Butler County [582 square miles] was named in honor of General William Orlando Butler (1791-1880), a Kentucky statesman, officer in the Mexican War, and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Vice President in 1848.
Before the county was officially organized, it was attached to other counties. But by 1853, enough settlers had located in Butler County to warrant setting up the county's own governing body, and an election was held in August. Although a full staff of county officials was elected, the offices were not considered sufficiently lucrative to warrant a trip to Independence to be sworn in, so the elected officers failed to qualify.
Another election was held in August 1854 and this time the elected officials took the oath of office and the county took over the governing of its own territory. The first court was held at Clarksville in October 1854 in a little log hut in which its owner, Mr. Clark, sold groceries. However, the struggle for the location of the county seat, which involved many interests, extended over several years. The bitterness it aroused lingered on for many more years.
The town of Clarksville was originally surveyed in August 1853. The original proprietors of the land were Thomas and Jeremiah Clark, Daniel Mather, and D.C. Hilton. Although there were earlier attempts to erect a courthouse, the first to be built was begun in 1856 and completed in 1858 at Clarksville. Located in a square near the center of town, this 40' x 60' two-story brick courthouse cost $20,000. However, it was sold to the local school district only four years later for a mere $2,800, when the location of the county seat was changed. The building then served as a schoolhouse from 1863 to 1903, when it was torn down.
Even before the completion of the first courthouse, the jealousy of other towns was evident. Georgetown, which today is only a name, contended unsuccessfully (by a margin of only seven votes) for the county seat in 1958. Georgetown was located in the geographical center of Butler County, where Jefferson, Jackson, West Point, and Ripley Townships come together. In April of the following year, electors voted 357 to 336 (a majority of only 21 votes) to remove the county seat to Butler Center, which had been laid out in 1856. Protesting residents of Clarksville obtained an injunction and, in July 1859, the district court sustained the contention that there had been irregularities and issued an order voiding the election. Another election was then held in April 1860 which gave Butler Center a margin of 80 votes. So, beginning in 1860, and for a period of 20 years, Butler Center (located two miles south of the paper town of Georgetown) had the courthouse. It was a small, two-story frame building, 26' x 36', with an outside wooden stairway, and was built at a total cost of around $2,000. The two acres on which the courthouse at Butler Center was located were donated to the county by Arthur Mullarkey, a farmer who owned considerable land in that vicinity.
According to A.T. Andreas in his 1875 Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa, Butler Center was, except for it being the county seat, "a place of no commercial or other importance." Andreas continues, "The village contains, besides the court house, so called, two general stores, and wagon and blacksmith shops. The best public structure in the place is a two-story frame school house, 20x40, capable of seating 160 pupils..."
In the years following, people became disenchanted with Butler Center because of its inaccessibility, particularly in the winter. Clarksville again sought to obtain the county seat, as did Bristow and Shell Rock, all without success. With the coming of the Dubuque and Dakota Railroad to Butler County in 1879, the town of Allison, named for United States Senator William B. Allison (1829-1908), was platted and was successful, after several elections, in having the courthouse built there in 1881 at a cost of $10,680. (Senator Allison, a Dubuque Republican lawyer, had been a delegate to the 1860 convention in Chicago that nominated Abraham Lincoln for President.) The contractor for the courthouse was L.D. Harvey of Clarksville. The people of Allison contributed $7,000 in cash to the $8,000 to $10,000 construction cost, and the Stout family donated 10 acres of land.
The county records were moved to Allison on January 10, 1881 and placed in temporary quarters until the Italianate courthouse was completed. The county clerk, the recorder, and the sheriff were located in the upper story of a building owned by A.M. McLeod. The auditor and the treasurer were stationed in a drugstore owned by a Dr. Riggs. Allison grew rapidly and, since it was quite centrally located, the county seat controversy soon ended.
To the 50' x 55', two-story courthouse, a 20' x 51' addition was constructed on the north side of the building in 1903 at a cost of $5,000. During the summer of 1927, a jail was built to the east of the courthouse for a total cost of $14,306.90. In 1937, another addition (27' x 38') was constructed on the east side of the courthouse at a cost of $9,420.50. A proposal to build a new courthouse was voted down and, in 1959, approximately $5,000 was spent to remodel the courtroom.
The building site, at the head of Main Street on the crest of a gentle slope, is said to be the highest point in Butler County. The spacious courthouse grounds were beautifully planted with a variety of shade and ornamental trees. With its additions and other remodeling, the 1881 wooden frame with brick veneer courthouse continued to serve its purpose as best it could. But the building developed inadequacies and structural cracks, requiring the citizens of Butler County to again face the issue: remodel or replace? On June 2, 1970, 13 of the 16 townships in the county voted down a proposal to build a new courthouse which was to have a cost about $1 million. Meanwhile, several grand juries recommended replacement, and the board of supervisors stated that it would be impractical to repair the 1881 building. Court sessions had to be canceled sometimes because of poor heating and inadequate and overloaded wiring caused problems. Lack of space in the old courthouse caused overcrowding and necessitated renting additional space in downtown Allison.
Another bond election -- the fourth (previous elections were held in 1956, 1957, and 1970) -- was set for Tuesday, April 10, 1973 for the construction of a new courthouse. The proposal was for a $940,000 bond issue, of which $200,000 in revenue sharing funds was already on hand. The 85' x 161' building was to be constructed of masonry concrete and brick.
A severe, state-wide snowstorm made it necessary to postpone the date of the election to Tuesday, May 22, 1973, at which time the proposal to construct oa new courthouse carried by a vote of 2,323 in favor and 896 against, or 72.17 percent approval. All but two townships (Albion and Bennezette) gave majority approval.
A total of 13 bids on the new courthouse were submitted and opened at Allison on January 23, 1974. The combined three low bids totaled $927,176. Ground was broken for the new structure on Monday, April 14, 1974.
The new courthouse, located immediately in front of, or south of, the previous one, was designed by Cervetti-Weber & Associates, Inc. of Marshalltown, Iowa, who were paid $48,878.84. The general contractor, Ramker Construction and Supply, Inc. of Waverly, Iowa received $641,887. Landscaping was by the Earl Ferris Nursery of Hampton, Iowa. The total cost of the building was $939,950.84, or slightly less than the $940,000 allowed by the bond election.
Dedicated on Sunday, December 14, 1975, the "sound, functional, and aesthetically pleasing building" is electrically heated and air conditioned. It is expected to be used "for many years to come."
In the meantime, the 94-year-old Butler County Courthouse continued in the news. On November 25, 1975, an Iowa National Guard helicopter lifted the round cupola off the building. The cupola will remain on the courthouse grounds as a Butler County American Revolution Bicentennial Commission project, and will be turned into a historic display to include a hall of fame of Butler County residents. One month later, Butler County officials signed a contract to pay the Anderson-Davis Wrecking Co. of Des Moines $4,720 to tear down the old courthouse -- just before the chairman of the Butler County Board of Supervisors received word that a California attorney was interested in buying an Iowa courthouse to dismantle and haul to California to restore as a law office. But the fate of the old courthouse at Allison was sealed and, in April 1976, it was demolished.