Fayette County was originally one of the largest counties ever organized. It had an area of about 140,000 square miles and included all of the present state of Minnesota west of the Mississippi. Almost all of the counties of northeastern Iowa were formed out of this county. Fayette County, as large as it was, was only a “paper county” and lacked any organization until 1847 when it was reduced to its present boundaries. The county is named in honor of Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman who helped the American Colonies in the Revolutionary War.
In 1850 William Wells, Jacob Lybrand, and J.W. Rogers donated a 400-square-foot plot of ground to Fayette County for public buildings. That was the year the county was organized. Until that time, West Union was known as Knob Prairie.
In 1851 a Fayette County Representative drafted a bill at the Third General Assembly that called for an election to choose a site for the county seat. They had six choices: West Union, Lightville (Lima), Light’s Mill, Douglas (Auburn), Centerville, and Clermont.
The two highest vote-getters then participated in a May election. The voters chose West Union over Lightville. But before a courthouse could be built a vote was taken in August 1853 to remove the county seat. West Union again won the right to house the county seat.
Although a courthouse was proposed in 1853 one was not built until three years later. Business of the county was conducted in the Methodist Church. When a courthouse was finally built, it cost $7,820. The two-story brick and stone building was situated on that town square donated by Wells. This building burned to the ground after J. C. Thompson started a fire in his jail cell, which was in the basement of the courthouse. He escaped and was later captured in Calmar.
After a two-year battle for the location of the courthouse, a second building was built in West Union. Originally to cost only $6,750, it ended up costing the county around $10,000. The call for a fireproof building in September 1891 failed, and gradual improvements were then added to the second courthouse. They included fire-safe vaults, a larger heating plant, a tower, a clock, and more office space. This was over a period of 15 years and cost more than $18,000.
The improvements were all for naught because this building was also destroyed by a fire on February 5, 1922. The estimated loss was $40,000, only $24,000 covered by insurance. Most of the county records were saved. This fire again opened the battle for the county seat. The rivals this time were Fayette and Oelwein. Again West Union prevailed and a third, and current, courthouse was built.
The citizens of West Union and surrounding areas donated $100,000 toward the new structure. The cornerstone was laid on June 21, 1923, and the formal dedication was held on October 8, 1924. Total cost of the majestic gray Bedford stone structure was $298,690.
History of West Union, Iowa. 1974, (125th jubilee),
Out of the Midwest: A Portrait, 1976, Fayette County Helpers Club and Historical Society
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