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HOULTON COURTHOUSE HISTORY

Aroostook County Courthouse, Houlton Maine

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The following excerpt is reprinted by permission from The Courthouses of Maine, Robert K. Sloane, Senior Editor.

The County Courthouse

For ten years after the formation of the Aroostook county, court sessions were held in the Black Hawk Tavern, erected in 1813 by builder Samuel Wormwood for pioneer settler Aaron Putnam. The tavern was constructed of wood cut and sawed on site, and was walled up with brick on the outside in an attempt to make it bulletproof. The court was held in a room of the second floor of the tavern. The corner occupied by the judge’s bench was marked by four-foot tall wainscotting on the walls of the room. The first county jail was a dungeon in the basement, where rings in the walls were used to chain prisoners in their cells. There was no provision for ventilation for the prisoners in the basement.


Samuel Gooch became the first counselor at law at Houlton. He became a prominent figure early in the town’s history. Other early attorneys in town included Henry C. Field who began practicing in the Court of Common Pleas in 1832. In 1834 he was joined by Isaac W. Tabor.


Sessions of the Aroostook County Courts and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court were moved from the Black Hawk Tavern when Trustees of the proposed Houlton Academy planned a school building which would have space for sessions of the courts. In 1848, the Maine Legislature authorized conveyance of one-half of Township 14 Range 3 (now Woodland) to the Academy Trustees, if they would agree to construct “a good and convenient academical building” and begin holding school sessions “before the final Monday in October 1849.” The Trustees purchased a centrally-located lot of four acres in Houlton, facing the Military Road. The lot, located between Garrison Hill and the Creek on Military Street, was elevated land cleared of timber by Edmund Cone in 1818. The land was purchased from Collins Whitaker “for a fraction of its value.” On this site, the Trustees built a two-story frame building with schoolrooms on the lower floor. On the second floor a courtroom was built to be used for the sessions of the Supreme Judicial Court and county Courts of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace. This room was occupied by the courts for eleven years, until a separate courthouse was built.


In 1857 the county commissioners found a surplus in the county treasury that was sufficient to begin planning for a new courthouse. Commissioners Benjamin Hawes, Moses White and Bellony Violette determined to use these funds and the proceeds from a loan to construct a new building. Residents of Aroostook immediately took issue by writing their comments to the Aroostook Times, objecting to the anticipated new taxes. The county commissioners responded by citing the state legislation that makes it the duty of the county commissioners to provide for the erection of courthouses and other necessary buildings for the use of the county. The commissioners agreed that commission chair Hawes would contact a competent architect and begin the steps necessary to construct the courthouse.


On a site fronting on Military Road, construction of the courthouse began in April, 1858 and was completed in seven months as planned in November. The structure cost a total of $35,000. The clock was added at a later date, a gift to the town from generous individuals. Up the hill from the courthouse, the new county jail was finished at a cost of $27,000. The local media described the building: “This is a building for use and not ornament, still it is due to the Commissioners and Designer to admit that it is a fine looking structure and an addition to the looks of the place.”


Growth in local and county needs led to the expanded use of the courthouse. By 1882, even the town library was housed in a “small locker” or box for books kept at the courthouse. In 1889, plans for modification of the courthouse were prepared by Wilfred E. Mansur of Bangor, who also designed a new county jail. The project got underway in 1895. The new addition to the courthouse contained eight rooms, four on each floor. The addition extended the 1859 building and virtually replicated the earlier architecture. Its cost was $20,000.


A major fire in Houlton destroyed much of the downtown area in 1902, but the courthouse escaped undamaged. Remarkably, the Black Hawk Tavern, the original site of court terms, also escaped destruction in the fire. In 1928, another addition to the courthouse was made, with a long new wing on the north end of the courthouse. At the same time, gambrel roofed pediments were built over the 1895 portion of the building.

 

Courthouse Re-dedicated in July 1997

In July 1997 the Aroostook County courthouse was officially re-dedicated and named in honor of Justice James Putnam Archibald. This was done with the unanimous consent of the Aroostook County commissioners and a bronze plaque presented by the Aroostook County Bar Association was prominently placed at the front of the building at the main entrance. Justice Archibald has served as a Justice of the Superior Court, Supreme Judicial Court and as an active-retired justice continually since October 4, 1956, almost 48 years... longer than any other justice in Maine.

The plaque presented by the Aroostook County bar reads:

AROOSTOOK COUNTY
COURTHOUSE
Constructed 1859
Re-dedicated - 1997 in honor of
JAMES P. ARCHIBALD
for devoted service since 1956 to the people of the
County of Aroostook and the State of Maine as a
Justice of the Superior and Supreme Judicial Courts
with fairness, wisdom and common sense.