Time Machine

The fight between Marion and Cedar Rapids for the Linn County Courthouse

Piece of History

This story about the Linn County Courthouse in Marion burning ran Nov. 1, 1919, in the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, thr
This story about the Linn County Courthouse in Marion burning ran Nov. 1, 1919, in the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, three days before Linn County residents voted on whether Marion or Cedar Rapids should be the county seat. Artist Grant Wood provided the drawing to run with the story that the paper, in a smaller headline, admitted was imaginary but “may happen at any time.” Those backing Cedar Rapids for the new courthouse argued the Marion courthouse was a fire trap. Marion supporters said May’s Island, the site chosen for a new courthouse in Cedar Rapids, was an inadequate sandbar. Voters picked Cedar Rapids, by a two-to-one margin, for the new courthouse and county seat. (Gazette archives)
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Linn County’s first courthouse was built in Marion in 1842 and replaced with another courthouse in Marion in 1855.

As the building aged and Linn County grew, a new courthouse was needed to store important documents and protect them from fire.

Cedar Rapidians had been aruging for some time the county seat and courthouse should be moved to Cedar Rapids, the larger of the two cities. The matter was put to voters in 1919, and the fight that preceded the special election was brutal.

Three days before the election, the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette on Nov. 1 ran a big drawing — by artist Grant Wood — of the Marion courthouse in flames, with the banner headline, “COURT HOUSE BURNS!” A smaller subhead stated, “This is an imaginary scene, but in the present condition of the fire hazard it may happen at any time.”

Marion fought back, arguing the May’s Island plot deeded to Linn County for the new courthouse was an inadequate sandbar in the Cedar River.

Linn County voters on Nov. 4, 1919, chose Cedar Rapids as the new county seat by a two-to-one margin, 9,662 to 4,821.

But Marion voters turned out in huge numbers in a December 1920 special election to block the $1.3 million bond issue to build a new courthouse in Cedar Rapids.

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It was a heated campaign, with the president of the Linn County Farm Bureau even suggesting voters “get together and push Cedar Rapids off the map.”

Cedar Rapids prevailed and won passage of a $750,000 bond issue in November 1922 to build a new courthouse and jail.

Architect Joseph Royer designed the buildings, which opened in 1925.

Tara Templeman is curator at The History Center. Comments: curator@historycenter.org

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