When the bench warrants a little love

Imagine the stories old, wooden courtroom benches could tell, and all the anger, grief, shock, nervousness, relief and hope they’ve absorbed in the years they’ve provided stalwart support to the people who have made their way into them.

Winnebago County Circuit Court Judge John Jorgensen has both imagined that history and observed its more recent activity, and he recognized that the benches in his courtroom needed some love.

“For almost nine decades, the benches of Branch 5’s courtroom have lasted the wear and tear of time,” he wrote. “They have endured the chains of prisoners, the briefcases of attorneys and the purses and belts of litigants waiting for their day in court. Bruised and battered, they did their job, but needed some attention.”

Judge Jorgensen currently presides over Winnebago County’s oldest courtroom. Up until 1977, it was the only circuit courtroom in the county and it hosted every felony trial and large civil action. Scared by time and fidgety humans, the benches in that large, ornate courtroom started to look rough.

Last year, the county contracted with Wood Renovators, Inc. from Waupaca County, to remove the benches from Branch 5’s courtroom, sand them down to the wood, and stain them to return them to their original condition.  The company also touched up and restored areas that were scratched and worn throughout the courtroom.

According to Judge Jorgensen, local historian Terry Laib of Laib Restoration, Inc. connected Wood Renovators with this project.  Laib has a treasure trove of blue prints, photos, and artifacts he has collected over the years from the courthouse.  He obtained them through estate sales and by rummaging through items set to be destroyed from closed offices.  Previously, he donated back to the county the original chandeliers now hanging in the foyer on the second floor.   

Laib also recently donated an original drawing done by an architectural firm in an attempt to gain the building contract for the courthouse back in 1930.  Though the company did not win the contract, its drawing is an important piece of history and it now hangs in Branch 5’s lobby.  According to Laib, the bricks from the previous courthouse, which was located on Court Street, between Ceape and Otter Street, were collected and used to build a house on Lake Butte Des Morts and the house still stands.  

“We are blessed to be given this beautiful and grand courthouse from our forefathers,” Judge Jorgensen said in thanking Winnebago County Executive Jon Doemel, facilities director Mike Elder and the county board for investing resources into the restoration project, and Branch Five Judicial Assistant Lisa Wolff, who spearheaded the project. “The county has recognized the huge obligation to maintain and preserve it.”

Bruised and battered, the benches in Winnebago County’s oldest courtroom were beginning to look rough.
After the renovation they look brand new, though, underneath that gloss, they still hold the history of more than 90 years of courtroom drama.
Historian Terry Laib presented Judge Jorgensen with an original 1930 drawing of the courthouse to commemorate the restoration.

2 thoughts on “When the bench warrants a little love

    1. Even the way they were all scratched up spoke to the level of emotion and nerves the people sitting in them experienced.

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