- Tom Konieczny, President
- David Sirugo, Vice President
- Bonnie DeWolf, Secretary/Membership Chair
- Drew Buchanan, Treasurer
- Ashley Sharkey, Director
- Becky Pressel, Director
- Bruce R. Johnson, Director
- Dale Cooper, Director
- Gary Ashby, Director
- Julie Pitman, Director
- Susan Bukowski, Director
- William Boklund, Director
La Porte County Historical Society 2023 Board of Directors
La Porte County Historical Society, Inc. and its Museum
The La Porte County Historical Society was officially organized on January 30, 1906. However, there were other efforts to start a historical museum much earlier. In 1863, the La Porte Library and Natural History Association was started. The founding members held programs with famous speakers to help raise funds to build a library. Some of the speakers included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Horace Greeley, and Clara Barton. In 1876, land was purchased at 805 Maple Avenue for $1,200, and the building cost $2,752.92. It was a one-story building with 15 windows, a flat roof, and an iron fence to keep the cows out. Members of the Association could use the library, however non- members had to pay an annual $5.00 fee. Later, the La Porte Library and Natural History Association decided to make the library free to the public and were able to use tax dollars to help pay for library expenses. On June 3, 1896, the library and its 7,000 books were given to the city of La Porte and put under the guidance of the La Porte School Board. A year later, the building was remodeled with two new wings and a second floor on top. There were offices, a reading room with books and magazines, a high school study area, a children’s reading room, a workroom to repair books, and many rows of steel shelves for the 25,000 books. On the second floor was a museum for the recently formed La Porte County Historical Society. It displayed pictures, rocks and minerals, Indian artifacts, and mastodon bones. (This building is currently owned by the Parkison and Hinton accounting firm.)
In 1917, the School Board applied for funds from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation and received $27,500 to build a new larger library across the street at 904 Indiana Ave. It opened on November 6, 1920. The La Porte County Historical Society then moved its collections into the basement of the new library. In 1921, William A. Jones, a wealthy and well-known La Porte resident, died. His will stated that he was donating his valuable collection of more than 800 weapons and fire-arms to the City of La Porte. The new library was the perfect place to display the W.A. Jones collection with the Historical Society’s artifacts. In 1938, the La Porte County Historical Society and W. A. Jones Gun Collection moved into the basement of the La Porte County Courthouse where all of the artifacts were on display for 40 years. In 1978, the new 5-story County Annex building was constructed behind the courthouse between State and Washington Streets. Two floors were reserved especially for a new museum which opened on September 17, 1978.
In 2003, LaPorte County officials stated that there was a need for more office space and told the Historical Society Board of Directors that the museum collections would need to be moved to another location. Fortunately, an arrangement was made to purchase a museum building at 2405 Indiana Avenue near the historic Door Prairie barn on the south side of LaPorte. In 1993, Dr. Peter Kesling, a well-known orthodontist and philanthropist, had built the Door Prairie Auto Museum there to display more than 50 antique automobiles from his personal collection. The impressive brick building was Colonial-style and had a clocktower that was a replica of the tower on the second LaPorte County Courthouse. Ten years later, the deal was made for LaPorte County officials to buy the building from Dr. Kesling for the county museum. With the money he received, Kesling had a 3-story addition built on the back of the museum in which the La Porte County Historical Society was able to have historical period rooms constructed on the main floor, and the W.A. Jones Weapons Collection would be on display in the lower level. An agreement was made for Dr. Kesling to have the second floor for his automobile collection and the Kesling Foundation offices. The new La Porte County Historical Society Museum had a Grand Opening on September 30, 2006, the year of its 100th Anniversary.
History of La Porte County
Before 1830, all of La Porte and Starke Counties were a part of the Pottawatomie Nation. All of the land from the Wabash River to Lake Michigan belonged to the Pottawatomie Indians. They were a peaceful people and had trails or traces that ran through the forests, marshes and around the lakes and along the rivers and creeks. In 1838, the Indians were removed by the United States Government to the Osage County of Kansas. Many of these Indians were old and could not stand the long trip and died on the way, so it has been called the March of Death.
The State of Indiana enacted that after April 1, 1830, all of Northwestern Indiana from the county of Elkhart to the state line on the west be designated as St. Joseph County and that five districts or townships be formed. Two districts to the west were called Highland and Michigan; two districts to the east were in what is now St. Joseph County; and the center district, later a part of the present La Porte County was named “Descheim,” meaning in French, “by the lakes.”
Then followed a move led by Aaron Stanton to make La Porte a separate county. As a result, La Porte, consisting then of 462 square miles, was incorporated and became an official county on May 28, 1832. The county was divided into three districts or townships designated as Kankakee, Scipio and New Durham.
In 1832, when La Porte County was formed, it only extended as far south as the southern line of present Clinton Township. The land to the south became a part of Starke County when it was organized but the people living in that area had difficulty getting across the Kankakee River to go to Knox (the county seat of Starke County) to pay their taxes, having to go east as far as Lemon’s Bridge. They asked to be annexed to La Porte County and this was done January 28, 1842. The area was first called Van Buren Township, named after President Martin Van Buren. Then, on January 10, 1850, twenty sections of land were taken from St. Joseph County on the east and added to La Porte County to give La Porte County its present boundaries.
Today, La Porte County has 21 townships. Kankakee Township first contained all of what now is Galena, Hudson, Wills, Pleasant, Union, Washington, Lincoln and Johnson Townships. Since the source of the Little Kankakee River was in Kankakee Township, this township was called Kankakee. The land along the river was full of springs which fed it. The first man to settle in what is now Kankakee Township was Philip Fail. In 1834, the Michigan Road was built across the northern part by the State of Indiana. Scipio Township first contained all of what is now Centre, Springfield and Noble Townships. The first settlers were Adam Keith and his wife Elizabeth and Lewis Shirley and his wife and mother. So far, the reason for the name is unknown. New Durham Township first contained all of what is now Michigan, Clinton and Coolspring townships. It was named by Miriam Benedict, the first white woman settler in La Porte County. She named it after her old home, Durham, New York. She was buried in Union Chapel Cemetery which was later rededicated and in her honor named Miriam Benedict Cemetery. The four remaining townships (Cass, Dewey, Hanna and Prairie) were formed from the area to the south, once Van Buren Township of Starke County.
It is of interest to learn how the various townships received their names, some of which are self-explanatory. Wills was named after John Wills, the first settler, who lived near Boot Jack. Springfield was named by Judah Leaming, an early settler, after his home in the east, Springfield, Massachusetts. Clinton was named after DeWitt Clinton. Galena, like Kankakee, was named after the river. Hudson was named for the explorer, Henry Hudson. Cass was named after Lewis Cass. Dewey got its name from George Dewey, one of the first settlers. Hanna was named after an official of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Lincoln was the first township in Indiana to be named for Abraham Lincoln and Johnson received its name from Andrew Johnson.
La Porte County Courthouses
There have been three courthouses in the City of La Porte including the present one and all have been built on the same location. Simon 0. Bunce was awarded the contract for the first building in 1833, at a price of $3,975. All walls were constructed of well-burnt brick which was made on the premises. Greek Revival style was chosen for the second structure designed by John M. Vanosdel and built by Luther Mann, Jr. with the cornerstone being laid in 1848, which still remains in the third building. Cost of this building was $9,350. The present courthouse is of Portage Entry (Lake Superior) red sandstone. The architect was Brentwood Tolan of Ft. Wayne and Charles A. Moses of Chicago was the contractor.
Total cost for the building was $328,000. All the stone was shipped via boat to Michigan City and transferred to La Porte by rail. There are a least 45 gargoyle-type faces located in the corners of the windows, as well as other areas. There are three floors and a basement, with the third floor housing the courtrooms. Stained glass windows are also part of the structure, especially the large one in the circuit courtroom of Iustia, Goddess of Justice. Officials moved into their new quarters in March 1894, exactly twenty-five months from the day of ground breaking. This is the oldest of the two existing courthouses in La Porte County. In 1970, the building was included in the Historic Buildings Survey.
Superior Court House in Michigan City was completed in 1909 after the city donated land for it at Washington and Michigan Streets. Earlier court sessions were conducted on the second floor of a building at Franklin and Michigan Streets.
written by F. E. Schultz