Wapello County is named in honor of Fox Indian Chief “Wau-ba-law,” “Waupello,” or “Wa-pel-lo.” Chief Wapello was the second-in-command over the combined Sac and Fox Indians.
The county was opened at midnight on April 30, 1843. Eager settlers camped along the county border; and, at the sound of a shotgun, they raced towards the “New Purchase.” Within a month of this settlement, 5,000 people were living within Wapello’s borders.
Three commissioners selected a site for the county seat. It was originally known as Appanoose Rapids, then Louisville. When the settlers arrived, the name was changed to Ottumwanoc, later shortened to the present Ottumwa.
A simple log cabin was the county’s first courthouse. It was not long before it was abandoned in favor of a more suitable building.
The first permanent courthouse was a brick structure that cost an estimated $1,000. This building was used until 1855, when it was sold to the Christian Church.
During the fall of 1881, Wapello County experienced a gold rush. A speculator claimed he discovered gold along Bear Creek. The prices for land and mineral rights soared until an investigation proved the scheme to be a fraud.
In 1855 the county constructed its second real courthouse. This building was also two stories, but twice the size of the previous building. This building was used until 1891. It was then demolished to make way for the third and current courthouse.
In an election, voters approved $100,000 worth of bonds to be used towards the construction of a new courthouse. The cornerstone was laid on September 28, 1892, and it was officially dedicated two years later on May 17, 1894.
Rough cut sandstone was used for the five-story building. A large corner clock tower was part of the original design. In 1950 the clock tower and several chimneys were removed. About 450 tons of bricks were removed to help alleviate stress on the building. At the apex of the building stands an Indian statue representing Chief Wapello.
Phyllis Dean, Wapello County Auditor, 2002