Hillsdale, the County Seat

    On October 29, 1829, Territorial Governor Lewis Cass signed a law creating Hillsdale County, and in July 1830 he ordered state officials to name a county seat in all counties without one. The big prize for a town in a newly-settled area was to become the county seat. In Hillsdale County, Jonesville carried the title first. The founders of the village of Hillsdale, however, didn't concede defeat. After all, in 1835 they had platted the area near the middle of the county toward that goal. Fighting hard for their own village, a group of Jonesville residents bought land closer than Hillsdale to the center of the county and platted Osseo. They sought to split the state officials' votes between Hillsdale and Osseo so that Jonesville would prevail in the end. Osseo, without a single county building, actually was the county seat for three years until the State Legislature discovered the subterfuge and awarded the seat to Hillsdale in 1843. Hillsdale's leaders hastened to solidify their position and erected a small, wood-framed courthouse on the current Courthouse Square, facing McCollum Street. It was so inadequate that a second frame building was built near the current St. Anthony's Church to serve as a combination courthouse, meeting hall and church.

    When the first courthouse burned in 1849, the county was taking no chances with a fire in the new building. A sandstone exterior enclosed partition walls of brick and inside walls of iron. Only age could take this building. For several years following its demolition, it was said that when the weather was dry the outline of the old courthouse could be seen in the grass of Courthouse Square. In a sentimental tribute to it, the cornerstone of the third and final Courthouse had the date "1850" inscribed on the side that faced the original two Courthouses.  

    It took four votes in the county to allow the assessment of taxes in order to build a new courthouse, which was designed by Claire Allen and completed by September 1899. The addition of the clock and chime had to wait until 1911, when William Mitchell, son of Charles T. Mitchell, donated a Seth Thomas clock and chime of four bells. By 1985 both Courthouse and bells were suffering from the ravages of time, poor maintenance and neglect. The Hillsdale County Historical Society launched a successful drive to raise funds for the repair and restoration of the bells. By 1996 the entire courthouse was given a face lift, which was completed in time for the centennial celebration in August 1998.


   The land, bordered on all side by streets, on which the courthouse stood was considered "public grounds." A school was erected there in 1847 and was used until 1868, when the entire school population helped to carry the furniture and books to the new Central School, situated where Bailey Elementary now stands.  


                                           The County Jail

                                           The County Jail

   Courthouse Square also had a jail, built in 1849. It burned in 1877 with one prisoner escaping. Another jail was built to the south of the courthouse in 1881, coming under criticism from the Hillsdale Herald, which described it as "a novel form of the composite union of an art gallery, a church-yard vault and a country livery stable, with some ragged features which suggest that the whole has made a pitiable attempt to withstand a hurricane of an earthquake." It was torn down in 1977.

   There was even a outhouse erected to serve the needs of the public, but that provision came with a price. The County Supervisors' Minutes note in October 1870 that the "outhouse on Court House Square for the Public Convenience" had been so convenient that it was overused and had become "a public nuisance."     

    Then there were the hogs, cattle and sheep roaming free that entered Courthouse Square through broken gates, causing the frustrated County Supervisors, on October 13, 1855, to plea for closed gates with stiles to allow access to the school and courthouse and a locked gate near the jail. Any improvements apparently weren't permanent. The Hillsdale Standard on October 13, 1868 contained a letter from a visitor to Hillsdale who bemoaned the degradation of Courthouse Square. He figuratively wrung his hands over the lack of care for the courthouse and the neglected grounds. The sight of a cow and horse pasturing next to a pig sty were the last straw for him. 

    Today the County Courthouse, surrounded by war memorials, presents a dignified presence for the seat of government in Hillsdale County.

JoAnne P. Miller