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The First Courthouse


The History of Chautauqua County Kansas.
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By H. B. Kelly December 5, 1905


An address delivered by H. B. Kelly before the Kansas State Historical Society at its 13th annual meeting December 5, 1905

About the first of August, 1875, the county officers of the new county of Chautauqua moved to the town site of Sedan, and for offices occupied an old frame structure, the only building on the town site, and which had been unoccupied for some time.

In January of that year the legislature had obliterated Howard county and erected from the territory thereof the two counties. Elk and Chautauqua. Ed. Jaquins, the member from Howard, introduced and passed the bill creating the two new counties, the bill designating Howard City county-seat of Elk and the town site of Sedan county-seat of Chautauqua.

Immediately upon passage of the bill the validity of the law was contested in the courts, and when sustained by the supreme court, in July, having been names after the river running through the county, and Chautauqua for Ed. Jacquin?ome county in New York.

The division of Howard county and its obliteration was the result of county-seat elections and contests that had extended over a period of five years to the great detriment of the county, in an indebtdness of about $50,000, with nothing to show for it.

With the removal of the county officers to the designated county-seat of the new county of Chautauqua, the writer and his partner removed their printing-office, from which they were issuing the Elk Falls Journal. At about the same time two small stores of mixed stocks were opened in temporary box buildings, while a third building was erected for a boarding house, where the county offices and those on and about the town site found something to eat, lodging as best they could.

With this start at Sedan, Peru, seven miles to the east, a town of about 200 population, seconded by the people near the geographical center of the county, moved in the matter of circulating a petition for a county-seat election. A petition containing the requisite number of names for an election was soon secured, when the county commissioners were requested to convene to consider the same. The members of the board were Ed Hewins, T. J. Berry, and John Lee; Berry and the county clerk supposedly in sympathy with the petitioners for an election. On the first day fixed for consideration of the petition, owing to the absence from the county of Commissioner Lee, it was feared that Commissioner Berry and the county clerk might canvass the petition and order an election. It was therefore deemed necessary to secure Berry before the board should assemble, and this was done through a promise to place him on the Sedan ticket for the legislature, his ambitions in that direction having been well known to the writer and to Eli Titus then sheriff.

Management of matters for Sedan then in hand devolved upon Eli Titus, C. J. Peckham, and the writer, we having decided that unless Berry could be secured, we must prevent a meeting of the board, and to this end, upon the arrival of Hewins, in the morning, we had him secrete himself in the hay-loft of a little stable in the town site, leaving Berry the only member of the board present. Hewins was to be kept secreted until an agreement should be concluded with Berry, and with this reached, Hewins was to come out of his hiding and, with Berry, to consider the petition for election. The agreement with Berry was to the effect that the two sides should present their matters and debate and wrangle over the proposition until three or four o?ck in the afternoon, when the request of the Sedan managers would be granted. With this understanding, it was agreed that Berry should act with Hewins in giving the Sedan people thirty days in which to inspect act with Hewins in giving the Sedan people thirty days in which to inspect the petition for county-seat election before the board should take final action thereon. This was a great disappointment to Peru and the managers for the county-seat election, but it was the winning card and turning-point for Sedan, as during the thirty days copies of names of signers to the petition were made, and the friends of Sedan, with pockets full of warranty deeds to town lots, made acknowledged in blank, called upon the petitioners and presented to such as could be secured deeds, each, to one or two lots, at the time his name from the petition for a county-seat election before making canvass of the petition.

This working was continued until Sedan town lots were pretty well distributed over the country, and enough names taken from the petition to reduce it to less than the number required for an election by the time of the meeting of the board thirty days later.

Knowing that defeat of a petition never permanently killd a movement for county-seat election, a dozen residents of the county who were opponents of a county-seat election met in the shade of a jack-oak tree on the borders of the town site, and these, as I now recall the names, Eli Titus, Ed Hewins, Ed Jacquins, Col. Samuel Donaldson, John Lee, C. J. Peckham, L. L. Turner, J. L. Mattingley, W. W. Jones, Virgil Jones, Jas. Springer, and H. B. Kelly, most of whom resided in remote sections of the county.

The meeting was called to consider the best method and plan for keeping down county-seat elections, and this, however, not for pecuniary interest of parties in the town site, but to prevent a recurrence of the strife and conditions that had resulted disastrously to Howard county.

Among the several propositions offered, H. B. Kelly proposed the erection of a court house as the best method of preventing county-seat elections, and upon this Eli Titus moved that Kelly build a court-house, and the motion carried unanimously; the meeting without organization, chairman, or secretary, made no record of its conclusions. With nothing further proposed or done, the meeting ended, and all went to their several homes and vocations. But Kelly had been charged with building a court-house, and he preceeded at once to work, becoming his own architect, own judge as to size and plan of building, method of procedure, extent and conditions of contract. The demensions of the building undertaken were about fifity and sixty-feet, two stories, and to be built of stone--hammered, dressed, range rock. Five offices were provided on the first floor, with two and court-room on the second, and the work undertaken with no person pledged in writing for the contribution of a dollar.

A stone contractor was secured, and an agreement made with him for the work, signed by H. B. Kelly and the contractor, but with not a dollar on hand to commence or continue the work. A dozen men were soon at work laying foundation and carrying up the walls for a court-house, for payment of which neither the county nor individuals were obligated, while very few were informed as to plan, probable cost and source from which funds might be derived.

Each of the dozen persons who had been present at the meeting was notified and asked for, and paid, a contribution of fifty dollars, which was followed with a later payment of fifty dollars, while from that time until about the last of December the building of that court-house and its completion kept the writer a very busy man.

The Sedan convention to nominate county officers was held, a ticket made up of Republicans and Democrats was designated "the Sedan or anti-county-seat ticket." This was soon followed by the opposition nominating a ticket pledged to petition an election for the county seat. The court-house, building through the campaign, was the argument for the Sedan ticket, the campaign having been made upon the proposition of donating a court-house to the county. Each candidate on the ticket was assessed fifty dollars for the court-house for court-house purposes, while friends over the county were called on for contributions, various turns and shifts having been made to raise money or its equivalent. If a man had an ox he would sell, he was given a fancy price for it, possibly twenty-five per cent, above its value, conditioned that he would take a town lot in exchange for it, or a town company note, the ox then turned to payment for labor and material. Wheat was bought at more than railroad prices, paid for in town lots or town-company notes, while, among the several sawmills in the county, native lumber, used for joisting and studding, was purchased in the same way, and upon like condition. Men wanting work, either hauling from Independence or hauling stone or lumber, were employed, and paid in part the same way, with the result that in the various remote parts of the county men were engaged in work on the court-house, and having thus acquired an interest in the town site and success of Sedan, became advocated for the election in their several localitites of the Sedan ticket.

Prompt payment every Saturday to the dozen men at work on the building was an important matter, and the coming of Saturday with no cash was a trying time for the writer. However, he would call in turn on the little stores or the saloon for a loan, these having proven of most valuable assistance. Saturday noon the contractor would start hunting Kelly and Kelly would start for a loan. But he never told the person from whom he obtained the loan for what purpose the money was wanted. The lender might guess, but I feared that telling in the early stages of the work that I was borrowing to pay for a new court-house, the enterprise would be regarded a failure and the loan requested could no be had. From the saloon I would borrow possibly fifty dollars, to be returned the middle of the week, and then would be bestir myself to collect in something, or secure a new subscriber to the fund, when I would promptly pay back the money borrowed. If I failed to realize it from a new source, I would go to one of the stores and borrow and pay the saloon, and when collections were quite slow, as they usually were, I would go to the other store and borrow to pay the first store; and so, for a period of three months, I took turns borrowing in one place to pay in another, stirring up candidates and friends of the movement, and paying big prices for anything I could turn, to realize upon, in some way. I did not permit work to stop, but kept it moving, and through a fierce campaign the court-house building proved the strong card for the Sedan cause. The election resulted in victory for the Sedan ticket by 100 to 200 majority, the battle having been won, through, with the court-house still incomplete. The walls were, however, complete, the joisting and studding all in, and the window-and door-frames in, but the roofing was untouched.

I submitted a proposition for the roofing the building, designating the kind of roof to be put on, to two firms of carpenters who have located on the town site, their bids having been something like $1100 or $1200 each, for furnishing everything and putting on the roof. But, as there was no such money at my command, I rejected the bids, and, driving to Independence, employed a carpenter for a day, who went with me into the attic and inspected the roof of the Caldwell hotel, as the model by which to be guided. A plan of the roof was drawn, with each principal piece of lumber used therein, and this we took to a lumber-yard, where I bought the bill of lumber from the carpenter's draft, showing the exact pieces necessary-bought enough and no more-freighted the material to Sedan in wagons, hired workmen by the day, and , using walnut shingles, put the roof on complete for something like $500.

The structure, then a building, good foundation to roof, with wall joisting, studding, window-and door-frames in, and roof on, was accepted by a friendly board of county commissioners as a building erected, fully satisfactory to the commissioners, who under the law were prevented from levying a tax for the "erection" of a court-house costing more than $1000. They accepted the Sedan structure as a building, and made a tax levy sufficient to complete the court-house, upon conveying the building with a block of ground to the county. The cost of the building paid as indicated in the foregoing was about $4000-possibly a little more; a sum which now appears insignificant. But the labor was secured cheaply, there were no leakages, and no chance for leakages, as there was never any accumulation to leak, and no hole for it to leak through. The raising of that amount of money at that time in a new community where $100 or $200 in cash made the posessor a capitalist, for a town forty miles from the railroad, was an undertaking fraught with no little difficulty. Not a candidate, and not a prospective political candidate, during the period between the commencement of the court-house and election, was eager to announce his personal connection with it; in fact, he avoided that, as, in the event of failure, defeat of the Sedan prophesied that the stone pile in Sedan would be pointed out as a monumnet to Kelly's folly.

But the court-house was a success and the Sedan ticket was a winner; victory reached through a period of trial and tribulation, untiring the work by day and sleepless nights for the writer, as during the time of building the court-house he was editing the paper in the interest of the ticket, participating in campaigning, speaking at nights in the various schoolhouses of the county, and in addition to this. locating newcomers on lots of the town company-lots donated to those who would build and become residents of Sedan.

It is now thirty years since the board of county commisssioners accepted the Sedan court-house and that building is still the Chautauqua county court-house; not imposing, not commodious, and not changed, it stands and has stood, answering every purpose, and that, too, pratically without cost to the county, having served the purpose for which it was intended, namely, prevention of county-seat contests. Chautauqua county has never had a county-seat election, never issued a bond for a court-house, nor made a tax levy therefor to any considerable amount, save such as was necessary for the completion of the building donated.

Of the group of twleve who met in the shade of the jack oak in August 1875. Colonel Donaldson, Eli Titus, Ed Hewins, and John Lee, all strong men in their day, are dead.

Among those who met and decided for a court-house not one had personal interest in the town site, but were interested only in having a county free from the strife and turmoil of county-seat contests. Briefly this is the story of the building of the Sedan court-house.

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