Cottonwood County was organized July 29, 1870. It was named for the Cottonwood River, which touches the northeast corner of Germantown Township in Cottonwood County. The river was named for the abundance of cottonwood trees on its banks.
At the time of the organization, Minnesota Governor Austin appointed three county commissioners. Their first meeting was held at a private home located about six miles northwest of Windom on the Des Moines River at Big Bend.
At this meeting, the commissioner districts were designated and various county officers were changed. The first general election was held in the fall of 1870 so some of these officials changed at that time.
The first deed on record was filed January 10, 1870 and the first land assessments were made in 1871. The first taxes were paid in 1872.
In 1872, Windom was declared the county seat in the general election and a proclamation was signed by the governor. A small wooden building located at 355 9th Street was rented by the commissioners for offices. Later, the county moved to a rented two-story wooden building at 862 4th Avenue.
A permanent wooden structure was built in 1883. It was two stories high and measured 36 feet by 50 feet. The building was north of the present jail. The cost was $2,916.62.
On August 21, 1903, $50,000 was appropriated for courthouse construction. The commissioners traded Block 23, except for the jail, for Block 13. Block 13 contained a park with a bandstand in the center. The grounds were quite low and at times it became a virtual duck pond. Workmen filled the pond with 362 loads of dirt at a cost of $120.66.
Architects were asked to submit plans and the commissioners spent two days looking over the plans. O'Meyer and Thori, who had been the architects for the Hutton and Quevli buildings in Windom, were engaged. In Nordimedendene i Amerika (Norwegians in America) by Martin Ulvestad, Thori was described as "master of the saw".
The architects were paid $1,175.: when the plans and specifications were delivered, they were paid $500; when the walls were plastered, they were paid $250; and, when the building was finished, they were paid $425.
J.B. Nelson of North Mankato was hired as contractor on March 22, 1904 at a bid price of $59,949. The actual cost was $35,000 plus $5,200 for filling and grading the grounds. In 1905, $35,000 was borrowed from the State of Minnesota on a 20 year repayment schedule to pay for the remaining courthouse debt.
Ecclesiastical Decorator Odin J. Oyen, LaCrosse, Wisconsin, specialized in decoration, embossing glass mirrors, and doing tapestries. He was hired to do the interior decorating at a cost of •$2,900. Sketches from catalogs were submitted and, according to the contract, "all materials were to be of the best, all work was to be done in a work-manlike manner, artistic and satisfactory".
Oyen was to make a copy of Justice which hung in the Palace of Justice, Paris, France, for the courtroom. It was to be done in Italian Renaissance decoration style. All gold would be French Gold Leaf Bronze. The courtroom was to be painted red and green.
An Indian was painted on the wall of the Farmer's Room in the southeast corner of the lower level of the courthouse. This has since been removed because it was considered to be in poor taste.
Part of the contract was sublet to L. A. Thiel and Company who were fresco artists and interior decorators of churches and homes in the Chicago area. Thiel and Company painted the semi-circular murals in the rotunda dome. The medium was fresco distemper oil color on canvas. This type of paint was later called calcimine.
The murals were entitled Government, Justice, Freedom of the Press, and Freedom of Religion. The corner emblems were to depict art, history, government and science but, for some unknown reason, were replaced by the seals of the United States and the State of Minnesota. The surrounding areas were painted red and green.
The center of the dome was a skylight, which helped to light the art pieces.
The lower section of the rotunda was marble and the upper section was painted to simulate marble. The decorator used a small brush and a feather to imitate the marble veins on the lower area.
Ornate designs in the rotunda contained the initials CC for Cottonwood County.
The floor of the rotunda is terrazzo tile and contains a motif of the scales of justice. Once again, the colors of red and green were used.
The walls and office doors facing the rotunda had etched glass in them. All the door frames and decorative woodwork were embossed tin which added to the classical decor. These are all still in use.
Counter tops in each office were also made of marble and have lasted through the decades.
The original courtroom benches and woodwork have remained. The rails between the spectator area and the judicial area were hand-lathed.
The courthouse was constructed in classical Greek Corinthian style. Press brick was used for the gray coloring and Wisconsin limestone for the red coloring on the exterior.
The square structure was topped with an impressive copper dome. Atop the dome was placed a statue of the Greek god Themis, or Justice, at a cost of $350.
When the building was constructed, the porches, or porticos, which the architect originally had on the plans were omitted. After seeing the finished product, the commissioners decided that the porches should be added after all. These porches form the commanding entrances as we see them today. The additional cost was $3,200.
The commissioners also decided to add stone arches to the first floor window frames and brick architraves (square tops) to the second floor windows. Fireproof doors and windows were also added.
The building contains a two story, octagon shaped rotunda which is topped with an interior dome. The rotunda is made of Tennessee marble. The blueprints also called for marble pillars but these were omitted. Two wings of offices are located off the rotunda to the north and south. The second floor contains all the judicial offices.
First and foremost in the minds of the county commissioners has always been the preservation of the courthouse structure for the future. With this in mind, and in commemoration of the Bicentennial in 1976 an effort was made to refurbish and restore the rotunda and the Statue of Justice. After much consideration and study, St. Paul Statuary, St. Paul, and Hiebert Electric, Windom, were selected to begin the job.
Lightning had taken its toll on the dome and the skylight had been damaged. It was replaced by a commemorative Bicentennial seal which was designed and cast by sculptor, A. J. Brioschi. This seal symbolizes the significance of the project. Stiles were extended down from the seal to the present structure giving the work a sense of continuity.
Ecclesiastical decorator, Joe Capeschi, St. Paul, cleaned the mural in the courtroom and restored the original colors. He also re-stenciled the original motifs and glazed the cornices. At that time, he stated that the designs were calcimine.
Mr. Paul Kramer, a Butterfield native, also assisted in restoring the murals. He removed the rotunda murals and repaired the surfaces before reapplying them. His work was done at the Kramer Studios, St. Paul.
The Statue of Justice was removed from atop the courthouse by crane in the spring of 1979 and taken to Messer Machine and Manufacturing, Windom, for refurbishing. The base was rotten and the statue seemed to be pierced with bullet holes. The scales had blown off in a 1930's wind storm and, as a show of patriotism, they were given to the World War II scrap metal drive. During the 1979 restoration project, the roof was repaired and the statue was replaced with new scales being added. In a later wind storm, the scales were again blown off.
The cost of these restorations was approximately $18,700.
Over the years, there have been many small remodeling projects. Some of the major ones are as follows:
In 1953, Noble Peterson Construction tore out the sagging wooden floors in the Farmer's Room on the lower level. The floors were raised two feet. This room then became the Welfare Office. Later, the Assessor's office was moved to this room and the Welfare Office was moved to the Industrial Park.
Federal and State regulations, as well as technology changes, made extensive remodeling necessary in the late 1980's. Architect John Baldridge, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was hired to do the remodeling in phases.
In 1988, the north entrance to the courthouse was redesigned to eliminate the steps which made it accessible to the handicapped. Just prior to this, public restrooms in the courthouse were made handicapped accessible.
In 1990, all the original windows were replaced with new windows to make the courthouse more energy efficient.
The merger of the County Court and District Court offices into one court system is what necessitated the largest remodeling project. The County Court offices were housed in a building located at 1044 Third Avenue in Windom and this made the day-to-day operation very cumbersome. To solve this, the entire upper floor of the courthouse was remodeled to consolidate the court system. As part of this project, a security and alarm system was installed, probation services were added, the Court Administrator's offices were streamlined, and the courtroom and Judge's Chamber were completely refurbished.
As part of this same project, an elevator was installed running from the lower level to the attic. This gave handicapped accessibility to all levels of the courthouse. A meeting room was added in the lower level and storage rooms were added in the attic.
At all times, the original building construction and decor was kept intact as much as possible.
The cost of the 1990-91 remodeling project was approximately $500,000.