I have yet to run into a county seat I didn't like--and I've seen more than my share.
From Pell City, Ala., to Wenatchee, Wash.; from Muleshoe, Tex., to Wampsville, N.Y.; from Palatka, Fla., to Manistique, Mich.--I've visited hundreds of members of the quasi-elite class of American cities and towns that serve as the center of their county's civic life. In most of these county seats I've reconnoitered the courthouse, eaten in the local cafes and sometimes stopped by the local library, the county fairgrounds or the inevitable county historical museum as well.
My inspections of the nation's courthouse towns began in the 1970s, and since then it's become part project, part avocation and part habit--with perhaps a trace of obsession thrown in. It's a project because it's systematic: I maintain a specialized data bank showing which county seats I've visited, when I was there, what I've seen and so forth--and which ones remain on the "to see" list. It's an avocation because I engage in it only when I can, outside of "real work," and I'm not on anyone's payroll (or grantee list) to do it. And, alas, it has evolved into a habit. I'm prone to work in a courthouse visit or two whenever an opportunity presents itself: on a business trip, a golf vacation or a visit to friends in Georgia, Vermont or California. In recent years, both my level of activity and commitment to have ratcheted up a notch or two, but--thankfully--there's no end in sight.
Of 3,068 county seats in the United States (this figure can be harder to verify than you'd think), I've managed to visit more than 465, although it's only during the past decade or so that I've been scrupulous about photographing them. The vast majority are in towns and small cities, typically with populations of a few thousand but sometimes only several hundred. So far, the tiniest place I've visited is the seat of Camas County, Idaho. Its courthouse building occupies a storefront on the corner of Solider and Willow streets in Fairfield, a town of fewer than 400 souls.
Sure, I've been to plenty of medium and large cities that serve as the seats of their counties. Both the Cuyahoga County Courthouse in Cleveland and the Bronx County Courthouse in the Bronx are imposing urban structures. But they are usually just one of many interesting buildings in the area. It's the small places, where the courthouse is the main attraction, that tend to provide the best entry points into the breadth and variety of America's non-urban life: Pumpkin Days in Floydada, Tex.; the Barbed Wire Museum in La Crosse, Kan.; the Avenue of Flags in WaKeeney, Kan. I'd surely still be ignorant of these refreshing American phenomena if it weren't for my courthouse missions. And you'd hardly expect to see the Ten Commandments rendered in gleaming bronze at the door of the Bronx County Courthouse--but on the steps on the Lincoln County Courthouse in Wyoming it doesn't seem so strange.
Courthouse towns and the roads linking them constitute a sort of national skeleton, a framework of early trade centers that for generations served rural producers as market towns and transportation hubs. At the same time (disallowing some primarily New England exceptions) counties historically have represented the primary unit of government in the lives of citizens. Until the modern era, it was most often county school boards, county tax commissions, county health departments and county road policies that most immediately affected day-to-day living. Prior to the automotive and media revolutions, even the state capital was remote--and the federal government in Washington, D.C., more of a notion than a place.
Each courthouse town owns a unique life story: its quirky founding, rise to local prominence, growth and--often--its decline. Sometimes it's a mini-drama. The tale in Pierce County, Wis., is typical. Prescott, a city on the St. Croix River, was designated the center of government in 1853, when the county was organized--but Ellsworth, a town 15 miles to the east, replaced it as county seat in 1861, on the basis of a county-wide popular vote. As the Wisconsin WPA guide tells it, "For eight years, Prescott forces defeated all appropriations to erect county buildings; records were kept almost anywhere, sometimes in attics, sometimes in wagons. It was only after a long struggle that Ellsworth undisputedly won the county seat."
In my quest to visit county seats, I travel fully armed. Next to me in the front seat, one of those Depression-era WPA Travel Guides rides shotgun. An American Guide volume was published for the majority of states, and a half-century later they remain definitive sources of information about cities, towns and culture across the U.S.A. A yellow travel atlas, a few AAA state maps, a pair of cameras and a Gatorade fill out my road equipment.
On arrival in a town, I usually begin with the courthouse itself. It's unusual to have to solicit directions to the courthouse in places like Miami, Tex., or Custer, S.D. Often, the county's main building is noticeably the largest in town. Or it's the focal point of the town square. Or it's to be found on the main street. Just drive around for 30 seconds and you'll likely run into it.
But not always. Some wind up on a side street, such as in Hawthorne, Nev., or Lumberton, N.C. Worse, some have been suburbanized, built on some darkling plain miles from the town center. Happily, this is still the exception, but it's a fact in Holbrook, Ariz. (Navajo County), or Hastings, Minn. (Dakota County), among other places.
When it comes to design and construction, counties appear to have done what they want with the resources they have and suffer minimal interference from outside agencies. The results are fascinating in their diversity. Many are charming, meticulously maintained public structures, stately in proportion and reflecting, in style and materials, the time and place of their construction. Others appear to have caved to tighter budgets and create the impression of a diminished school building, grimly functional but charmless. Some look like plain-faced office buildings or modified nursing homes.
Some counties have seen fit to raze magnificent older courthouses and replace them with attractive (or hideous) modern structures on the same site. Others have turned used ones into museums or arts centers and constructed new courthouses nearby. Probably the largest proportion maintain (often restore) an original courthouse but extend it via an addition or annex. This, of course, can be done with noble or ignoble results, depending on factors beyond any transient visitor's ken.
Courthouse grounds always merit the official tour d'inspection. Circumambulation permits detection of a cornerstone, if it's there. (When there is no construction date engraved or on a sign, you can ask three people working inside and come away with four different years.) Civil War statues, with their flowery language about the Lost Cause or the Battle for the Union, are reliably found in the front yard. And then there are the county memorials and honor rolls for those local souls who served in this century's wars. Or the New Mexico courthouse grounds that serve as a modern art museum (Los Alamos) or present the visitor with a life-size nativity scene in season (Carlsbad). So much for separation of church and state.
The insides of courthouses are equally distinctive. It's also a pleasant surprise, after a decade of violent courthouse incidents nationwide, that almost all small towns and cities allow entirely free access to their temples of justice and administration. One of the occasional exceptions is the small city of Anniston, seat of Calhoun County in northeast Alabama, with a population of around 25,000. Its restored downtown courthouse was built in 1900 and has an impressive exterior--but all visitors must submit to industrial-strength metal detection.
Some interiors provide the warmth of a Selective Service waiting room. Others feature Pepsi machines or trash cans in the main foyer and are used to store the odd piece of furniture or serve as reluctant archives of ancient tax rolls. The most interesting offer a photo or modest exhibits about early settlers or other artifacts that bring the place to life. The county of Harding, in northeastern New Mexico, features a panoramic group photo showing the outdoor dedication ceremonies of its first (and only) courthouse on Flag Day, 1921. It's a sparsely populated jurisdiction today (fewer than 1,000 persons in 2,134 square miles); the several hundred weather-beaten citizens assembled for the portrait serve as stark testimony to the hardships of even 20th-century homesteading.
A courthouse town visit might be as short as 20 minutes, but more often lasts an hour or so. If I get into a search for local postcards, stop for lunch or visit the local library, it's longer before I'm back on the road. I do make sure to update the official courthouses data bank, though. My records are heavy on detail: Among other things they document that courthouses are as likely to face east as west, that some don't provide even a single pay phone (Crowell, Tex.), that many American courthouses are marked by a surfeit of columns (Nashville, N.C.) and that skateboarding is universally taboo on courthouse grounds.
During these county seat visits, my transient presence is met with friendliness and some curiosity; my endless questions are typically handled with patience and occasional forbearance. Few county seats draw tourists, and not many interested visitors come passing through. Certainly no one mistakes me for a local. Nor do I try to pass myself off as one. I'm the traveler from outside: I radiate New Jersey in a way that cannot be disguised. Even in Mount Holly, N.J., I was quickly detected as an outlander, an emissary originally from the Garden State's exotic northern sector.
The county courthouses in Eaton, Ohio; Selmer, Tenn.; and Burns, Ore., have at least one thing in common: I have yet to pay them a visit. And they have company. By my updated count, about 2,600 places remain on that "to-see" list.
I am not discouraged, though.
Even if I can knock off two a week, I have another 25 years of visits to look forward to.
William Casey last wrote for the Travel section about the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama. During that trip he worked in visits to eight Cotton State county seats.