While the relocation of Indiana county seats affected many towns, seldom did murder, mystery and scandal contribute to the move. In Benton County, however, a combination of such circumstances took the seat away from Oxford, county seat from 1845 to 1873, and moved it to Fowler.
Moses Fowler is perhaps best known to Lafayette residents for his opulent 1851 Gothic Revival home now occupied by the Tippecanoe County Historical Society. Fowler built an empire of banking, cattle, and land holdings that stretched north to Benton County. He saw the completion of a railroad connecting Lafayette and Chicago as a way to extend his commercial empire. While the L.M. & B. Railroad connected Lafayette to Oxford, Fowler’s namesake community was bypassed. Recognizing the value of the railroad to economic development, Moses Fowler and partners organized a short line, known as the C.L. & C., that linked with the L.M & B., to transport goods from Cincinnati to Chicago, via Lafayette and Fowler.
As if Fowler scripted the story, a notorious murderer escaped from the Oxford jail in 1873, setting off a structural review of the courthouse and jail. The County Commissioners hired architect G.P. Randall who concluded, “the [courthouse] is a complete wreck from foundation to cupola.” The jail did not fare much better, being described as “surely of no account as a place for the safe-keeping of rogues…”1 While the commissioners agreed to the construction of a new courthouse and jail, Fowler and his partners attempted to provoke a courthouse move with the offer of two lots in Fowler plus $250 cash. The commissioners refused the offer at a cost. They lost their jobs in the November 1873 election, and the newly elected commissioners voted to move the county seat to Fowler.
G.P. Randall, author of the report condemning the Oxford courthouse, also designed the 1874 courthouse in Fowler. Randall, a Chicago architect, made a name for himself designing religious and public buildings. The Marshall County Courthouse, constructed 1870-1872, is another example of his work in northern Indiana Randall’s Benton County Courthouse employed the elaborate Second Empire style with its elegant Mansard roof and soaring clock tower.
Like the courthouses in Randolph and Montgomery counties, the Benton County landmark suffered an unfortunate clock tower decapitation c1936. Nonetheless the building still exhibits the sophistication of the Second Empire style in its dormer windows, limestone trim, and round arch openings. To accommodate the needs of a growing county, the commissioners erected a two-story courthouse addition in 1995. To preserve the appearance of the original structure, the addition is connected to the historic building by a glass walkway. With past mistakes in mind, the county also constructed a contemporary, secure jail on the courthouse square.