Last updated: July 13, 2016
The Lusk Herald
July 30, 1970
Courthouse Has Served Niobrara for 50 Years
(G.L. Pfeifer, Niobrara County treasurer for 20 years, 1945-1958 and 1963-1970, wrote the following article on the history of the building. Mr. Pfeifer spent many hours researching county records and old issues of The Lusk Herald and Lusk Standard.)
Niobrara County was created by the act of the Wyoming Legislature February 14, 1911, from the territory of former Converse County and was organized January 6, 1913, following a settlement with Converse County as to assets and liabilities. Election of county officials was held the previous November - commissioners: Thomas Bell, Robert F. Burhoop, Ed A. Cook; clerk: A.L. Miller; treasurer: R.E Barber; sheriff: Harry Rogers; assessor: Tommy Thompson; school superintendent: C. C. Browning.
Quarters for the county offices were in the Fraternal Building, and $125 per month rent was paid to the Masonic Lodge. One of the first acts of the new board was to secure Lot 4, Block 18 from the School District on June 3, 1913, and to construct the jail. It was on this property that the present county courthouse was to be erected.
Following the discovery of oil in the Lance Creek area, Lusk during 1918 and 1919 experienced a typical boom in building and other matters and was referred to as the "Billion Dollar City." The first notation concerning the building of the courthouse for Niobrara County appears as a resolution on page 128, May 7, 1918, of the commissioners proceedings - Fred Runser, James W. Christian, and Ed Jones, commissioners. The question of authorization of $60,000 bond issue was to be submitted to the electors at the general election on November 6, 1918. It was not until October 1 that the final draft of the question was drawn up and a proclamation for the election on the bonding issue was finalized.
Results of the bond election after the tally by the canvassing board showed 422 favorable and 393 unfavorable votes for the $60,0000 Courthouse Bonds at 6%, not to exceed 20 years. This was also to cover necessary furnishings and equipment. A resolution June 3, 1920, called for a bond election of $40,000 to be held in August to cover the completion of the courthouse, and furnishings and equipment. It could not be determined by records if such election was held or bonds issued.
The order and resolution for issuance of the original bond issue appears in the meeting Jan. 8, 1919. Martin McCormick and Charles Calhoun had replaced Jones and Christian on the Board by the general election the previous November. Fred Runser was a rancher southwest of Keeline, Christian a ranch on Indian Creek, Jones a contractor in Lusk, McCormick a farmer north of Lusk, and Calhoun was from the Van Tassell area.
By February 4, 1919, bids on the bonds had been accepted at 5 1/2%, 20 years with 10 year option. It appears that George E. McDonald had been retained as architect soon after the first proposal for the building of the courthouse, and he continued in that capacity until the building was accepted from the contractors and he was discharged from his obligation February 20, 1920. On February 11, 1919, D. W. Woods was awarded a contract for construction at $57,602.50, and John Fernau & Sons the plumbing contract which at settlement time seems to have been $2,335.50, but there were additions to these. Mr. McCormick was to act for the Board in the supervision of the building program. A few weeks later Electrical Supply & Construction, Neal C. Rowell, Mgr., was awarded a contract at $1,300 for electrical work and a Denver firm for electrical fixtures at $1,850.
Payments were made to the contractors as they completed portions of their work, and changes in plans necessitated increasing the general contract by $7,276 and the plumber by $3,112. The furnishings contract was awarded to Art Metal Co. for $8,929, so it would seem that the building may have been approaching completion. The building was officially opened February 2, 1920, although a meeting on February 19 noted monies being held back from the contractors for completion of their projects.
In the Lusk Standard of February 27, 1920, the headline and story appears: "COUNTY OFFICIALS NOW IN NEW HOME AND DOING BUSINESS AS USUAL - The new courthouse was formally turned over to the commissioners this week and as informally occupied by the various officials, each department getting located in the new quarters Monday."
In addition to the commissioners previously noted, other officials occupying the new offices were George Howes, assessor; Dudley Fields, treasurer; E. M. Philips, Clerk; Chris Joss, sheriff; C. C. Browning, clerk of court; Della Grebe, school superintendent; J. G. Hartwell, attorney.
The corner stone at the northeast corner of the building is engraved on the face: "County Commissioners 1919: Fred S. Runser, M.J. McCormick, C. F. Calhoun, E.M. Phillips, clerk, Geo. E. McConald, Archt, D. W. Wood, Cont., and on the end reads: "Laid by the MW Grand Lodge, A.F. and A.M., May 8, A.D. 1919 AK 5919, Geo. E. Brimmer, MW - GM.
The courthouse is of deep red brick construction, two stories and basement, having porticoes on the east and south entrances, but not on the west. The style is of the 19th century much used in the central states for such government buildings. A bronze statue of "Justice" with her scales originally topped the dome. The legend "A Public Office Is a Public Trust" is above the south entrance. Four main offices were provided on the first floor, three of which have smaller connecting rooms; two offices on the second floor with courtroom, and also rooms in the basement. "Justice" was removed in 1930 as high winds caused vibrations and weight shifting resulting in damage to the roof. The treatment to which the 'lady' was subjected during the next decade is another story best related by boys initiated to some ghostly rites deep in the old mining hill shafts. However, she was eventually redeemed by contributing to the war effort in World War II. Along with "Justice" went the dome also.
In the November 28, 1919 issue of The Lusk Standard is an account of a disastrous fire of November 26 which destroyed the Fraternal Building which had housed the county offices since 1913. Not much property was saved, but "The huge vault containing the county records is still standing and it is thought that much of the contents will be saved" - this must have been true as there seem to be no valuable records missing. The county business was then conducted in the basement of the First National Bank building, and no doubt moved to the Courthouse as soon as possible.
Interesting is a news release of The Lusk Standard of March 14, 1919, which says of the building: "An imposing structure, two stories in height, topped with a large dome, on top of which will stand the statute of Justice, to nicely set off the appearance, and which will be entirely constructed of brick and re-enforced concrete." - The corridors are to be an especial mark of beauty to the building and they lead from all four entrances to the hollow square in the center of the building, into which streams the shafts of daylight from the dome above. In this dome will be four large clocks, the faces of which will be seen from every corner of the town either by day or night." (Note: the "glowing" description of the sunlight from the dome to the rotunda evidently never materialized as the courtroom on the second floor has a ceiling and the "square" of the first floor is securely covered by the floor of the second story.) The courtroom "is beautifully and modernly equipped. In addition to the judges bench, jury box, witness platform and a horseshoe curved rail - there are 128 seats for spectators." In the basement is situated the Niobrara Abstract Co."
In the fiftieth year the officials of Niobrara county are John Goddard, John Bruegger, and Julius Peterson, commissioners; G. L. Pfeifer, treasurer, F. Everette Brooks, assessor; Dorris Christian, clerk; Harold Rogers, sheriff, Jennie Lenz, clerk of court, and Alfred Taylor, attorney.
The Lusk Herald
March 24, 1977
Courthouse is 57 years old
Last month the Niobrara County Courthouse had been in use for 57 years. It was back in February of 1920 that the first occupants moved into the then new building.
Some of the original documents relating to the construction and furnishings of the courthouse were found in old files in the basement and brought to the attention of The Herald by Chuck Smith, custodian.
On Nov. 26, 1919, according to the Lusk Standard, a disastrous fire destroyed the Fraternal Building that had housed the county offices since 1913. The building was almost completely destroyed, but the vault containing county papers, remained intact and it appears that there was no loss of valuable records.
BECAME COUNTY IN 1911
By an act of the Wyoming Legislature, Feb. 14, 1911, Niobrara County was cut from the territory of former Converse County and Lusk was designated as the county seat. In November, 1912, county officials elected were commissioners, Thomas Bell, Robert Burhop, and Ed. A. Cook; clerk, A. L. Miller; treasurer, R. E. Barber; sheriff, Harry Rogers; assessor, Tommy Thompson and school superintendent, C. C. Browning.
Quarters for the officers were established in the Fraternal Building which was located on Main Street near Third in about the same spot as the present location of the Ben Franklin store. The county paid a monthly rental of $125 for the building to the Masonic Lodge.
One of the first acts of the Board of County Commissioners was to purchase land for the construction of the new jail. The present courthouse was later also built on this ground.
Following the discovery of oil and the resulting boom in 1918 and 1919 it became apparent that new accommodations for county officials were necessary and in the spring of 1918, the commissioners - Fred Runser, James W. Christian and Ed Jones - sought authorization for a $60,000 bond issue for the construction of a new courthouse and at a general election the bond issue was passed. This amount was also supposed to cover furnishings and equipment.
The order and resolution for issuance of the original bonds appears in a meeting held early in 1919. County Commissioners Jones and Christian had been replaced at that time by Martin McCormick and Charles Calhoun. It is interesting to note that Christian and Runser were Niobrara County ranchers, Jones a contractor in Lusk, McCormick was a farmer north of Lusk and Calhoun represented the Van Tassell area.
By Feb. 4, 1918, bids on the bonds had been accepted and George E. McDonald was retained as architect.
In these days now of high construction costs when it is not unusual for a family dwelling to cost around $40,000, the amount of $60,000 for the first bond issue seems almost unrealistic for the construction of a large brick building as planned by the architect. A bid of $57,602.50 was accepted by the board and the contract awarded to D. W. Wood. A bid of $2,215.50 by John C. Fernau & Sons for the plumbing, heating, etc. was also accepted.
However, as is often the case, changes were made in the original plans, modifications were decided on and additions made so it became necessary to appropriate money to cover these changes. An additional $7,276 was added to the construction costs and another "Memorandum of Agreement" between John C. Fernau and Niobrara County, called for additional plumbing and modifications in the heating system, which were to cost an additional $3,112.
Contracts for electric work and electric fixtures were awarded to a Denver firm amounting to about $3,000. Following the fire of 1919 of the Fraternal Building the county offices were temporarily housed in the basement of the First National Bank, until February, 1920, when the new courthouse was ready for occupancy and officials moved into their permanent accommodations.
Another interesting document was a contract between Niobrara county and Art Metal Construction Company of Massachusetts for installation in the various offices in the courthouse of stationary and moveable steel furnishings, finished in mahogany and olive green and wood furniture of mahogany and oak. Included in this contract were the supplying of window shades, waste baskets, cuspidors with rubber mats (for almost every office) and other miscellaneous items. The total cost of all furnishings included in the contract amounted to $8,988.24.
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