Expert witnesses

Three longtime residents share how the courthouse influenced their lives.

of The News-Sentinel

Streetcar rides to a father's courthouse office. Pigeons nesting in the county clerk's bookshelves. Lawyers and judges heading to taverns across the street.

These sorts of experiences were common for those who frequently visited or worked in the Allen County Courthouse in the early 1900s.

Three lifelong Fort Wayne residents shared how their lives were influenced by the great limestone structure.

* * * *

The highlight of Dorothy McComb's week as a young girl was catching streetcar No. 7 near her Lake Avenue home and riding it downtown with her mother and siblings to visit her father, who worked in the Allen County Courthouse.

Dorothy McComb -- now Dorothy Pletcher -- is the daughter of the late David Olin McComb, founder of D.O. McComb & Sons Funeral Homes and first superintendent of Allen County Schools. He was appointed superintendent by the township trustees in 1913.

"He was quite controversial because until then, every township still had their own one-room schoolhouse, and he decided to consolidate some of them. Many people were really opposed to that. I remember some people threw tomatoes at him," Pletcher, 89, said.

Four streetcar tokens for trips downtown could be had for 25 cents.

"His office was on the first floor, in the southeast corner," Pletcher said. "There was a big desk in the center of a large room. The walls were lined with bookshelves," an inspiration to the young girl who loved to read and later became a teacher.

Among her fondest recollections are the times she carried knotted, twisted balls of yarn into her father's office.

"I loved to knit, but I'd get the yarn all tied up in knots. No matter how busy he was, my father would take time out to straighten out the yarn."

When he needed to get away from the public, Pletcher's father often retreated to an area on the third floor.

"It was very private up there, and he would never be disturbed."

Pletcher spent summers during college helping in her father's office.

"My job was to greet the people so my father could get his work done."

D.O. McComb volunteered with several community organizations, and government and civic leaders often met in his office, Pletcher said. People from all walks of life would drop in to visit McComb.

McComb served as Allen County superintendent of schools until his death in 1938.

* * * *

A friendly suggestion from his mailman was the beginning of more than four decades of work inside the Allen County Courthouse for Edward Kelker.

In 1933 -- during the Great Depression -- Kelker had been out of high school for a few years and couldn't find work.

"The mailman who delivered to our house told me I should take the (Civil Service) exam so I could work for the Post Office. I didn't think I would do very well on it."

But Kelker, who was one of about 1,600 local residents who took the exam on the same day, was wrong. He finished 20th.

Kelker delivered mail to every office in the courthouse for 27 years. His route also included businesses along Columbia, Barr and Calhoun streets.

"I had some very interesting people on my route, some very strange ones, too," he said, particularly because of the 17 taverns on his route.

"I knew all the town drunks by name, and all the panhandlers. I also knew all the judges and lawyers and city officials," said Kelker, now 88.

In 1934, his first year as a mail carrier, he was paid 65 cents an hour.

"If we worked overtime we got paid less rather than more," he said, a means of discouraging employees from working more hours than they were scheduled.

Kelker always took the stairs in the courthouse, instead of the elevator, which frequently had problems.

"If that elevator got stuck, you could be in there awhile," he said, recalling how he occasionally helped people out a large hole in the elevator's ceiling.

Other memories linger.

"I remember there were iron steps in the walls of the courthouse (leading to fourth-floor storage areas). I remember when they did it over. I watched them paint the marble with feathers."

Even before he became a mail carrier, Kelker enjoyed hearing stories about the courthouse and spending time there.

"I went to Central Catholic High School, and over my lunch hour I'd often go to the courthouse and spend an hour there, sitting and watching people."

After Kelker retired from the post office, the courthouse continued to beckon. He worked for the Clerk of Court's Office for 18 years, sorting and organizing years of record books and microfilm stored in the basement.

"There's a lot of stories I heard in the years I was around there. It was always an interesting place."

* * * *

Robert Rinehart, 86, knows just where to look to find a sketch of the original land grant from the U.S. government to John Barr and John McCorkle. The prominent businessmen purchased 110 lots for $1.25 an acre in 1823. Allen County was created the following year.

Part of Barr and McCorkle's land was used to create Fort Wayne's public square, which would become the site of the future Allen County Courthouse.

Rinehart is an expert on sales and property ownership in the county. He was an abstractor for and later president of Dreibelbiss Title Co. for 38 years.

The first county recorder, treasurer and clerk offices were housed in separate buildings on the original public square. Once the courthouse was built, the offices were moved into the building for convenience.

As Allen County began to prosper and the population began to grow, the volume of paperwork for the three local title companies, including Dreibelbiss, kept pace. Documents had to be typed and distributed to county offices, so an employee from each company worked in a small office on the courthouse's second floor for efficiency.

"They had to type three copies of everything," Rinehart said.

Then along came photostat machines, and the title company employees thought the white-on-black pictures were a miracle. After that, records were kept on microfilm.

But Rinehart's memories extend beyond land deals and documents.

Pigeons were frequent visitors to the courthouse, letting themselves in through the unscreened windows.

"The shelves in the clerk's office were really deep, and the pigeons would hide back in there. It was really difficult to get them out sometimes."

And there was the period in the 1950s when Miss Liberty was brought down from her perch atop the courthouse dome while repairs were made to her and the building.

"For a long time she just laid there on the sidewalk along Court Street," Rinehart said. "People walked around her."

Not-so-reputable ladies also have their chapter in the courthouse's history.

A local madam ran a brothel in a building facing Berry Street, to the south of the courthouse, accounts say.

"The girls in our office used to look down out the windows and see the men going in there around 4 o'clock in the afternoon," Rinehart said.

Through the years, Rinehart bought many a candy bar or soda from Howard Carroll, a sight-impaired man who ran a vending stand on the first floor of the courthouse.

"One thing I'll always remember," he said, "are the benches inside, against the walls. Some were marked 'women only.' I always wondered about that. I guess things have changed today."

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