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Who's Got the Courthouse?

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Up in Jackson County, Iowa, just south of Dubuque, they used to brag that keeping track of the county seat was even more difficult that locating the post office address of a Methodist circuit rider.

Matters were clear enough in the beginning. In 1836, the Territorial Legislature of Wisconsin appointed the little river port of Bellevue as the county seat of Jackson County, as well as Linn and Jones counties.

County seats, however, were hot properties. Even an aspiring settlement with a single store could become something if it could be named the county seat. It meant a courthouse, county offices, and plenty of official businesses. Lawyers, doctors, and even colleges might follow. For Bellevue, that meant competition by vote.

In 1841, the county commissioners recommended moving the county seat to tiny Andrew, hardly even a crossroads. The move became official when Andrew received 208 votes to 111 for Bellevue and one for Centerville.

The owners of Andrew, Ansel Briggs and John Francis, quickly built a stone jail in the public square—the first of several planned court house buildings.

Construction of the jail went slowly. By the time it was completed in 1848, another county vote had already moved the county seat back to Belleville. In 1857 a vote to move the county seat to Centerville failed. Then a petition to move it to Fulton failed. But in 1861, Andrew again won the vote to become the county seat after promising to build a courthouse for nothing. A vote to move back to Bellevue failed.

All this time, the citizens of Maquoketa had been taking notes. Now they made their move by building an imposing, grand courthouse in the town square first, then asking for a vote. The courthouse was completed in ninety days, though earlier, doctored illustrations of the building had already been circulating across Jackson County. The plan worked. In 1873, Maquoketa became the permanent county seat of Jackson County. After several citizens of Andrew were caught trying to steal county records and take them home, Jackson County settled down. All that remained in Belleville, Fulton, Centerville, and Andrew were several fine examples of public architecture.

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.