Over the years, a vintage safe — which has been with the Dickinson County treasurer’s office as long as anyone can remember — has attracted the attention of many courthouse visitors.
Last week, the main floor of the Dickinson County Courthouse was vacated when offices were moved to new temporary locations so demolition and renovation of the 1956 building can begin.
The treasurer’s office, county clerk, register of deeds and planning and zoning now are located in the Abilene Civic Center. District Court is at Sterl Hall and administration is at various county locations. (Anyone with questions may call the phone numbers of the specific offices.)
With courthouse demolition preparing to ramp up, Commissioner Craig Chamberlin asked Treasurer Leah Hern about the old safe during Thursday’s work session. The safe dates back to the 1800s.
Hern replied that a person had recently expressed an interest in acquiring it and she referred the individual to County Administrator Brad Homman.
That sparked a short discussion about the safe, with Commission Chairman Lynn Peterson commenting that it was old and heavy and sometime over the years had been enclosed.
“There’s an issue that it can’t just be taken out the door,” Peterson said. “Structurally, there’s some challenges with the weight and the size and how to deal with it.”
“That’s an understatement,” Homman quipped.
Hern said she believes the safe weighs over 2,000 pounds and that the floor had been reinforced to hold the weight. The safe was moved to the courthouse from the old courthouse which had been where the south parking lot of the current courthouse is located.
Homman said a couple years ago —as plans developed to renovate the courthouse — he called a safe company in Kansas City and offered it to anyone who might be interested in moving it.
But the person he talked to said they were not interested because a lot of those safes were built and “they’re a dime a dozen,” Homman said.
“He told me a little history about them — They were built in Chicago and back in those days they were used by a lot of county courthouses to put their money and stuff in because they are next to impossible to compromise,” he explained.
Hern agreed, “We’ve had a lot of people come in and look at it, thinking they would be interested, but when they realized how big it was and what they had to do to get it out, they weren’t interested.”
Editor’s note: The following story about the vintage safe, located in the Dickinson County treasurer’s office, was first published in the 2019 Abilene Reflector-Chronicle progress edition.
By Kathy Hageman
A safe that’s been in the treasurer’s office of the Dickinson County Courthouse longer than anyone can remember may date back to the earliest years of county history.
It weighs around a ton and the lock hasn’t worked for years, but the safe is a work of art, adorned with hand-painted flowers, scrolling and calligraphy. It sits inside a room at the west end of the treasurer’s office.
“It’s too bad it’s not where people can see it,” said Treasurer Leah Hern. “Sometimes people will stand at the far counter and they’ll see it and start asking questions. Some want to look at it.”
On Jan. 31, county commissioners decided to put the safe up for sale on an Internet auction site. It is no longer needed and the weight puts undue stress on the floor.
But Hern predicts it still will be sitting in the exact same place when it comes time to renovate the courthouse in coming months. There were no takers a few years ago when the county tried to sell it.
“I don’t think there’s many people who know much about it or want to attempt trying to move it,” she said.
Although no one who currently works at the courthouse knows its origins, the safe quite possibly is one of four purchased by county commissioners in 1882 from the Diebold Safe & Lock Co., to replace those damaged/destroyed in a Jan. 17, 1882 fire that obliterated the first Abilene courthouse and most of the 200 block of North Broadway in downtown Abilene.
The county paid the Diebold company $1,125 to take fire-damaged safes and replace them. As for the treasurer’s safe, the company was directed to “remove the time-lock, clean it and attach it to the new safe, “which is to be both fire and burglar proof,” according to the Jan. 27, 1882 edition of The Abilene Gazette.
In taking a closer look at the vintage safe, Hern said she and her staff discovered an area on an interior door where it looks like something was removed.
“The lock possibly was changed out, so we’re thinking that interior door was the time-lock one,” Hern said.
As county staff prepares to let bids to renovate the courthouse and build a new jail addition, it’s interesting to look back at the colorful history of Dickinson County’s courthouses.
In 1857, three men formed a town company and created a town called Newport, located a mile east of Detroit, according to the book “Heroes by the Dozens,” written by the late Henry B. Jameson, former editor and publisher of the Abilene Reflector-Chronicle.
“Under territorial law, a company that platted and laid out into town lots a certain portion of the tract was entitled to 160 acres. This accounts for the multiplicity of early day towns formed in Dickinson and other counties,” Jameson wrote.
The town founders of Newport put up a log cabin on each section to secure the land and erected a “store” in the center. Newport became the first temporary county seat in 1858, by action of the governor who appointed the first Dickinson County Commissioners and they acclaimed it the county seat.
County seat fight
After a “bitter name calling fight” to select the county seat — complete with veiled charges of fraud and ballot box stealing — Abilene won the election over Union City (on Turkey Creek about five miles south of Abilene), Detroit (first named Smoky Hill) and Newport, Jameson wrote.
The first Abilene courthouse was located on the southwest corner of the 200 block of Broadway, basically where Hirsch Realty and KABI Radio now are located. The Citizens’ Bank was located there for years.
A fire was discovered around 1:15 a.m. on Jan. 17, 1882 in the 11-year old courthouse — the first building in town constructed of something besides wood — in the new business district north of the railroad, Jameson wrote.
The Jan. 20, 1882 headline in the Abilene Gazette Extra blared, “The Fire Fiend!” with subheads declaring “Hundred Thousand Dollar Blaze in Abilene,” “The Courthouse, Post Office and Other Buildings Destroyed,” and “County Records, Gone Up the Flame.”
Cries of “Fire, Fire” rang out and city bells summoned hundreds to the scene to fight the flames, but all efforts failed. The fire broke through the windows and reached the roof. A number of early businesses were destroyed.
A southwest wind carried the flames to adjoining wooden buildings to the north and the fire leaped across the street to wooden buildings on the east side of Broadway. A number of businesses also were destroyed.
Most newspaper accounts indicated all county records were lost, but others stated some records in safes were salvageable. Luckily, all Register of Deeds records were saved because they were stored in an off-site building.
“The treasurer had a large safe which contained almost $25,000 in money and the most valuable books, but many books and papers of value for which the treasurer had no room in the safe were burned,” the Jan. 20, 1882 Abilene Weekly Chronicle reported.
A huge loss — which still resurfaces time after time — was the destruction of county road records.
The Abilene Weekly Democrat said, “A gentleman familiar with the public business of Dickinson County tells us that the road record, which was burned, contained 500 roads, and it will cost an average of $16 per road or from $8,000 to $10,000 to make the record again.”
The Weekly Chronicle reported, “The loss to the county cannot be estimated. The building was worth about $4,000 and there was an insurance of about $3,000 upon the building and $2,000 on the books and papers.”
In a case of “too little, too late,” Abilene was building a water system at the time.
“In a few months our waterworks will be completed. Had they been in running order that morning, all the frame buildings could have been saved,” the Weekly Chronicle stated.
The cause of the fire was not determined.
“The origin of the fire is unknown, but the public has settled down into the opinion that it was the work of an incendiary,” reported the Jan. 24, 1882 issue of the Weekly Democrat. “The circumstances are very suspicious and we think it would be a wise plan for the authorities to offer a reward or do something that will clear the cloud of mystery which appears to hang around it.”
One week later, the Jan. 27, 1882 the Abilene Gazette stated that temporary locations were found for county offices and some residents were in favor of issuing bonds “to the amount of $30,000 to $40,000” to build a new courthouse while others wanted the county to wait, get out of debt and then “build a courthouse that would reflect credit upon our growing county.”
Moving to Buckeye
Soon the decision was made to build on land that had been donated to the county in April 1875 by J.M. Fisher, Esq.
“The donation included 14 lots, seven of which fronted on Buckeye Ave., and the remainder on the unnamed street west of the Cottage Hotel grounds. In January 1878 Mr. Fisher added 11 additional lots to the proposed gift,” the March 2, 1883 Abilene Weekly Chronicle reported a year after the fire, just as the new courthouse on Buckeye was unveiled.
“The conditions were that a courthouse should be created on the grounds within 10 years,” the Chronicle story continued. “The commissioners on behalf of the county accepted the offer. The destruction of the old courthouse by fire in January 1882 rendered the building of a new edifice a matter of necessity and the citizens of Abilene donated $15,000 for the erection of a new building.”
The new 1883 courthouse, located south of the current courthouse in what is now the parking lot, cost $30,000 to build.
Four hundred invitations were sent out for a dedication ball and it is “confidently expected that it will be the most brilliant affair of the kind ever known in Central Kansas,” the Weekly Chronicle said. “The courthouse will be illuminated from basement to tower with wax candles of which nearly 400 have been ordered.”
Time marches on
Sixty-two years later in 1945, county commissioners established a one-mill levy to fund a new courthouse, according to Dickinson County Finance Director Janelle Dockendorf.
“In 1953 they extended the mill levy for 10 years and then in 1955 they approved a supplemental resolution for three-quarters of a mill to reach $635,000,” Dockendorf explained.
“Foresighted county commissioners collected a small “nest egg” levy in advance for several years for this purpose and no one ever felt the expense,” Jameson wrote.
Based on records she’s uncovered, Dockendorf said the total construction cost was around $600,000.
“The first plan was estimated at about $575,000, but they had to extend the levy to cover the cost of demolishing the old courthouse, building the parking lot, adding sprinklers, curb and guttering and equipment,” Dockendorf said.
On Jan. 19, 1955, a bid letting was held for the current courthouse with the Martin K. Eby Construction Co., of Wichita the low bidder for general construction at $339,380. Thirty-six bids were submitted for the various phases of construction.
Newspaper reports for the intervening years explaining why a new building was needed are difficult to find, however deterioration of the structure is a possibility.
As county staffers were moving to their new quarters in the summer of 1956 from the 1883 building, the Reflector-Chronicle reported, “Sheriff Wayne Woolverton, Undersheriff Nick Gibbs and Mrs. Marie Sullivan, secretary, were packing their equipment to be moved. Mrs. Woolverton said she thought it was time they were moving from the old jail. She said the ceiling fell down on her Wednesday.”
A formal dedication ceremony was held at the current courthouse at 2 p.m. Oct. 21, 1955. Approximately 2,000 people attended with many taking guided tours through the “glistening new building which was well decorated with flowers.”
“Everyone seemed to be highly pleased with what they saw, including the new modern jail with a drive-in entrance — but everyone agreed they wanted to see it from this side of the bars,” the Reflector-Chronicle reported.
That’s probably the same sentiment most will have once the new jail addition is completed in a couple years.
The saga continues
By the end of this month, bid letting is expected to take place for the jail addition and courthouse renovation.
In August 2018, Dickinson County voters approved a $13.5 million bond issue to build a new jail addition and renovate/remodel the existing courthouse.
One might make the case that courthouses have a similar retirement age as people — the 1882 courthouse lasted 62 years and the current courthouse will be getting a major facelift 63 years after opening with a jail that meets today’s compliance standards.
Like their commission counterparts in 1945, today’s county commissioners also set up a “nest egg” 2-mill levy in 2013 to help fund the project. That levy has brought in nearly $2 million.
The maximum project cost of the current planned project is $15 million.
“It’s extremely difficult for me to fathom the cost difference between 1956 being $600,000 or whatever for a complete courthouse and today’s cost of $15 million for just a jail and sheriff’s department,” said County Administrator Brad Homman.
“We’re not even comparing courthouse to courthouse. We’re talking courthouse to a fraction of a courthouse,” Homman added. “I realize that fraction is a little more expensive because it’s a detention center, but the one that was built in 1956 had a detention center in it too.”
Makes one wonder what will happen 60-some years in the future.
Contact Kathy Hageman at email@example.com