Winnebago County was named in honor of the Winnebago Indian tribe that resided in the area. The term Winnebago means “Men of the Bad Smelling Waters,” or “People of Stinking Water.”
The earliest white settler of Winnebago County was George W. Thomas in 1855. The county was organized in the fall of 1857, the following being the first officers elected: Robert Clark, county judge; C.H. Day, treasurer and recorder; B.F. Denslow, clerk of courts; John S. Blowers, sheriff; and C.W. Scott, superintendent of schools and surveyor.
The first and only county seat of Winnebago County is Forest City. Forest City, which was platted by Robert Clark in 1856, was named after the abundance of timber found there.
The first courthouse was a two-room log cabin that was located on the courthouse square. In 1860 a petition was circulated calling for a more appropriate building. Soon after, $20,000 in bonds was sold for the construction of this building. After the construction had begun, the conservative members of the board opposed such an expensive building. Consequently, a less expensive, two-story soft brick building was constructed. This building, like the previous building, was located on the courthouse square. A frame addition was completed in 1877.
This courthouse was torn down and replaced in 1896. Architects Kinney & Orth and contractor F. A. Gross constructed a Romanesque style building made of red brick and trimmed with stone. The building was completed on January 6, 1897, at a cost of $20,496.