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home : considered comment : april 2007 May 1, 2016

4/10/2007 3:13:00 PM
Our courthouse lions: Curious, unique and personalized
President and Owner, The Sentinel

The other day I looked in renewed admiration upon the majestic stone lion seated at the west entrance to the Courthouse and decided that it's worth retelling how it and nine others like it were created.

A fifth generation of Fulton County children has begun playing around and upon them like household pets. Altogether, they cost $1,600 when finished in 1896 and most of that amount probably was earned by a German-speaking carver named Hedrick, who chiseled them on the site out of Bedford limestone blocks.

One hundred and sixy dollars per lion seems like a cheap price for such artistry but I expect it went a long way for Herr Hedrick in 1896. He and his son, who interpreted for him, roomed at the Cottage Hotel at Madison and Eighth streets, the site of the former Rochester post office.

These lions are threefold unique: First, because animals normally are not featured in Romanesque style buildings such as our courthouse. Second, because there are so many of them. Third, because at none of the 60 Indiana courthouses that were built in the 19th century can you find anything like them.

The county commissioners who planned the courthouse so admired the dramatic appearance of their new structure on its square that they wanted equally dramatic approaches to it. The lions were Architect William Rush's exalting answer.

Why lions? They are an architectural device of Oriental origin which the Egyptians saw as symbols for courage. In recent times they have appeared as guardians of public institutions, such as the Art Institute of Chicago, where they also represent the strength and enduring quality of these institutions.

Public fascination with the figures began immediately upon their completion in November 1896, three months after the courthouse itself was finished.

Therefore, The Rochester Sentinel thought that the lions should be given individual names "so the taxpayers who must foot the enormous bill of their cost ($1,600) may become more familiar with their pets and be able to salute them by name as they pass in to behold the grandeur of the $175,000 unpaid-for temple of injustice."

The Sentinel, a Democratic organ, was not above inflating the cost of the Republican-planned structure, which came in finally at $160,000. The Sentinel had not opposed the building project but took every opportunity to criticize its conduct and cost, hoping thereby to turn a political advantage to its party at the next election.

And so, with a fanciful and satirical article published December 4, 1896, The Sentinel reported that it had called a meeting of "leading taxpayers" on Thanksgiving Day to resolve the matter. It was there decided that each lion should bear a significant name that could be understood by all the people of the county.

To The Sentinel, that meant that the beasts all should be named for principals involved in the construction of the courthouse and for the Republicans who were in charge of building it.

The Sentinel told its readers that "the undertaking (of names) was solemnly and satisfactorily accomplished," as follows:

• The large lion in front of the main (west) entrance was named "President of the Board." That referred to Asa Deweese of Liberty Township, head of the Board of County Commissioners which initiated the building project.

• The "cunning looking little lions" to the rear, sitting at the right and left of the west entrance, were called "Merritt" and "Henry." The first name refers to Merritt Baker, then the county attorney, the only Democrat to be so honored. "Henry" referred to Henry Bibler, Rochester's town attorney.

• The large lion to the front of the north entrance was christened "Major" and those behind him were called "Tom" and "Mose." These names came from Major Bitters, publisher of The Rochester Republican newspaper; Thomas Lovatt of Rochester Township, another county commissioner, and Moses Barnett, who had just replaced the retiring Deweese as commissioner.

• The "big, ferocious looking fellow" at the front of the south entrance was named "Rush" while the "two docile-looking boys" to the rear were to be called "Red" and "Gib." The first name came from the courthouse architect, William Rush. "Gib" was the general contractor, Jordan Gibson, while "Red" was Gibson's associate, J.E. Redmond.

Finally,The Sentinel whimsically decided that the single lion on the east side of the square was female. Therefore, it wrote, "the committee was much puzzled to find an appropriate name." Finally, one member suggested "Maria" and that was agreed upon unanimously, for the name would recall a popular ballad of the time.

Their herculean task finished at last, members of the committee adjourned "to go out and see a man." We'd guess that phrase meant to seek a refreshing libation at one of the town's many saloons, which evidently kept holiday hours.

The personalizing of our lions long had been forgotten until it turned up in research for the 1995 Courthouse Centennial Celebration. The names remain in the public domain, however, and you're welcome to use them, if you wish.

Or, make up your own, for that matter.

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