Community pride

Jefferson County Courthouse fire
puts new perspective on
upcoming celebration

Bicentennial planners vow to put on a good show



(June 2009)

Read previous Don Ward columns!
Don Ward

The shocking sight of the Jefferson County, Ind., Courthouse on fire captured the attention of this town of 13,000 for nearly two weeks in late May. The recently renovated belltower and cupola, with its gold-painted roof sparkling in the morning sun, turned to curled, charred debris as it rose feebly toward the blue sky above Madison in the days following the fire.
Hundreds of resident watched in horror as volunteer firefighters from six companies in Madison and 12 other nearby fire departments battled the blaze throughout the evening of May 20. Area residents returned the next morning to gawk at the damaged roof and blackened cupola.

Madison Bicentennial logo

Many stood in disbelief, photographing the scene. Others cruised slowly by in their vehicles in the single restricted lane of traffic that led from the Hwy. 421 hill, south across Main Street, down Jefferson Street and past the west side of the Courthouse in what seemed like a two-day funeral procession passing through town.
Workers had spent a month washing, painting and touching up the Courthouse in a $160,000 renovation project. They were putting the finishing touches on the roof when fire broke out around 6 p.m., well after employees had gone home for the day.

Courthouse dome on fire

Photo provided

The Jefferson County Courthouse
dome is fully engulfed in flames
late Wednesday, May 20,
just three weeks before the city's
Bicentennial celebration.

Firefighters sprayed thousands of gallons of water on the roof that night, sending billowing smoke rising above the city and at times engulfing the Courthouse entirely and blocking it from view.
The cause of the fire had not been announced at press time on June 1, but suspicions pointed to the work being done to the roof. Jefferson County Commissioners met a half dozen times in emergency session that week to hire companies to salvage and recover thousands of documents, dry out the building and take down the crippled belltower, which a week after the fire teetered on collapse.
Meantime, the community showed an outpouring of generosity, offering food, water, office supplies and volunteer work in helping to relocate the Circuit and Superior Courts, and the offices of County Clerk, Auditor, Recorder, Assessor, Board of Commissioners, Voter Registration, Surveyor and Treasurer. MainSource Bank provided two years rent free for many offices on the second floor of its downtown branch. Superior Court moved to Judge Alison Frazier’s office building on Second Street. Circuit Court moved to the chamber-owned Venture Out Business Center on the Madison hilltop. The Commissioners later announced plans to eventually move the courts and clerk into the former Eagles Club building they already owned on Jefferson Street. It first has to be renovated, which they estimated could take two months.

Courthouse smoke panorama

Photo by Don Ward

Smoke rises from the Jefferson County Courthouse on May 20
in this panoramic view from the top of the Milton, Ky., hill.

The other county offices expect to remain at MainSource Bank for at least two years while the repairs are made to the Courthouse, said County Assessor Margaret Hoffman. “It’s a great space for us; I’ve never had my own office before,” she said while still moving in a week after the fire. “Everyone has been great, and we are adjusting.”
Circuit Court Judge Ted Todd said he has been “truly amazed” at the professionalism and expertise of the Michigan-based document recovery company, Electronic Restoration
Services Inc., or ERS, hired to organize, remove, freeze and restore computer and paper documents gathered from inside the Courthouse (See related story, Page 10). Three semi-truck loads of computer and paper documents were hauled to Livonia, Mich., to be fully restored in ERS’ labs.

Court room damage

Photo by Don Ward

Todd’s office and court room were on the third floor – the only floor inaccessible throughout much of the week after the fire because of the unstable belltower and 3,100-pound bell that still clung to the roof of the building. Todd said the contents of the third floor were not burned, only damaged by water, soot and of course, covered by fallen debris that was once the roof.
“It’s hard to believe there are companies out there that do this type of thing for a living, but now I see how important their work is when something like this happens,” Todd said.
On Wednesday, May 27, exactly a week after the fire, cranes began lifting workers into the air to inspect the dome and devise a plan to remove it and lower it safely onto the ground. The job drew yet another crowd of spectators with cameras. TV news crews from Louisville spent much of the week filming the ordeal, interviewing local residents and hovering above the town in helicopters.

Julie Berry

Photo by Don Ward

The timing of the fire couldn’t have been worse by occurring only a few weeks before the city’s Bicentennial Celebration, set for June 6-14. The 155-year-old Courthouse was scheduled to be the centerpiece of the town’s history, although no events had been scheduled in or near the building.
But Bicentennial planners and county commissioners are not letting this devastating blow to one of Madison’s most visible historical landmarks put a damper on the upcoming celebration. Rather, they are pointing to this event as a rallying point to bring the community together. They anticipate the Courthouse fire to inspire even more people to take part in the city’s upcoming celebration.
“This event has certainly galvanized the community to recognize how significant and precious our history is,” said Jan Vetrhus, committee chairwoman of the Madison Bicentennial. “It’s not just a building – it contains the records of our lives – births, deaths, marriages, deeds, property taxes and court proceedings.”
Vetrhus recited the words of Jefferson County Commission President Julie Berry, who said earlier in the week, “We are a resilient community, and we will get through this.”
County Commissioner Tom Pietrykowski echoed those sentiments, saying, “We will be back better and stronger than ever,” as he watched the cranes hover around the charred belltower on May 27.

Crowd at courthouse

Photo by Don Ward

At a press conference, held the morning after Memorial Day at City Hall, Berry and the commission’s attorney, Wil Goering, described for a room full of government employees, spectators and TV news cameras the events of the weekend, including the many hours of work by volunteers and show of support by the town’s citizens. Berry said the commission wanted to salvage and restore the bell, forged in 1864 in Cincinnati. She said the commission plans to form an advisory board to direct restoration efforts. “We’re working on the best solutions for the rebuild.”
Workers spent most of Thursday, May 28, cutting the belltower horizontally in half with chainsaws. They then lifted off the 14,000-pound top half of the belltower and sat it on the ground around 6 p.m. in the midst of a thunderstorm. A crowd of more than 100 people braved the downpouring rain to photograph the event and cheer wildly for the workers after the structure touched the ground.

Courthouse recovery

Photo by Don Ward

Workers remove documents from the
damaged Courthouse in the days
following the fire.

The next day, Friday, May 29, workers lifted the bell out of the remaining portion of the belltower and placed it safely onto Main Street, where onlookers photographed it for several hours. Later that day, the workers removed the rest of the belltower, weighing in at 10,000 pounds, and rendering the third floor of the building safe for cleanup.
Federal and state investigators and insurance agents spent Friday examining the structures to determine the cause and complete their reports. Meantime, plans continued in earnest for the Madison Bicentennial, for which a committee of volunteers has been planning for nearly two years. The Courthouse fire only fueled their determination to pull off “the biggest party the city has ever seen,” said committee chairwoman Jan Vetrhus.

Courthouse Bell

Photo by Don Ward

Community pride and a true spirit of volunteerism already has emerged in this moment of devastating loss, but soon Madison’s citizens will be able to celebrate their heritage and come together to turn tragedy to triumph.
Vetrhus believes the fire will “inspire people to realize just how significant and precious our history is, and how important it is that we come together now to celebrate it together as a community.” Ever the optimist, she said: “It’s important that we focus not on what we’ve lost but on what we have. So we need to keep our spirits high.”
She concluded: “We’re still going to have a good party.”

• Don Ward is the editor, publisher and owner of RoundAbout. Call him at (812) 273-2259 or email him at: Don@RoundAboutMadison.com.


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