Transcribed by Lin Ziemann

Established:  January 15, 1851
December 20, 1858
County Seat:  Emmetsburg


Palo Alto County (567 square miles) was named for the first important battlefield victory of the Mexican War, fought on May 8, 1846 , before the war was officially declared.  

The county’s first settlement was made in May 1855 on the east bank of the Des Moines River , at West Bend , followed by the Irish colony near Emmetsburg in July 1856.  Soon other pioneers were locating in various parts of the county.  But, on March 8, 1857 , Inkpadutah and his murderous band of Indians perpetrated the infamous Spirit Lake Massacre.  Some 40 men, women, and children in the lakes region were brutally murdered during the days that followed.  The event tended to temporarily discourage settlement in the area.  

As soon as the county was officially organized, commissioners met to locate the county seat, “as near the geographic center as may be, having due regard for the present as well as the future populations of said county.”  At the time, the population of the county probably did not exceed 50 persons.  

The first courthouse was then erected in 1858-1859, at the village of Paoli , located on the east bank of the Des Moines River , two miles south of the present town of Emmetsburg .  Swamp lands of the county were traded to a speculator to build the courthouse and a school.  A steam sawmill was brought to the construction site and used to saw lumber for the new public buildings.  Plans called for a two-story, brick courthouse, 36’ x 50’, but, due to faulty construction, the building collapsed even before it could be fully completed.  The discouraged county officials then decided to rebuild the courthouse, but only half as large as originally planned.  Considerable litigations resulted over the affair, but a compromise was finally reached.  

County business was carried on for a time in this building, but there were no settlers and the town did not develop.  County officials, jurors, and witnesses had to depend on nearby settlers for meals and lodging.  With the passing years, the courthouse showed signs of decay and finally fell in.  Some years later, many of the bricks were hauled away by prairie settlers for their own buildings.  Thus, the speculative county seat town of Paoli disappeared.  Most of the affairs of the county were next taken care of at a place called Soda Bar, situated in Nevada Township , although Paoli remained the official county seat.  

It was only after the “Old Town” of Emmetsburg (named for the Irish patriot, Robert Emmet) was moved up from its old location on the Des Moines River in 1874 to the present site that it became the new seat of county government by a vote of the citizens in 1875.  An ornate brick courthouse was erected there in 1880, on the courthouse square which was donated to the county.  The building was originally faced with yellow brick, but this was replaced with dark red brick during World War I.  A tall tower was removed in the early 1920’s, after having been repeatedly struck by lightning.  The jail, originally in the courthouse basement, was later removed to a separate building, and the interior of the courthouse was extensively remodeled in 1970.  In June 1976, voters approved the construction of a 23’ x 60’, two-story and basement addition on the east side of the building, financed by federal revenue sharing funds.  

Although the original courthouse was of late Victorian Gothic design, there have been many changes to the building’s exterior through the years, giving it more modern look.  

In front of the courthouse stands a statue of Robert Emmet, which was financed by a $3,000 donation from local members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians shortly after World War I.  Because of the disagreement over where to locate the monument, it was kept in the cellar of a store from some 20 years.  In 1938, the store owner sold the statue for $75.  It was recovered by Emmetsburg residents from the yard of a Minnesota man in 1958, and was later placed on the courthouse grounds.  A large rock, labeled “Blarney Stone,” is located near the statue.   

Excerpt taken from the pages of:
The Counties and Courthouse of
Iowa , by LeRoy G. Pratt
Copyright 1977
First Edition