in favor of its nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, an unprecedented move that responded to the groundswell of support from the citizens of the county and others who treasure our historic structures and places we hold in common. The board received over 40 letters in support of the nomination and only three in opposition. The classroom in the Kansas State Museum of History was filled to capacity, with more chairs being brought in as more people arrived. Speaking first, after the procedure was outlined by Patrick Zollner, director of the Cultural Resources Division of KSHS, were two of the county’s commissioners, Dee McKee and Pat Weixelman, citing budget concerns. Travis Altenhofen was absent. Following them, a host of supporters spoke: Dorothy Campbell, who initiated the move for historic registration; Doug Scott, whose ancestors settled the land where the Oregon Trail Park exists, speaking eloquently; Debbie Berges, a respected Onaga resident living in a house of stone quarried locally; and Rob Reves, a mason sporting a chocolate-colored bowler hat he flourished to make a point. Also, Jim Bradley, married to an ancestor of original settlers; Mike Boatwright, a Wamego resident; Michelle Campbell, Dorothy’s daughter who is supervisor at Lake Perry State Park; and several others, including me. One detractor with an alternative proposal was Judd Jones, who renovated an old schoolhouse on Junietta Road, but was denied historical registry because he had modified extensively the original structure: He advocated taking the courthouse, which is the second-oldest in the state, apart and reassembling it somewhere else, the location of which remains a mystery. Michelle Campbell in her remarks cited indifference of past commissions to the reassembly of a cherished gazebo that stood on the courthouse lawn: It was disassembled and never reconstructed, although that promise had been made but not kept. As the motion was made and seconded, a hush fell over the crowd: Eric Engstrom, Westmoreland Weekly Period The Manhattan Mercury NovemMarch 20 ber 20, 1, 2017 884 board member, inserted a comment about tabling the nomination but was met with a pregnant silence. The question was called: the vote was unanimous, with one abstention! Applause broke out, there were hugs and vigorous handshakes that testified to the visceral response of the crowd. Sharron Hamilton, a diminutive board member from Saline County, dressed to the nines in her zebra-striped top and red, white and blue gem-studded ring, came up to me and said they had never seen such a showing of support for any nomination, ever. She complimented us on our words and persistence and even offered to help us in the future. It was a heady moment. The president of the Kansas Preservation Alliance, Jim Clark, a fireplug of a man with a broad smile, congratulated us as well. Kathy Herzog reminded us and the commissioners that funds and tax credits could be applied for, and that a 501c3 nonprofit would enable us (CCC) to raise funds. We have that status already under the Kansas Rural Communities Foundation. The opportunity exists now for us as Citizens for Courthouse Conservation and other groups like Broderick FCE who chose the courthouse as their annual community service project to work with—not in opposition to—the county commissioners, to make the necessary renovations to bring the courthouse up to date and become a lively and functional structure for the benefit of the county and the region. One of the first things we should do is craft a commemorative sign to narrate the history of the courthouse and place it prominently on the lawn that fronts the building. The familiar brown-and-ivory historical markers seen across the nation could alert travelers to the courthouse’s location in the heart of the Northern Flint Hills. Along with the courthouse, the adjacent jail gained historical status. A similar jail in Wyoming was renovated and now is the office of their county commissioners! According to Jerry Berggren, visiting preservation architect from Nebraska, it turned out “cute as a bug’s ear!” In a tour last week, we gained entry to it and found it in remarkably good condition. Its metal pantile roof, a design dating to Roman times, is rare and may be the only one in the state. Contrary to what we had been told, there is no apparent mold. I would not have been able to set foot in there as I am severely allergic to mold. Nor was there evidence of water damage to its interior. We anticipate that the citizens of Pottawatomie County and friends from afar can work with our elected county officials— commissioners and administration and professional staff—to preserve the past and bring it into the future. The newly bestowed status of registration as a historical site for the Pottawatomie County Courthouse should be regarded as a gift, not a burden, and we should take the opportunity to embrace it.