Two central Iowans have created a coffee table book detailing stories of the county courthouses in all 99 Iowa counties. The 207-page book, “Prairie Jewels,” features color panoramic images and narratives about each of the stately structures. Freelance writer Michael Adams, of Des Moines, says David Richmond, who teaches photography at Simpson College in Indianola, started the project five years ago and it evolved into the book.
“Some of the stories are kind of long on history, others I might focus more on the architecture, and then some might have a little personal observation,” Adams says. “I approached this as a celebration of Iowa’s county courthouse heritage.” During their many journeys across the state to visit each building, Adams says they encountered other “courthouse groupies” who were making similar treks to every courthouse. He’s confident the book will have a wide audience.
“There’s folks that are going to be interested in Iowa history, there’s folks that are going to be interested in architecture, there’s going to be folks that just revel in looking at beautiful buildings,” Adams says. “These are stories of the host communities of these buildings as well.” In addition to the many unusual and sometimes-spectacular features of the buildings themselves, he says there were always tales of community pride, intrigue and whimsy.
“You just walk through these places and you’re incredibly aware of the history,” Adams says. “There were places I visited, like in Leon, I heard about this attempt by two thieves to blow up the treasurer’s office and they ended up blowing up half the courthouse.” While Iowa has 99 counties, there are actually 100 county courthouses in the state. “Lee County has two courthouses,” Adams says. “There’s one in Fort Madison, which happens to be the oldest courthouse in Iowa, and then there’s one in Keokuk that used to be a post office in its early life.”
Pottawattamie County also has two courthouses: the main one in Council Bluffs and the original structure in Avoca, which was built in 1885, though it’s now considered a sub-courthouse. “Prairie Jewels” was the focus of a successful crowd-funded Kickstarter campaign in the spring of 2015. It’s available at independent booksellers and online at: http://prairiejewels.com