Making a Mark on History; Graffiti in the Tower of the 1889 Courthouse
It’s a long way to the top.
To take in the view from the tower of the 1889 Courthouse, you have to trek up 3 levels (meaning 3 winding, narrow staircases) and enter up a hatch door. The air is heavy with dust and stairs groan like they’ve witnessed more than their fair share of hauntings. You know, those typical charms of old buildings.
Although you could continue climbing upward – by way of ladders – the grand overlook is on the third level. It’s a small square room with a door on each brick wall leading to individual balconies. While the view is breathtaking, and definitely the goal of many, what few expect is the history written on the walls. Literally.
Signatures gathered from over 100 years cover the space. Walls, staircases, railings, doorframes, hatch doors – you name it.
Nearly 800 people signed these walls – leaving their mark on history. Every surface bears characteristic scrawls that were scratched, penned, and sketched. The doodles weave together, creating a mesmerizing wallpaper. It’s as if every signature is collectively whispering, I was here.
During the renovation of the 1889 Courthouse in the 1990s, this graffiti was rediscovered. In recognizing its significance to our community’s history, efforts were made to preserve it. In 1997, the graffiti was documented through a volunteer-led project. The result is a record of the signatures from each level, spanning decades.
The earliest entry is a pair from March 23, 1898, located on the original southern door of the overlook. The markings belong to George Sherman, an Addison farmer, and Adolf Strack, from South Germantown. Beside their names is a German expression, a clear indicator of Washington County’s ethnic roots.
The signatures include everyone from students to tourists, county staff, and even visiting locals. Besides the names are often dates, a hometown, or occasion for the adventure. It’s forgotten, unfiltered history.
Would Sherman and Stack have guessed hundreds of others would follow in their footsteps? Maybe.
One thing is for certain. They knew that this building would remain standing long after them. Likely, they understood its importance, as the home of Washington County’s stories.
Stroh, Ann. “Innovation helps Washington County Reach Sweet Success.” Wisconsin Counties. (Madison, Wisconsin). February, 1994.
Smaglik, Paul. “Graffiti serves Historical Purpose.” West Bend Daily News. (West Bend, Wisconsin). July 1, 1992.
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