Established: December 21, 1837
Organized: September 10, 1838
County Seat: Elkader
Clayton County, (796 square miles) was named for
John Middleton Clayton (1796-1856), a U.S. senator
and cabinet member from Delaware, who assisted in the
passage of the Wisconsin Territorial bill.
According to some accounts, the first white man first
set foot on Iowa soil in Clayton County on June 17,
1673, when the French missionary Father Jacques
Marquette and trapper-explorer Louis Joliet, on their
way down the Wisconsin River from Green Bay, are said
to have crossed to the west bank of the Mississippi
River and beached their canoe at a point just below
McGregor now known as Pikes Peak.
However, most historians now believe that Marquette
and Joliet did not touch Iowa soil until eight days
later, on June 25, 1673, when they landed at a point
near the mouth of the Iowa River in Louisa County,
and were met by friendly Indians.
The first white settlers in Clayton County arrived in
1832. One of the first celebrations in
observance of the anniversary of American
Independence in what is now Iowa took place on July
4, 1838, at Table Rock, about two miles northeast of
Clayton County had a county seat on
wheels during its early years. The first
county seat was a Prairie La Porte (meaning Door of
the Prairie.) Laid out in 1837, the town has
been called Guttenberg since 1847, in tribute to
Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of movable printing
type. According to the sheriffs census
taken in 1838, there were 274 persons living in the
county at that time. The first court was held
in 1838 in rooms rented for $5 per day in
At a meeting held on December 5, 1839, the county
commissioners ordered that the be a court-house
built on the public square at Prairie La Porte, by
the first of September next, size and quality of
building to be here after
. The board then
contracted with Robert Hatfield for the
delivery of the stuff necessary for the erection of
the county building, and with David Hastings for the
construction thereof. On August 3, 1840,
the $73.50 claim of Robert Hatfield for building
material, and the $23 claim of David Hastings for
erecting the county building were allowed.
Thus, Clayton Countys first county building
An act to relocate the county seat received approval
of the Territorial Governor on January 14,
1840. The commissioners selected a site and
name it Allotat (a Sauk word meaning Gander).
However, a majority of the voters at the August
election favored retaining the county seat at Prairie
La Porte. Another Act to relocate the county seat was
approved on February 15, 1843, and the commissioners
again drove their site stakes. This time the
location was one-eighth of a section south of the one
selected in 1840 and was named Jacksonville.
A courthouse was erected at Jacksonville at a cost of
$675, and was accepted on April 4, 1844. It was
on May 27, 1846, that the towns name was
changed from Jacksonville to Garnavillo, after a town
in Ireland. Garnavillo remained the county seat
until 1856 when it was changed to Elkadernamed
for a famous Algerian leader, Abdel-Kader. At
the time, he was fighting the French who had been
trying for 15 years to take over his country.
His deeds inspired the founders of the little village
in Clayton County to name their settlement for
him. Elkader was the county seat for only one
year before it was returned to Guttenberg.
However, the county records went back to Elkader in
1860, and Stone Hall was rented by the county to
serve as a courthouse. In September 1866, the
old courthouse at Garnavillo was sold at auction for
$3,000. There were other efforts to move the
county seat to McGregor and Garnavillo, but without
The countys third courthouse was built at
Elkader in 1867 and was enlarged 10 years
later. This substantial red brick structure is
two stores high, and has hollow walls and arched
windows. The stone for the foundation came from
a local quarry. An addition was contracted for
on April 6, 1877, and this became the main part of
the courthouse, the old building being about
one-third of the courthouse as it now stands.
The cost of the addition was $10,000, half of which
was paid by the citizens of Elkader.
The cornerstone of this building was laid on July 4,
1877, or 10 years after the first third of the
courthouse was erected, and bears the inscription
July 4, A.L. 5877. The A.L. stands
for Anno Lucis, or Year of Light, a dated used by
Freemasons to indicate the number of years that have
elapsed since 4000 B.C., which is assumed to be the
date the Ten Commandments were revealed to
Moses. Thus, 4000 is added to the date 1877 to
arrive at A.L. 5877.
At the time it was built, the courthouse was
described as a neat and commodious
one, reflecting credit on the community
and the county. While the county seat of
Clayton County changed several times in 20 years, it
has been located at Elkader since 1860. Some of
the early court records date back to 1838, or more
than eight years before Iowa became a state.
Located in a park overlooking the Turkey River, the
red brick Clayton County Courthouse with its white
trim, truncated hip roof, and railed widow walk are
typical of an earlier era. The front windows
are round arched and the cornice is bracketed.
The cupola was expanded in 1896 to include a clock
tower. The cost of constructing the
tower--$$1,120was paid for by the county, as
was the 800-pound bell, which cost $190, but the
clock, costing $550, was purchased by citizens of
Elkader. The tower stands approximately 45 feet
above the courthouse roof and is 16 feet square at
the base. It is surrounded by a four-foot-wide
A concrete parking lot was added in 1936 and enlarged
in the 1960s. The courtroom was remodeled
in the 1950s and again in 1974. A new
entrance was added to the building in 1971 and the
exterior was sand-blasted and tuck-pointed. The
clock tower was repaired and painted in 1974.
A Civil War monument, dedicated May 30, 1919, stands
before one side of the courthouse. Memorial Day
services are held here each year.
Until July 1975, Clayton County was the only county
in Iowa with two county homesone primarily for
mental patients, the other for indigents. At
that time, new quarters were completed for these
residents and the old Clayton County Mental Health
Institute, built in 1897, was remodeled for a county
office building. The brick and stone, two-story
building is located about three blocks from the
courthouse and now houses some of the county offices
formerly located in the courthouse, courthouse annex,
and rented space. The old brick courthouse
annex was then leased to the Elkader Historical
The history of the splendid stone bridge near the
courthouse at Elkader is also of interest.
Prior to construction of the bridge, the Turkey
River, about 90 miles in length, had been spanned at
this point by several double iron trusses of the
Truesdale patent. These bridges became
defective and required frequent repairs. This
location was considered suitable for a stone arch
bridge which would be permanent and would avoid the
heavy annual expense of replanking the floor of
either an iron or wooden bridge. In addition,
Coles quarry, near town, was able to provide
sufficient magnesium limestone of fine quality, free
from all imperfections and resistant to the action of
frost and water. Furthermore, bids received by
the board of supervisors were higher for an iron
bridge than for the stone bridge.
The bridge contract was awarded in 1889 to Byrne and
Blade, stone masons and contractors from Dubuque, for
$13,000. The designer was M. Tschirgi, Jr., who
had also engineered the high bridge at Dubuque.
The plans called for two spans, each 84 feet in the
clear, with a center pier 19 feet wide at the
foundation. Other dimensions were: clear
height of each arch, 27.9 feet; outside width of
bridge, 34 feet; clear width of bridge, 30 feet;
total length of bridge, 346 feet.
Work was begun on the bridge in August, and it took
nine months to complete it. A total of 4,161
cubic yards of material went into the bridge.
Its estimated weight is 18,618,255 pounds or 9,309
tons. The difficult and dangerous work was
completed with any accident.
The Elkader bridge was claimed to be the finest
and longest stone arch highway bridge in the State,
or in fact anywhere west of the Mississippi
Both the stone bridge and the Clayton County
Courthouse at Elkader have been placed on the
National Register of Historic Places.