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Courthouse tours, Lincoln history

Judge Mitch Shick, left, talks about Abraham Lincoln's history as a lawyer in Coles County while tour attendees look at the paperwork from cases Lincoln actually worked on Saturday at the Coles County Courthouse.

CHARLESTON -- In the last scheduled public tours of the Coles County Courthouse for the year, area residents received insight Saturday on the complicated creation, or remodel, of the courthouse.

Coles County Judge Mitchell Shick and Kirsten Bays, local attorney and historian, detailed what was done to make the courthouse what it is today as well as clarifying historical misconceptions that have loomed over the courthouse.

One such misconception includes whether Abraham Lincoln practiced law in the large stone building at the heart of the Charleston square.

Lincoln did practice law in Coles County, but deciding whether it was in what the courthouse is today is more complicated, Shick said.

Lincoln practiced in the courthouse only based on a technicality in the courts. Lincoln practiced law in the early existence of the courthouse, which was once a log courthouse.

in 1898, years after Lincoln practiced there, the Coles County Board tried three times to get a referendum passed that would allow them to build an entirely new courthouse. Voters shot it down each time, refusing to pay for the construction.

To get around this, the board decided they would essentially make a new building, tearing down the original, aside from some of the corner pieces of the building and a vault, and call it a remodel.

Shick said taxpayers were unhappy with the decision. Feeling the heat from taxpayers, the board decided they would not pay for the construction of the building because it was “illegal” and they could not do it.

The contractors sued Coles County, leading to a case that went up to the Illinois Supreme Court. The court said the county had to pay because it was a remodel.

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“So, this is the ‘remodeled courthouse’ Lincoln practiced in,” Shick said.

The courthouse has had several changes made to it, including the removal of some windows at the top of the building that initially were used to provide natural light to the courthouse.

Bays said it was common for windows to be plastered over after the use of electricity began.

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“The glass parts of (the windows) were hard to maintain,” Bays said.

Those on the tour also got to go down the courthouse tunnel that was built in 1899 as a way to ship steam from the new Coles County sheriff’s jail, built in 1892, into the courthouse.

Instead of just having pipes go from the jail to the courthouse, they built tunnels for easy maintenance on the pipes. The whole project cost $5,000. 

Later on, it was decided that inmates could be moved through the tunnel as well instead of being taken in public through the normal courthouse entrances.

To this day, inmates are still moved through the damp, dimly lit tunnel to meet their court hearing dates.

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Contact Jarmon at jjarmon@jg-tc.com or 217-238-6839.

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