Saturday, May 23, 2009

485. Jefferson to Jefferson and back

It was too nice of a day to spend working in the yard or cleaning in the house. Thus, a friend and I took to the roads for a short trip from Louisville, Kentucky to Madison, Indiana and back. Louisville is the county seat of Jefferson County, Kentucky while Madison serves the same role for Jefferson County, Indiana. Separating the two counties is Clark County, Indiana, bounded on both the north and south by a Jefferson County. About fifty miles along the Ohio River separate the two cities.

This weekend in Madison was the annual celebration known as Old Court Days, an arts and crafts show kicking off a summer full of events around the very historic river city, founded in 1809 and boasting a rather impressive collection of downtown buildings which serve as one of the largest National Historic Districts in our Republic.

One of those buildings, the Jefferson County Court House, whose grounds and surroundings serve as home to celebration mentioned above, is 154 years old and has been undergoing renovation and repainting as the city was preparing for its bicentennial celebration in two weeks. In fact the redo of the courthouse was finished this week. On Wednesday the county received an award for the renovation. Then Wednesday afternoon the courthouse caught fire destroying the dome and upper floors and ruining in the process two hundred years of official records and memorabilia. See the picture at the end of this post.

In the late 1990s and early in this decade I did title work for an attorney, David Dupps, which often took me to Recorder's Offices (known in Kentucky as County Clerk Deed Rooms) in various Indiana's county seats. On our trip today, while we didn't go past the City-County Court Building in Jeffersonville, where much of that work was done (and which is no longer the City-County Building, but rather is simply the Clark County Court House), we did go due north the thirty-one miles on US31 to the Scott County Court House at Scottsburg. The original courthouse, shown in the picture at right, was a simple structure of 2 and 1/2 stories set off the south side of the main east-west corridor, McClain Street, several blocks east of US31 and a few blocks east of the main north-south railroad line. A few years back, but not many, an addition was built with a very similar structure set to the east of the original one, and a connecting building between them greatly enlarging the courthouse operations. I must admit Indiana's process of expanding court facilities is much more historically and aesthetically pleasing than Kentucky's new cookie-cutter courthouses, properly called Judicial Centers, many of which appear to be built from one of the two sets of blueprints they seem to use. But, I digress.

We left Scottsburg and headed east on IN56 and travelled the 32 miles to Madison, entering from the north along Michigan Street, down the long and narrow winding hill on IN7 which empties you just west of the heart of town along Main Street, which is shown in the picture at left. Madison is a historically-aware and -adept town, with a little artsy-funk thrown in, along with that mixture of southern hospitality and midwestern common sense found in rivertowns throughout the area. It is how I imagine Louisville once was at some point, but it is much prettier. We had dinner in a small family-run diner - nothing special, either about the place or the food, but it was sufficient. We walked along Main Street with its art galleries, antique shops, and, surprisingly, a well-stocked cigar shop called Churchill's where we felt obliged to purchase two Cabrillos, hand-made cigars from Honduras, and chatted with the owner, a French-born man with a Polish surname, who has been in Madison since the mid 1960s.

A few feet east of the cigar shop the now burned-out superstructure that was once the Jefferson County Court House dome came into view. I have been in that building many times, doing both the title work mentioned above and searching genealogical records of the Hockensmith family, which lives and has lived for most of the life of the city in the area. Many of the earliest records of my maternal line were housed in the courthouse - they are possibly and probably lost. I was a little overwhelmed and frankly saddened by the appearance of the once-majestic building. The dome and top floor, where the courts were held, collapsed into the lower floors which house the records. Archiving and preservation experts have descended upon the building to salvage what can be, and it appears from stories I heard today that more can than can't but it is all damaged nonetheless, if not by the fire then by the water used to put the fire out. There is a process of removing the records and then freezing them, later to be freeze-dried and hopefully recovered. Several large refrigerated FedEx trucks were there being used for just that purpose.

Jefferson County's courthouse, like that here in Louisville, isn't on a town square, but rather sits in the middle of a block on a main street, in this case the street being Main Street. As this area was closed off, the festival itself moved onto Jefferson Street, which runs along the west side of the court house, and down to the Right Bank of the Ohio River at Milepost 555.

After touring the festival and visiting the riverbank, we made our way back to the car, and thence back to Kentucky and our own Jefferson County. Following the rule of never returning home along the route taken away, we crossed over the river into the little town of Milton, Kentucky, set along the riverbank on US421. We followed the left bank of the river westward along Coopers Bottom Road, home to several old-fashioned camps of twenty to thirty mobile homes perched along the river's shore. That road eventually climbs up the hill and finds its way to US421 at the Mount Byrd Baptist Church, where we turned south and headed into the Trimble County seat of Bedford, a sleepy little town where US421 and US42 intersect and not much else happens.

From there we followed US42 along its southwestward journey into Oldham County, where we took KY53 south to that county's seat, La Grange, or LaGrange, without the space. There seems to be official disagreement on how the city spells its name. While we didn't spend anytime in La Grange, I find the downtown along Main Street, which is divided by a railroad, an enchanting little place. But, just one block south of the tracks KY53, which is called 1st Street, becomes yet another commercial strip leading up to the intersection with Interstate 71, which returned us home to the Left Bank of the Ohio River near Milepost 606.


The Jefferson County Court House fire, May 20, 2009, looking east along Main Street in downtown Madison, Indiana.

1 comment:

Bruce Maples said...

I thought that was a horribly sad event -- to just finish refurbishing the court house in time for the festival, only to have it burn just a few days before. And to lose all those records as well! Very, very sad.

The Archives at Milepost 606


Louisville, Kentucky, United States
Never married, liberal Democrat, born in 1960, opinionated but generally pleasant, member of the Episcopal Church. Graduate of Prestonia Elementary, Durrett High, and Spalding University; the first two now-closed Jefferson County Public Schools, the latter a very small liberal arts college in downtown Louisville affiliated with the Roman Catholic Sisters of Charity of Nazareth. My vocation and avocation is politics. My favorite pastime is driving the backroads of Kentucky and southern Indiana, visiting small towns, political hangouts, courthouses, churches, and cemeteries. You are welcome to ride with me sometime.