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Grand Forks County Courthouse celebrates 100 years

Lady Justice stand tall on top of the Grand Forks County courthouse surrounded by richly detailed stone carvings. JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD

Everybody knew in 1913 that this was a special building, lovely and imposing, a declaration of pride, spirit and resolve.

"Sculptor's Chisel Works Like Magic Wand of Fairy," a headline writer swooned a century ago, introducing a Herald story about etched stone columns and cornices of the new Grand Forks County Courthouse.

Still massive, lovely and ornately imposing today, the courthouse also remains a busy, functioning part of the city as it turns 100.

"The new courthouse was triple the size of the old and featured beautiful architecture," said Peg O'Leary of the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission, who will participate in ceremonies Tuesday marking the centennial.

With a number of other major buildings completed about that time, including City Hall, the Masonic Temple, the federal building and the high school, the city and its people were making a proud statement, she said.

"They were putting up big, prominent, important buildings. They were saying that Grand Forks was here to stay. We weren't just a little prairie town anymore."


The courthouse was built in the then-popular but expensive Beaux Arts Neoclassical style and was considered a fine example of "monumental public architecture," O'Leary said.

"When you walked into the courthouse, you were supposed to feel the power of the courts," she said. "It feels today very much like it did when it opened."

"We want buildings that live, and I appreciate that the county is proud of the building and takes such good care of it."

So is Kirk Smith, a retired Grand Forks district judge who worked in the courthouse for half its 100 years.

"It was a daily inspiration," Smith said. "It is a serious business, what goes on in there, a great public responsibility. And the courthouse itself is an inspiration."

Smith will be the featured speaker at today's celebration. District Judge Joel Medd, who will retire later this year after more than three decades in the building, will preside.

"I think it's the most historic building in Grand Forks," Medd said. "It's wonderful how the building has maintained its usefulness. The staff takes wonderful care of it."

The two judges did a walkabout recently, showing off the courthouse marble and interior dome murals, the solemnity of the several courtrooms and, outside, the fairy sculptor's magic wand etchings.

Original furnishings include courtroom benches and public seating burnished by the bottoms of many county residents, in town to pay or dispute their taxes, watch or participate in a trial or just sit and compare notes on crops and weather in what used to be called the Farmers' Room. Some door handles and brass railings and intricately carved woodwork are original.

There have been changes, including increased security after District Judge Lawrence Jahnke was shot on May 5, 1992, by Reuben Larson, a former Grand Forks City Council member, who was appearing before the judge on a child custody matter.

Many county offices were moved across the street to the new county office building that went up after the Flood of 1997, leaving more elbow room for a judiciary that has grown in recent times from one district judge, one county judge and a referee to five judges and two referees.

The big flood came within a step of the main floor, swamping the Veterans Memorial club rooms, courthouse utilities and many records in the basement. A $3.2 million project to refurbish the courthouse was completed in 2004.

Computers, TV

People who strolled through the courthouse in 1913 would be dazzled by the technology of today's courthouse, from computers and digital records to interactive TV, which allows prisoners to make brief but required "appearances" in court without having to leave jail.

Another change has been 100 years in the making: slight depressions in stone steps where generations of county residents have made their way from first floor to second.

In Courtroom 303, the largest, photographs of judges appointed or elected to serve in this courthouse and its predecessor extend along two walls, from Charles Joseph Fisk in 1897 to Sonja Clapp in 2005.

The interior dome murals -- actually, canvas paintings applied to the rotunda -- reflect the county's early history: barges on the Red River, pioneers headed west, a threshing crew at work in a wheat field, and immigrant families moving slowly but with resolve along the river with their ox carts.

Lady Justice with her scales, beneficiary of a makeover a little more than a decade ago, presides symbolically over all from atop the dome. And guarding the grand edifice from his post on the front lawn is Alexander Griggs, the steamboat captain, developer and generally acknowledged founder of Grand Forks, who filed the first land plat in the original townsite in 1875. The statue of Griggs at the wheel was dedicated in 2001.

The things they sealed away in the cornerstone

The cornerstone laid for the Grand Forks County Courthouse a century ago included July 1913 copies of the Northwood Gleaner, the Larimore Pioneer and several Grand Forks newspapers, including Normanden, the Norwegian-language paper.

Some other items preserved for examination in the distant future:

• Laws of the 1913 North Dakota Legislature governing relief of the poor.

• Scroll dated July 16, 1913, signed by county commissioners and other officials.

• A history of the county by H.V. Arnold.

• The county board resolution that called for a vote on a $200,000 bond issue to build the new courthouse, and an example of the ballot used when the bond issue was approved in November 1912.

• Photograph of the old courthouse and of the original townsite in 1876.

• A 2-cent U.S. postage stamp featuring the Panama Canal.

• Coins of all denominations minted in 1913 and earlier.

• Official program for the courthouse dedication and copies of the address by George A. Bangs.

Call Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1102; or send email to