The following article was originally printed in "Overlook" Spring 2012. Reprinted with permission from Cook County Historical Society.
Brief Period when the new and old Cook County courthouses stood on the same site.
Cook County was officially created in 1874 by an act of state legislation. But official county business began in 1882 when Governor Hubbard appointed the first county commissioners, Samuel Howenstine, Hazael “Henry” Mayhew, and Chas. M. Wilson. Grand Marais had been chosen as the county seat, and the Mayhew’s trading post, on the Point, served as the meeting place for the commissioners (it was also used by the doctor and as the post office). In 1888 the first official courthouse was built on land donated by Milwaukee’s Grand Marais Real Estate and Improvement Company. However, the county would soon outgrow that building, and by 1910, talks began about building a new courthouse on the same property.
There were several reasons why the new courthouse was needed. The county’s population had exploded to over 1300 people, the existing structure was already in poor condition, more space was needed for both the Judge of Probate and the Superintendent of Schools, and the existing courtroom and jurors’ facilities were inadequate.
In February of 1910 the County Board appointed a committee to secure plans to build a $65,000 courthouse. A Cook County News Herald article around this time, entitled “Broke Jail,” reported that the old jail, built in 1901, was rotting under the windows so badly that a prisoner easily escaped. A new jail and even a sheriff’s residence would be included in the county’s developing plans for the property.
Duluth architects Kelly and Lignell were retained in April of that year to design the new building, and Northern Log Company began excavating the building site in July 1910. To protect the old courthouse from the blasting, all the windows were boarded up.
In May 1911 the board decided to drop the sheriff’s residence and jail additions, choosing instead to repair the existing jail with concrete reinforcement. In June of that year, final plans for a Neo-Classical Revival Courthouse building were accepted from the architects. The new rectangular building would contain a flat roof and an overhanging cornice with block modillions. The front entrance would consist of six Ionic columns and five recessed bays. A June 22nd advertisement in the New Herald called for building proposals to complete the construction.
In July the Bowe-Burke Company was awarded the building contract with its low bid of $25,603. The total cost, including furnishings, was then targeted at $45,000. However, various project additions along the way, including better windows and a new vault, raised the total project cost to about $60,000.
By August four walls were completed, and the roof was expected by October. In December of 1911 the building was enclosed and heated so that the interior work could continue throughout the winter. The News Herald reported, “The construction has been well looked after and Messrs. Bowe & Burke propose to make this a lasting monument of their best efforts. We will have a magnificent building.”
Before the end of 1912 the County Board passed a resolution to accept the work of the contractors for the completion of the new courthouse. In his book Law and Order in the Wilderness, Raff wrote of the new structure, “Those responsible for its construction deliberately intended that it project a clear impression of the dignity and strength, and respect for the permanent vitality of local government in Cook County.”
An under construction Cook County Courthouse nears completion.
Finishing work would continue inside and out for some time. The grounds were finally completed in July of 1914 under the supervision of P. O. Wahlstrom. A fence was built around the whole block, while retaining walls were constructed on the south and west sides. Seeding and sod, as well as extended concrete sidewalks, all added to the grandeur.
And what became of the original 1888 courthouse? Fred Bramer’s bid of $210.50 allowed him, with the help of “Contractor Hedstrom,” to move the building down to Wisconsin Street where it served as a retail shop for “gents’ furnishings,” a pool hall, an ice cream parlor, a movie theater, and a bakery – all before eventually burning down in 1921.