The Wyoming County Courthouse marked its 175th birthday Friday with a display of photographs and artist’s renderings through the years, as well as a tour of some of its nooks and crannies.
The building before the public today had its foundation laid in August of 1843, but it doesn’t appear to have been opened to the public before June of 1844.
It has undergone three facelifts since Thomas Parker, a New Englander by birth, contracted with the original county commissioners to do the work of brick construction, with an assist by Archibald Bannatyne, a Scottish immigrant and the county’s first treasurer, who lent his substantial carpentry skills to the task. Price tag was $5,000.
In 1869-70, employing an Italianate style of architecture designed by D.R. Nott, the front of the courthouse was added with clock tower and wide staircases leading up to the courtroom, all at a cost of $24,880 with construction directed by Charles Place.
In 1938, with around two-fifths of the $66,000 construction costs coming from the federal government’s Depression-era Public Works Administration, a substantial 40 x 63 feet section with three floors and a basement was added to the west end of the courthouse. The architect was Cecil Allen.
County employees and previous grand juries had complained of the complete absence of sanitary and convenient toilet facilities. So among the amenities just in the basement would be men’s toilets, a storage vault, new heating plant, fuel storage and a large supply room.
The ground floor would have two offices and a vault on the north end to be used by the commissioners, and on the south side would be two large office rooms as well as two rest rooms where the county treasurer’s office had been.
The second floor would have a suite of offices on the south side to be used as the judge’s chambers, with jury rooms and a law library on the north end.
The third floor was to have four office rooms and two toilets, but plans for a modern fire tower on the roof were apparently scrubbed.
The new construction was to be of concrete blocks with stucco covering.
County Commissioner Cyrus Tyler seemed to summarize the sentiment of a grand jury looking into a possible expansion by noting,”Our present building has served us well for almost 100 years,what we hope to do now is build for the next 100 years.”
Local labor was employed, putting to work 20 men for a period of five months.
And, then in 1992, around the time of Wyoming County’s sesquicentennial, a $1.8 million expenditure nearly doubled the amount of office and storage space in the building.
Tours were available Friday with County Commissioner Tom Henry taking visitors into the bowels of the original courthouse.
Once on solid footing after descending steep steps into the basement, Henry proudly proclaimed the area was to serve as a fallout shelter should the need arise. He then took his visitors into one of two holding cells - which resembled constructions in a military fort.
Although the cell bars have been long gone, Henry said there is a picture at the Historical Society that shows them in place.
As you head west into the basement, you can see the original stone construction of the walls which marks the end of the original courthouse section, and the beginning of a massive addition made in 1938 during the Great Depression.
Henry also showed off the less glamorous boiler room and canteen used by county employees, and made mention of the original paper records of the county locked in a vault. He said that all records had been digitized, so that was a good thing.
Back on the main floor, President Judge Russell Shurtleff took his guests up a wide staircase to the jury room and proceeded to show where some contractors had signed off on their work.
He showed the jury room where from time to time a dozen adults are sequestered to reach a verdict in often challenging cases.
Judge Shurtleff pointed out spindles on railings that matched what they would see in the courtroom, then had his visitors ascend some steps to what amounted to be the main courtroom’s balcony.
There were neither benches nor chairs in the balcony, but the Judge said it was chair seating in the good old days, and people sometimes helped themselves to some of the best entertainment of its day.
“This is the people’s court room, and residents have always been entitled to see what’s going on,” Shurtleff said.
One could just imagine the throngs attending the riveting jury trial in June of 1951 when Charles Homeyer was tried for killing his wife in Factoryville and chopping her up to destroy the evidence. Incidentally, he was found guilty, and sentenced to die in the electric chair at Rockview State Prison. (The chair is now part of the State Museum collection but rarely displayed in Harrisburg.)
Judge Shurtleff pointed out some unique features of the windows that had been preserved, as well as Tunkhannock’s skyline and then guided visitors back downstairs and into the grand courtroom.
He pointed out some of the special features of the courtroom including the large bench he sits behind. He hauled out a photograph which showed a clock at the northwest end of the courtroom that still works to this day.
The judge pointed to the portraits around the courtroom of his predecessors with the immediate past judge - in this case, Brendan Vanston - overhanging the jury box.
He went all the way back in the southwest corner of the room to John Conyngham who had the only bust in the room and meted out justice in Luzerne as well as Wyoming counties. He was the first elected President Judge in 1850.
A picture nearby of William Jessup- who had been the judge in Susquehanna County when Wyoming was formed back in the 1840s, became the latter’s first judge as well.
Judge Shurtleff said he values his role as keeper of the courtroom and wishes some things could happen to preserve a little more historic flavor including Brady Bunch-era light fixtures which he wishes looked more like the gas lights of past, although he was not advocating for gas, but rather historic looking fixtures.
He said he recognized limitations on taxpayers, and but hoped the changes might one day come.
The Judge then proceeded to the second courtroom pointing out some historic photographs which shared an earlier day’s views of places across Wyoming County. He then took the visitors into his chambers, pointing out the desk he used belonged to Judge Roy Gardner, and the law books - and no, he admitted he has not read them all - that date back to 1842 when the county was created.
Shurtleff said that over his nine years on the bench, he enjoyed looking at some of the books with interesting tidbits but his time seems to be at a premium these days often addressing 12-14 cases a day, when his predecessor was averaging 4-6.