In October 1868, sixteen voters went to the polls at Canton and Eden to elect county officials to replace those appointed by the territorial legislature. The first county officers maintained their offices in their own homes or business places and the county commissioners conducted their meetings in the back room of Holsey's store in Canton. The first term of circuit court was held in 1871 in a log building which stood on the present courthouse block. Because the population of the county was small, and grasshopper plagues made it difficult for many settlers to even survive, the commissioners gave little thought to raising taxes to build a courthouse. A rivalry between private parties, however, soon provided the county with a courthouse at no cost to the taxpayers.
In 1875 John M. Carpenter moved a small abandoned building from Canton to a townsite called Lower Canton that he and others were promoting at the west end of the Beloit bridge. They were convinced that if the county courthouse was located at Lower Canton, the railroad being built west across northern Iowa would more likely be routed through Beloit. Carpenter offered to build a courthouse, donate it to the county, and offered free use of the small building to house the county offices at Lower Canton in the meantime. Branding the proposal a devilish scheme, a group of Canton businessmen quickly made a counter offer to finance and build a courthouse in Canton.
By a vote of two to one, the county commissioners accepted the Canton offer and the new courthouse was ready for occupancy in December 1875. Built of brick on the site of the present courthouse, the building measured thirty-two feet and forty feet and contained four offices on the first floor and a courtroom and jury room on the second floor.
For several years the courthouse grounds were apparently an unsightly mess. The Canton newspapers chided the commissioners for failing to fill in an old well, and for allowing weeds to grow, and permitting piles of trash, offal, and old farm machinery to accumulate. But by 1882 the editors praised the commissioners for improvements made that included the installation of hitching posts, grading and leveling, fencing, and planting of grass and trees.
Inadequate in size almost from the beginning, talk soon surfaced for building more adequate facilities. An election was held in 1888 to determine whether to sell the courthouse and square to raise funds to build a new courthouse elsewhere. Voters soundly defeated the proposition and in 1889 approved a measure to raise taxes to erect a three and one-half story addition on the east side of the old courthouse. The towering addition was ready for occupancy in February 1890.
During the 1890's the circuit judges repeatedly complained that the court facilities in the old portion of the courthouse were inadequate. In 1898 a special tax was approved for its replacement. So that work could begin immediately, a group of Canton businessmen advanced construction funds and were reimbursed when the tax money became available. The old 1875 building was torn down and in 1899 a structure designed to blend with the 1889 portion was erected. The clock tower was also added. The City of Canton paid one-half the cost of the clock, which has operated by large weights that descended from the tower through the lower floors.
Both portions of the present courthouse were designed by the renowned Sioux Falls architect, Wallace Dow. Richardson Romanesque in style, it has been called the jewel of the many public buildings Dow designed throughout South Dakota.
When originally constructed, the courthouse basement contained the jail, storage vaults, restrooms, and the furnace room. the main floor housed four offices and a meeting room for the commissioners. The second floor consisted of two offices and the main floor of the two story court room. On the third floor were two office rooms and the balcony of the court room. A portion of the fourth floor attic was finished for use as a jury room.
In 1940 the lower level of the courtroom was remodeled for offices and the court room was relocated into its third floor balcony area. In 1962 an elevator was installed and three new vaults were added on the northeast corner. Jail facilities were moved to a building across the street west of the courthouse, which was constructed as a WPA project in 1940.
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100 East Fifth Street
Canton, SD 54013-1798