Mariposa Life

Debbie Croft: California courthouses are historic treasures

Debbie Croft

At the library last week, I picked up a copy of "Courthouses of California, An Illustrated History." On the cover of the large book are four color photos of courthouses located in Riverside, Mariposa, Santa Barbara and Marin counties. Sort of a family album of Californians over the last 150 years, the photographs are accompanied by essays penned by judges, architects and historians, with a number of interesting anecdotes and legends. The stories feature our most distinguished residents, some infamous baser fellows and a whole lot of common folk.

"Conditions were primitive when Merced County was established in 1855. The courthouse was a one-story wooden building, 12 by 25 feet, described as rude and unfinished. A dining table did double duty as judge's bench and clerk's desk; boxes and kegs served as seats. The grand jury met under one oak tree; trial juries deliberated along the banks of Mariposa Creek beneath another oak."

Also according to the book, it was one of the windiest spots in the county, making the clerk's job more difficult, with no place to store his papers. There were times when a sudden gust of wind would scatter his stack of legal documents everywhere, causing the formalities to cease temporarily while the judge, jury, clerk and spectators "turned their attention to hunting and catching papers."

It was only a year later when voters moved the government center to Snelling's Ranch. The modest two-story building remains today humble, yet bearing an almost autocratic demeanor as a building with so much prestigious history.

Within 15 years the railroad arrived in Merced County. A campaign was begun, and soon the county seat was moved again -- to Merced. The editor of the local newspaper pronounced the glory of Snelling to be removed, as well.

A.A. Bennett was the architect of the 1874 courthouse who designed four other almost identical courthouses in the San Joaquin Valley. Out of the five, only Merced's courthouse still stands.

Mariposa's courthouse is a simple, rectangular design with decorations in the Greek Revival style. A gabled roof and clock tower give added interest. Its pastoral setting has become a favorite spot for weddings and other social and community gatherings. Built in 1854 on a full square block in a wealthy residential neighborhood leads one to believe there was harmony between the county government and the county's residents.

As the oldest courthouse in California, and possibly the oldest in continuous use west of the Mississippi, it is certainly the most famous and beloved building in the county. In 1935 the editor of the Mariposa Gazette wrote of the recent structural changes to the building, and praised the craftsmanship of the original workers, saying "The old courthouse is a monument to the faithfulness, integrity and honor of those pioneers who 'builded well.'"

Advancements in technology brought changes to the courthouse with a telephone in 1895, gas lights in 1899, electric lights in 1907 and piped water in 1925. In the 1930s the wood-burning pot-bellied stove was replaced by an oil stove, and then radiators were installed in 1950. Fire sprinklers were added in 1974.

Other additions were made over the years, and extreme care was exercised in all restoration work.

Sacramento architect Robert McCabe supervised the restoration process in the 1980s and said, "Our forefathers put that one together very well. It survived the fires and ravages of time, and it's in remarkably good shape."

Mariposa County's courthouse is still used today, with its courtroom and law library upstairs and offices downstairs. Old light fixtures have been rewired for electricity, and hardwood benches rest sturdily on wooden floors. As with any old building there's the smell of age, bringing to mind the wonder of its past occupants. The clock tower still chimes every hour on the hour in the small mountain town, and trees and fencing surround the entire piece of property.

Mercedians and Mariposans are to be congratulated for preserving these temples of justice, which speak clearly of the values and aspirations of the people of the state of California.

Debbie Croft writes about life in the foothill communities. She can be reached at, or at her Sun-Star blog: City Girl, Country Life.