More than dust behind Gage County Courthouse walls
BEATRICE, Neb. (AP) — The faded wooden steps creak with each step, being disturbed for the first time in possibly years.
Small puffs of dust can be seen under the dim lights of a small brick room, at the center of which is a questionable ladder made of mismatched wood planks, leading up a chute of darkness.
This is the Gage County Courthouse, though probably not the one you’re familiar with.
The historic building has another side. One away from the sparkling, tiled floor and clean walls leading to places like the court offices or the county assessor’s office.
But it’s one littered with history and mysteries.
Some of these mysteries are the result of a variety of discoveries in the old building over the years — for instance, around seven years ago, when the courthouse was being renovated.
Courthouse building and grounds manager Dave Jones said workers found a box — possibly a time capsule or a child’s homework assignment — buried in insulation.
The wooden box belonged to members of Beatrice’s class of 1922, and contained a playbill, a student roster, a letter from the class officer and other items.
Multiple bottles of whiskey, some still full, have also been recovered from the building. Jones speculated they have been left behind by custodians or even elected officials, from several decades ago, of course.
Climb the stairs and you’ll reach the attic, or what you might call the fifth floor. The area is used for storage and some workshop projects. Jones hopes that someday the area can be upgraded to make use of more of the space.
“We’ve got a real serious storage problem,” Jones told the Beatrice Daily Sun . “We’ve got a work area here that I’ve actually done a lot of projects in. I’d like to get some lighting up here and continue the floor a little more to the west and turn this into more of a workshop.”
The courthouse was built from 1890 to 1892 — an example of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture.
On June 18, 1889, voters narrowly passed a $100,000 bond issue for construction of the courthouse, with 2,589 in favor and 2,470 against.
Construction extended from 1890 into 1891, and concerns of fireproofing the building arose. Additionally, the roof leaked and was replaced in 1893.
The building was essentially done in 1892, when the county ordered furnishings and prepared to move into the building.
According to the application to add the courthouse to the National Register of Historic Places, the interior of the building was modernized following a fire 1961.
The courthouse features entrances on all four sides, though the public may only enter on two sides of the building. Additionally, the Register application stated that entering the building used to require climbing steps at all entrances, though steps on the south side were removed and the building can be entered at the basement level.
In 2008 Gage County voters approved the $2.9 million bond issue to renovate the courthouse.
As part of the renovation, the asphalt roof was replaced with Vermont green slate shingles, just like the original roof from 1892.
Jones said one of the most fascinating artifacts in the building is an old hatch door. The door was used to seal one of the upper floors from the rest of the building. It was saved after being removed because of the names.
The door is covered in engravings of names, dates and messages, some dating back as far as Aug. 21, 1893.
“That would have been when the building was almost brand new,” Jones said. “They really spent a lot of time carving.”
The names don’t end there. Much of the woodwork in the clock tower area has been marked over the years.
Jones said you won’t find his name up there, but admitted he wouldn’t mind signing one of the walls or railings before he someday leaves his position.
“There’s just names carved everywhere in the woodwork,” he said. “Anywhere someone could carve something, they did.”
One of the most surprising facts is that this area used to be open to the public. Back when worries of liability lawsuits were an afterthought, visitors only had to go to a staircase on the west side of the building, where they could freely climb them and glance into yesteryear.
This is not the case today, where electric keycards unlock doors throughout the building and the top levels are closed to the public--but not all the time. It’s rare, Jones said, but there are instances when tours are lead through the attic and tower areas.
The main area of the upper floor is open space. The area of the clock tower has two floors above the public levels. Climb the first set of stairs, and you’re in a well-lit room with the clock high, near the ceiling. This level is mostly empty, with the exception of several antennas used by Gage County Emergency Management and the city.
Climb another floor, and things get a little darker. What used to be areas with windows above the courthouse clock to allow light in are now filled with brick.
“These were open and that’s why they opened this to the public, you could look out these windows,” Jones said. “They say you could see the lights from Lincoln.”
Jones would like to someday restore the windows on this level.
He added that despite the building’s age, it should last a long time if properly maintained.
“Nobody likes to spend money, but if we can keep the courthouse built up, it will last a long time,” he said. “It’s just built so solid.”
Information from: Beatrice Sun, http://www.beatricedailysun.com