Courthouse One of Putnam County's Claims to Fame
According to a thick file on the history of the county kept in county clerk Dan Kuhn’s office, Putnam County once encompassed 24 present counties in Illinois, including Cook County.
After several reorganizations, the county went from having the most territory of all Illinois counties to the least territory. At the time of the last boundary changes in 1839, Putnam County was, and still remains, the smallest county in Illinois.
“Putnam County, as far as I know, is probably the only county in the state that doesn’t have a stoplight,” Kuhn said.
The year 1839 was significant for Putnam County in another sense as well. That was the year its current courthouse was built. These days, 174 years later, the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the oldest functional courthouse in the state.
“It is one of the county’s claims to fame,” Kuhn said.
A small metal tag, often unnoticed by visitors, hung just inside the doors from the courthouse’s porch, is stamped with the year the courthouse was built, he said.
When it was built, the courthouse had a cupola, that was later damaged — Kuhn believes it was during a storm — and taken down.
One morbid feature of the courthouse was a sign of the times.
“The attic in the courthouse was originally set up with a gallows,” Kuhn said. “They say there was never actually anyone hung in the attic.”
The courthouse is also believed to have had a very famous visitor — Abraham Lincoln.
Although there is no definitive proof that Lincoln was there, it is highly likely he stopped there to practice law. In addition, he definitely was in Hennepin — he wrote a letter on Oct. 3, 1845, to Williamson and Madison Durley discussing a conversation he had with them when the Durleys were digging potatoes near what is now Illinois Route 26 and High Street in Hennepin, very near the courthouse.
“When I saw you at home, it was agreed that I should write to you and your brother Madison,” Lincoln wrote in the letter. An engraved copy of the letter hangs in the hallway of the courthouse.
Circuit Clerk Cathy Oliveri, who has worked in the courthouse for 21 years, said she loves the history of the building.
When she speaks to the county school district’s fourth-grade class every year they visit the courthouse, she tells the students, “You just walked on the same floor that Abraham Lincoln walked on.”
“Their little faces light up,” she said.
Sometimes, visitors come through the courthouse just to see it and others appreciate the history while they stop there for work.
“A lot of the attorneys just love it,” Oliveri said.
Source: News Tribune