Courtesy of Anuta Research Center
Top left: According to records, the original Marinette County courthouse (above) was completed in 1881. Records further indicate a three-man county board authorized the building of a courthouse and jail at a cost not to exceed $15,000. Top right: The old Marinette County jail and home of the sheriff are shown in this photo. Law and order was a far cry from the enforcement patterns of present-day life, but the sheriff and his deputized officers did the best with what they had to work with during the rough-and-tumble days of hard-drinking lumberjacks and nasty behavior.
Courtesy of Anuta Research Center

Top left: According to records, the original Marinette County courthouse (above) was completed in 1881. Records further indicate a three-man county board authorized the building of a courthouse and jail at a cost not to exceed $15,000. Top right: The old Marinette County jail and home of the sheriff are shown in this photo. Law and order was a far cry from the enforcement patterns of present-day life, but the sheriff and his deputized officers did the best with what they had to work with during the rough-and-tumble days of hard-drinking lumberjacks and nasty behavior.

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The removal of steel from the former Marinette County Law Enforcement Center (LEC) on Ella Court Street and the subsequent plan to convert the old jailhouse into office quarters for various county departments influenced me to review aged newspaper files and other historic materials to find out how the county got its start in building local government to its present-day status.

Back in January the county board acted to get the ball moving when it authorized a contract with Henry Malke & Son of Peshtigo and A&P of WI of Sobieski to demolish the steel detention material from the second floor of the structure that served as the county jail. The pact was for $24,675.

In looking back at county history, I found that Marinette County built its first jail and courthouse for $15,000. Now it’s going to cost $24,675 just to remove the steel from the jailhouse that followed the initial house of correction.

According to an EagleHerald news account earlier this year, the county has earmarked $350,000 in its 2019 budget for the removal of the steel and replacement of the roof and HVAC system.

I used to visit the old slammer behind the courthouse six days a week when I was on the news beat for the Marinette Eagle-Star. Most of our business was conducted in the dispatch center or the office of the sheriff. Occasionally, I was invited to join the sheriff on one of his trips to the second floor where the prisoners were quartered. To me, the place resembled a fortress compared to the former jail on the upper floor of the courthouse. I was also familiar with that jail, not as an inmate but a newsman.

I once was permitted to sit in on the interrogation of a murder suspect at the upper floor jail, something unheard of in today’s world. For a young reporter at the Menominee Herald-Leader (1959) it was a big moment in the days of fierce competition on the news beat. The county also had its own printing department on the upper floor.

The Ella Court facility has been sitting idle for some 15 years or since the county built its current law enforcement center on University Drive.

There’s a lot of history behind the formation of Marinette County. In March 1879 Oconto County, once considered the largest sized county in Wisconsin, was ordered by the Wisconsin Legislature to be divided in half. Marinette County was created with two townships and a three-man county board — one representing Marinette and Peshtigo and third was the county clerk.

The board wasted no time in moving to build a courthouse. Its first session was conducted in the office of J.A. Van Cleve, a lumberman and surveyor who became the county’s first clerk. The meeting was held on March 11, 1879. Joining Van Cleve at the historic meeting were Andrew C. Merryman who represented the township of Marinette, and William J. Shepherd who represented the township of Peshtigo.

Isaac Stephenson, who was building an impressive resume as a lumberman, banker, realtor and politician, offered to donate a parcel of land west of the N. Ludington Co. Store on what now is Hall Avenue, for the construction of the first county courthouse. The three-person board accepted Stephenson’s offer at its July 15, 1879, session. The county clerk was authorized to approach George Clark, an engineer from London, England, who had come to America in 1871 to perform civil engineering work in a developing country, to prepare plans for a courthouse. Clark was in the United States working for Union Pacific Railroad and laying out rail routes for the railroad. Clark was also known for his engineering work in Brazil, Calcutta and Hong Kong.

The action of the county board called for Clark “to make plans and specifications of a jail and courthouse not to exceed in value $15,000 when complete.”

Clark submitted his first set of plans on July 28, 1879, and came back on Aug. 7 with revised plans. The board approved the revised blueprint. Charles Patude’s bid for building the basement in the two separate structures was approved a week later. The bid of Calix Merchant for furnishing the materials for constructing the super structure at a cost of $9,000 was approved.

The swiftness in which the three-member county board moved to build a courthouse and jail after it was officially organized as a county was stunning when you figure the time frame. The first county board meeting in history was held March 11, 1879, and by Sept. 24, about six months later, the county proceeded to erect a courthouse and jail.

The Town of Marinette was huge at the outset. It extended 75 miles upstream on the Menominee River and included what now is Florence County. All of the western portion and the northern half made up the Town of Peshtigo. In 1882, Florence County was separated from Marinette County.

The City of Marinette was established in 1887 and changes were made in the outlying districts. The towns of Porterfield and Wausaukee were set off from Marinette and Peshtigo, the latter becoming a village. The county board was increased to eight supervisors.

Gradually, more towns were organized — Town of Amberg in 1890, Town of Grover in 1892, Town of Coleman in 1983 and so on. The county board continued to increase at the same time, upping its membership to ten representatives in 1892.

A significant change for a developing county occurred in 1896 when the county board recognized it needed a Poor Commission to take care of the impoverished families settling in the county.

As more settlers arrived and the population sprouted, the logging trade boomed and sawmills dotted the Menominee River and shores of Green Bay. The population of Marinette County was a reported 20,304 in 1890 and climbed to 36,225 by 1940, one year before World War II erupted.

We can only imagine how history was shaped and the colorful stories that were etched, some chronicled for public consumption, others drifting in silence, from the time the county was organized in 1879 until the bulging walls of a courthouse forced present-day leaders to make use of a former jailhouse to better serve the public.

Governed by a three-man county board at birth, and now by a 30-member elected body, it’s phenomenal growth over a 140-year span cannot be overstated.