New U-M Press book offers an 'encyclopedic tour' of 'Michigan's County Courthouses'
“This all started with a camera and a full tank of gas,” explained John Fedynsky.
He’s talking about his book, “Michigan County Courthouses: An Encyclopedic Tour of Michigan Courthouses” (University of Michigan Press), in which he visits every single one of our fair state’s 83 county seats to tell us about the hall of justice located there.
“I didn’t have the idea to write a book. I was just playing around with my camera, and I was finding that every county had a distinct and unique public building.”
He wondered if anyone had ever systematically compiled them and found that while it had been done by Maurice Cole, the volume was well over three decades old — certainly due for an update. So after he completed the bar exam to launch his own legal career, he started a tour of the entire U.P. and the northern part of the Lower Peninsula. The acquisition of a day job slowed him down a bit (“If I’d done it full time, it wouldn’t have taken so long,” he said, “but courthouses, you have to come during business hours if you want to see the inside!”), but he did visit every last county between 2004 and 2008.
The result is an alphabetically organized compendium that includes everything from the dates of each county’s organization to the contractors who provided the labor to any physical disasters that might have befallen the structures. Fedynsky’s trusty camera produced photos of every single one, which sit alongside a few reprints of buildings gone by. It was his idea to include a small map at the beginning of each section marking the county’s location on the mitten, helping the reader to orient herself before getting at the substance of the history.
Besides the exacting accounts of the facts associated with the buildings, Fedynsky spices up each account with some local lore — sometimes about the complicated processes that led to the choosing of a particular town as the county seat, or about famous cases, or particularly interesting inmates.
How did he get all these splendid stories? “They all have a myriad of sources. For the most part, I tried to rely on written and county history or newspaper clippings, so one of my stops in every county was the library and historical society. There’s a great network of those. I was definitely trying to get what’s written down. Some counties keep a vertical file on interesting local history, and there are some that are local tradition, and I noted those. So I guess in that case I had to roll with the story as it was me reporting it. And when you have a notorious criminal trial, I tried to select ones where the participants were long gone so I wouldn’t be accused of taking sides.”
Did he have any favorites? “There are certainly some notable ones,” he laughed. Like when Marquette’s first city clerk had to make a winter journey on foot to Eagle River for official business, and was instructed by the county clerk that “We never allow a winter visitor to depart in under two weeks, and as you are the first man who has ever come from Marquette or Carp River up here by land, we must give you a good time.” Ten days of “lively partying” ensued before the clerk was allowed to return to work. “That one gave me a warm feeling,” said Fedynsky, continuing, “I recall a few in the introduction, such as the time inmates were released from jail due to a fire, then stayed to help fight the fire. It was just a part of history that shows that side of human nature. Instead of running, they stuck around and helped save the courthouse, or at least mitigate the damage of the fire — which doesn’t just damage the building, but also the records.”
It's a rare county, it seems, whose courthouse hasn't burned down at one time or another. “Many of them were made of flammable materials, and they had all kinds of things that might have started fires — from the towers that were filled with books, down to people who were using the courthouse to cook some sort of oyster dinner and burned stuff. Another great story that’s one of my favorites is from Huron County,” where a fire swept through nearly the entire county in 1881, claiming 282 lives and 3,400 buildings. About 400 people “actually sought refuge in the court, because that was just a massive fire that consumed everything, and it was one of the few places they could find refuge. I believe that was the first domestic incidence of the Red Cross; they came to help. That’s one where the fire wasn’t localized (to the courthouse), it was dispersed and the courthouse was a literal firewall.”
I can’t resist asking if Fedynsky has a favorite courthouse, although my suspicion that one doesn’t embark on a project like this unless he finds at least a little delight in each one is confirmed by his answer: “That’s like asking, ‘Who’s your favorite uncle?’ and the diplomatic response is that they’re all charming in their own way. I think what brings them together are the hopes and aspirations of the community.” Then he went on to list the particular charms of maybe half the courthouses in the book.
Well, fair enough. Did he learn anything that surprised him? “The sheer size of Michigan,” he answered. “I had no idea that Michigan has second greatest amount of land east of Mississippi, after Georgia. It really is a vast and varied land.” That fact surprised me, too, as did learning that Wayne County — the state’s oldest — originally included territory from Wisconsin to Illinois to Ohio. He continued, “One thing I learned was the ways in which westward expansion passed by Michigan, so you had a rugged individualism that was reflected in each county. In some ways there’s a kind of constant transformation — from fur to lumber to furniture to becoming the automotive capital of the world.
“I think the biggest thing, which was more of a confirmation, was kind of the importance of a courthouse and the way an anonymous building can become alive. It’s more than bricks and mortar, more of a deeper truth.”
"Michigan's County Courthouses: An Encyclopedic Tour of Michigan's Courthouses" is available from the University of Michigan Press. The author will speak at the Hatcher Graduate Library at 7 p.m. on Oct. 5 as part of the Press' author series. John Fedynsky works for the Michigan Attorney General's office, which has asked him to stipulate that the views expressed in this book are the author's alone. We'd expect nothing less of a book about courthouses written by a lawyer, right?
Leah DuMouchel is a free-lance writer who covers books for AnnArbor.com.