Last week I discussed the fire which damaged the Huron County Courthouse just 95 years ago, on July 9, 1912. This courthouse was the third one on the same site in Norwalk, but I want to first go back to the beginning of Huron County government.
Our county was formed by an Act of the Ohio Legislature in 1809, but lacked sufficient population to function independently until 1815, after the War of 1812 ended and the Ohio frontier was a safe place to settle. The county then included all of the original Firelands, mainly what is now Huron and Erie counties. In 1815 several of the townships had no population; the majority of the residents lived along the lake shore and the rivers.
The first county seat was at a place called Huron or Avery in Milan Township not far south of Mason Road on River Road. A plague on a boulder marks the site. The very first term of Court was held there in a log schoolhouse. A Courthouse was decided upon and built, though it may not have been completed before the seat of government was moved officially to Norwalk in 1818.
Even though the old county seat site in Milan Township was near a good deal of the population, it was criticized as having neither good drinking water nor good building stone available, and the Huron River ran too swiftly to be dammed for water power purposes. Elisha Whittlesey, a lawyer from Canfield, Ohio, was at the first term of Court with Platt Benedict, a Connecticut acquaintance. They became two of the partners in a plan to found a town where Norwalk now stands and have the county government moved. This plan came to fruition in 1818.
Norwalk's first courthouse was a two-story wooden building in the front yard of the present building at East Main and Benedict. It was in this building that Negosheek and Negoneby, two Ottawa Indians, were tried for murder in the Spring of 1819 and after being found guilty were sentenced to be hanged on the cemetery grounds behind the Episcopal Church on West Main.
By 1830 the courthouse was too small and a brick "fire proof" office was built across East Main on part of the lot where the jail stood. This arrangement sufficed until a two-story brick courthouse was built in 1837 to replace the original wooden one. This was a fine Greek Revival structure with a columned portico. Some of the foundations of this building can be seen in the basement of the present courthouse.
In 1880 it was decided that a larger building was needed, and after some litigation the lot to the east was acquired to allow for a courthouse as wide as the present one. This building was occupied late in 1881 and was a genuine improvement. It had three floors, a tower with clock and bell at the main entrance, and was considered thoroughly up-to-date and fireproof.
When it caught fire in 1912 this building was far from fireproof, though most of the record-storage vaults did resist water damage. The Probate Court record vault was directly under the Common Pleas Court Room where the fire raged on the second floor, but all records remained safe and dry.
Every so often someone will come up with the theory that ancient records of genealogical value were destroyed by the 1912 fire, but the fact is that almost every record of genealogical value that ever existed in the Courthouse is still available for public use. It's hard for me sometimes to imagine that county government and its attendant records have existed for almost 200 years. Makes our county sound ancient, doesn't it?