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Postville Courthouse chimney questions probed

By D. Leigh Henson

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[October 23, 2009]  SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- Abraham Lincoln endlessly fascinates many people worldwide, and understanding every aspect of the local Lincoln heritage continues to charm and challenge us. In writing a history of the Postville Courthouse -- where Abraham Lincoln practiced law from 1840 to 1847 -- and its replica for my community history Web site of Lincoln, Ill., I encountered what appeared to be contradictory information about the number of chimneys on the original courthouse, constructed in 1840.

InsuranceIn his "History of Logan County" (1911), Lawrence B. Stringer writes of the Postville Courthouse that "a fire-place, with its picturesque outside fireplace chimney, gave heat to the building when required" (p. 154). The 1929-30 reconstruction of this courthouse in Henry Ford's Greenfield Village near Dearborn, Mich., and the courthouse replica in Lincoln, constructed in 1953, both have two-story, stone fireplace chimneys on their left exterior walls. Yet, all of the several published photos of the original courthouse, the earliest dating to near the beginning of the 20th century, clearly show the left wall without such an outside chimney. Instead, the earliest photos of this building show two brick chimneys, and they are recessed from the ends of the roof peak on either side. Clearly, those chimneys arise from the interior of the building.

The only image I had found that suggests the left-side chimney might have been on the exterior from the ground up is in a mural painted above a doorway on the upper floor of the contemporary Logan County Courthouse, dedicated in 1905 (artist unknown). Did this image give Judge Stringer the idea that there was an exterior chimney, as he reports in his 1911 "History of Logan County"? If not, what other source evidence is there for Stringer's reference to an exterior chimney? If the original Postville Courthouse had an exterior fireplace stone chimney from the ground up, what happened to it? (In my various sources of history, I had found no reference to its removal or destruction.) If the original courthouse did not have a chimney fireplace from the ground up, was it a revision of history invented when the courthouse was reconstructed in Greenfield Village? Did this fabrication then serve as the model for the design of the replica in Lincoln? Or, was there some other answer to the question of the exterior fireplace chimney?

I also note the absence of a right-side chimney in the reconstruction at Greenfield Village that corresponds with the absence of a right-side chimney in the painting of the 1905 Logan County Courthouse. In contrast, the courthouse replica in Lincoln has a chimney recessed from the right end of the roof peak. Does that feature of the replica accurately correspond to the original construction?

A curious piece of evidence adding to the chimney questions is a drawing of the original Postville Courthouse found in "History of Logan County 1886." This line drawing, perhaps the oldest graphic representation of this building, shows two chimneys, and they are recessed from the ends of the roof peak on either side, just as the photos cited above depict.

McGuire Igleski & Associates Inc., of Evanston, was the architectural firm that designed the courthouse replica in Lincoln. This firm's Web page (link below) has an interior photo of the Postville Courthouse replica's fireplace constructed of brick. If there really had been an exterior stone chimney, would not the interior fireplace also have been built with limestone as the foundation was? (James T. Hickey had written in 1953 that the foundation limestone was quarried at Rocky Ford on Salt Creek.) In July of this year I wrote to McGuire Igleski to see whether that firm could help answer my various questions, and I still await a response.


In August, I wrote to the Benson Ford Research Center of the Henry Ford Museum because I had reason to believe its archives contained photos that could answer my questions. In an article titled "The Postville Courthouse Revisited," published Feb. 12, 2002, in, Stan Stringer (no relation to Lawrence B. Stringer) had mentioned that Henry Ford's "conservationist hired my father, Charles M. Stringer, to photograph the disassembly of the courthouse." Charles Stringer, a professional photographer, had a studio in downtown Lincoln on Broadway Street in the 1930s and '40s. The Benson Ford Research Center required a minimum of one hour of research ($35) for them to see whether the photos in question were in their archives. I sent the payment and subsequently received a letter and photocopies of 30 stunning, black-and-white photos. Most of these are stamped "Stringer Lincoln, Ill." on the back. The research historian of the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency, Mark L. Johnston, says copies of those photos are in that agency's files. A few are also at the Postville Courthouse State Historic Site.

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Two of the photocopies I received show full views of the left (west) side of the original Postville Courthouse in 1929. They show a chimney above the peak of the roof, and the chimney was an interior structure. The photos, however, also prove that the left-side wall once had a large, external, two-story chimney, later removed, and the large hole was covered with boards. These replacement boards are aligned with the boards on either side of the hole left by the absence of the chimney. The edges of the abutting replacement boards form a distinct outline (pattern) of the external chimney that was part of the original 1840 structure. This outline shows the shape and contour of the chimney, whose upward sides gradually narrowed. This shape is reflected in the design of the external chimney featured in the reconstruction at Greenfield Village and the replica in Lincoln. The photos also show a window on the left wall that had been built after the original chimney was gone.

Fellow history buff and good cousin Keith Leesman, a volunteer at the Postville Courthouse Historic Site, found a copy of an undated report (original at Greenfield Village) that says the building was remodeled as a residence in 1880. Perhaps that was the approximate time when the building was moved forward off its original limestone foundation onto a new foundation composed mostly of brick. Charles M. Stringer's photos show the excavation of the original stone foundation behind the 1929 building site and the brick foundation of the building when it was dismantled in 1929. Ford shipped the original stone foundation to Greenfield Village. (My friend Ron Musick and his wife, Sandi, visited Greenfield in 2004 and discovered that Ford had even shipped some of the dirt from the Postville site to Greenfield.) Records indicate that the original stone fireplace chimney was removed when the building was moved forward, and a brick fireplace replaced it. Whether a second brick fireplace was constructed on the right side of the building is unclear. It is possible that the two chimneys on either side of the building in 1929 were connected from the fireplace on the left wall.

I speculate that the brick may have come from Lincoln's brick factory, which began operation in the 1870s near the South Coal Mine. My Postville Courthouse Web page (link below) has various photos of the courthouse and more information about Lincoln's brick factory.

On the matter of fireplaces and chimneys of the Postville Courthouse, neither the present-day replica in Lincoln nor the reconstruction at Greenfield Village appears to be completely accurate to the 1840 original. The external stone fireplace chimney on the replica is accurate, but the chimney on the right side is not. And the brick fireplace in the replica should actually be constructed of stone, as the original was. The Greenfield reconstruction has two brick fireplaces and a cast-iron stove with stovepipe running to the top of window, but the 1840 construction did not have those features.

I have added two of Charles Stringer's wonderful 1929 photos to my Web page telling the story of the Postville Courthouse and its chimneys. I paid the Benson Ford Research Center its required fees for permission to use those photos. To the best of my knowledge, these photos have never been previously published. One photo shows the left exterior wall of the courthouse with the replacement boards outlining the original stone fireplace chimney. The other photo shows Fifth Street paved with brick and an Illinois Route 4 sign in the year just before that road changed to U.S. Route 66.


On the Net:

McGuire Igleski photo of Postville Courthouse replica's brick fireplace:

"The Postville Courthouse Revisited," by Stan Stringer:

Web site of the Benson Ford Research Center:

"Abraham Lincoln and the Postville Courthouse," by Leigh Henson:

[By D. LEIGH HENSON, Ph.D. professor emeritus of English, Missouri State University, Springfield]


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