THE OLD COURTHOUSE IN SAGINAW.
BY JUDGE ALBERT MILLER
Saginaw County was organized in February, 1835, and the first sessions of the circuit court were held in the old schoolhouse which for a time served as a schoolhouse, townhouse, church, lecture room, etc. But after the great influx in population in 1836, and the improvements made in the town by Mackie, Oakley, Jennison & Co., under the supervision of the late Norman Little*, it was thought by the leading men that it was incumbent on the county authorities to erect a building for a courthouse that would be an ornament to the great city that was expected would soon be built. The act organizing Saginaw County provided that the township board for Saginaw township should constitute the county board until such time as there should be three organized towns in the county to elect a board of supervisors. In January 1838, the county board consisted of Ephraim S. Williams, township clerk; Jeremiah Riggs, justice of the peace; Andrew Ure, justice of the peace, and the writer who was then a justice of the peace for Saginaw County.
The Saginaw City Bank had been organized under the general banking law, and commenced business with what purported to be a capital of $100,000, it being among the first of the “wild cat banks” that went into operation. That bank proposed to loan the county on its bond the sum of $10,000 with which to build a courthouse; so in the month of January, 1888, the county board convened in the township clerk’s office (which was also the post office), on the upper floor of a two story building on Water street, north of Mackinaw street, and signed a county bond for $10,000, payable in ten years, with interest payable annually. The bond was drawn by Samuel J. Watson, a young lawyer just commencing business in his profession, but afterwards a lawyer of some prominence in the city of Detroit. In conversing with George F. Williams about the bond at the time the corner stone of the new court house was laid, he said the bond was only a guaranty on the part of the members of the board individually that the county should pay the bank’ the sum of $10,000, but whatever the purport of it was, it served the purpose for which it was made. It was given to the bank and the bank officers negotiated it with the superintendent of public instruction and obtained the sum of $10,000. In determining the plan for the courthouse, the board was influenced by Judge Riggs in adopting the plan of the courthouse in Livingston County, New York, in which Judge Riggs had sat as an associate judge. He obtained a plan of it, and specifications were made and proposals for its construction advertised for. I think the board reserved the right to reject any or all proposals, but at any rate they assumed that right, for when the proposals were opened the lowest one exceeded the amount appropriated, and the bidders all being present it was decided to let the contract then and there to the lowest viva voce bidder. After some spirited bidding it was struck off to Asa Hill for nine thousand and some odd hundred dollars, reducing the amount of his written proposal several hundred dollars. A contract was entered into, with satisfactory sureties for the completion of the job, which contract, stipulated that all the money advanced should be expended in the purchase of material and in the payment for labor, and that all material purchased should become the property of the county. A building committee was appointed to see that the terms of the contract were complied with, and the business of collecting material was prosecuted with energy till about midsummer, 1838, when Asa Hill was prostrated with an illness from which he never recovered, passing away in the latter part of the summer ; that being a sickly season nearly all the newcomers being prostrated with the malarial diseases of the country. The death of Mr. Hill, the failure of the bank and the general financial depression caused a suspension of all operations in prosecuting the building of the courthouse for some time.
I write wholly from memory, and the exact dates of subsequent transactions in reference to completing the work are not clear in my mind. Many propositions were made and discussions had in reference to reducing the cost of construction. At the time mentioned there was but one house back or east of the site of the courthouse, a house built, and for a time occupied by Arden Moses, but then unoccupied, and a proposition was made to dispense with the columns on the east end of the courthouse, but Col. Little objected, saying Arden Moses might some time come back and occupy his house, and it would not be treating him respectfully to deprive him of a view of the ornamental columns. Finally a proposition was made by the late Norman Little to take the material on hand at its value and finish the building upon the payment of the contract price after deducting the price of the material. An appraisal of the material was made which amounted to so much more than Mr. Little expected that he refused to complete the contract. The material collected for the building was liable to go waste, and something must be done to save it.
Eliel Barber, a reliable mechanic, was hired by the county at two dollars per day to take charge of the material and prosecute the work, so far, at least, as to save the material from waste. He hired mechanics at from one dollar to one dollar twenty-five cents per day, and went on with the building. I believe, till the outside was finished, and all the rooms on the lower floor. A large room designated for the grand jury was used for a time as a court room, but I think it must have been fifteen years after the contract was let for the building before the court room on the upper floor was completed, but when it was first occupied the members of the Saginaw County bar were justly proud of the fine appearance of their court room. But the tug of war came when the $10,000 bond became due; the managers of the state finances claiming from the county the whole amount of the bond with interest, but the county, only having received a portion of the money was willing to pay that, but refused to acknowledge any further liability on account of the bond. A settlement was finally made on the basis indicated above.
It was claimed by the people that exorbitant charges were made against the county by some of the parties who were authorized by the county to make a settlement, for their services in effecting it. It would be difficult to tell at the present day what the sums paid on account of the bond and for finishing the courthouse amounted to, but the amount was not so largely in excess of the contract price as might be supposed.
*Norman Little, son of Dr. Charles Little, of Livingston Co., N. Y., settled permanently in Saginaw in 1836. He came on the first steamboat that came up the Saginaw. His father is said to have visited the valley as early as 1822 or ’24. Norman Little died in 1860. See Saginaw Co. History, p. 210.
Source: Historical Collections - Collections and Researches made by the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society. Vol. XVIII - 1891
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