Work continues on the 1876 Martin County Courthouse in Shoals. The building, once slated for demolition, is now the county museum. Staff photo by Garet Cobb
Work continues on the 1876 Martin County Courthouse in Shoals. The building, once slated for demolition, is now the county museum. Staff photo by Garet Cobb
SHOALS — The Martin County Historical Society has received two grants to create a renovation plan for the historic 1876 museum building. The structure was formerly used as the Martin County Courthouse.

Society President Bill Greene said the group is following guidance from the Indiana Historical Society to create an overall plan for projects at the museum. Greene has been the society’s president for four years.

“We checked into the cost of the plan and it was going to be over $12,000,” he said. “We thought the plan was a good idea, but had no idea that it would cost that much. They (the Indiana Historical Society) came up with $10,000 and suggested that we contact the Indiana Landmarks to see if they would give us a grant. They did, and it covered the remaining cost of the plan.”

“We are an all-volunteer organization and most of us work jobs that aren’t structural engineer,” he continued. “We don’t understand the scope and cost of renovation projects. This plan will be very valuable going forward.”

Greene said the next major project on the list will be a centralized heating and cooling system for the building. Currently, the old courthouse has no heat and it can’t be open during the winter months. Another major project will be installing energy-efficient, historically correct windows.

“Before COVID, we were open three days a week during the summer months,” he said. “We plan on going back to that in May. We plan to be open on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.”

The group is shooting for a May 5 opening, as long as COVID guidelines allow it.

The Martin County Historical Society took possession of the building in 2004, after the new courthouse and jail opened adjacent to the building. The plan had been for the building to be torn down, but the county commissioners decided to save it and give it to the historical society. The old courthouse is on both the Indiana and National Register of Historic Places.

Part of the building’s history includes the hanging of three members of the Archer Gang in March of 1886. The three were taken from the jail by vigilantes and hanged from trees near the courthouse. A fourth member of the gang was legally executed a few months later. The gang was famous during that time for various crimes, including arson, extortion, counterfeiting, theft and murder.

Greene said the biggest undertaking so far has been the restoration of the bell tower of the old courthouse. The group received a $50,000 Indiana Historical Society grant to help with that as well.

Although the museum has been closed to the public since March, the historical society has not been idle. It has taken the time to do some smaller projects on a room-by-room basis. Drop ceilings have been removed from three rooms and two of them have been cleaned and spruced up.

“The drop ceilings were five feet below the height of the original ceilings,” Greene said. “The spiral staircase in the old clerk’s office looks a lot taller now that the ceiling has been removed.”

The spiral staircase leads from the clerk’s office on the main floor up to the judge’s chambers and courtroom.

Greene said it is hard for small organizations like theirs to undertake and sustain a museum such as the one in Martin County. But the group is definitely on the grow. He said with the help of Steve Ferguson, chairman of the Cook Group Inc. board, the society has increased its membership from 114 to about 880 members.

“Steve told us that he could give us money and we would probably still fail,” Greene said. “He said what we needed was sustainability and he helped us achieve that, to get more people involved.”

Greene said membership is open to anyone and they have around 50 local businesses that help to support them.

“I can’t do this on my own,” Greene said. “My job is to get people excited about their heritage and their ancestors. Get the people involved, and they will help sustain it. I am just a part of something that is bigger than me.”

Greene also said the society had received the historic Allbright house in Shoals as a gift. The home was cleaned and spruced up and hosted “Christmas 1945” in 2019 for people to get a glimpse of what Christmas would have been like at the end of World War II.

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