Edward D. Sweeney Oration
Mr . Chairman and Fellow Citizens : We celebrate today the laying of the corner stone for the new court house, and the occasion is an event which awakens in us emotions of the deepest interest. While it is true that this vast assemblage of citizens are of divers nationalities, of varied political faiths, and of many religious beliefs, we all stand before this mute block of granite as before the throne of the Eternal on equal footing, no special privilege of nobility or preference places one before the other. The significance of this great gathering is a tribute of respect to the grand temple of justice planned to rise from this corner stone; and an acknowledgement of homage to the fair Goddess of Justice, who, with sightless eyes and extended hand under the law, holds the balances in which causes between man and man are weighed without partiality or favor, and determined. The law-abiding people of this great county as by one common impulse, from the various pursuits of life, the farmers from their fields, the merchants from their counters, the mechanics from their shops, the bankers from their desks, and the hum-blest toilers from their work, have come to witness the simple act of the laying of this stone. It must be that in this there is much that ought to challenge our thoughtful consideration and engage our earnest contemplation for the hour which we are permitted to spend together on this event. It is the transition moment from the old to the new; it is the passing of a great milestone in the career of our county. More than fifty years of history is about to close its record today, and a new book presents itself in which we are to record events, yet in the bosom of the future; to be born each day and each month in the coming years. The thought which occupies every-one here assembled must be in reference to the old court house, its associations of lawyers, and judges, of law suits, of law and its administration, and of officers-and this is my theme. The early beginnings of all communities are remembered with the greatest of interest and cherished in the fond recollections of those who have participated therein. The County of Rock Island was organized on the 8th day of July, 1833, it having been formerly a part of Jo Daviess County, and the first term of the circuit court was held at the house of John Barrel, beginning on the 28th day of April, 1834. This house stood on the banks of the Sylvan Waters, just west of the Cable residence, and was chosen by the county commissioners as the temporary place of holding the court and the village was called Farnhamsburg. In this house was held the court until abandoned at the September term, 1837; in all six terms of court. At each of these terms there was a grand jury selected and chosen, and in looking over the list of names which compose these grand juries, I find that Benjamin Goble, the old settler who lays the corner stone today, was a grand juror at three of these terms.- It is very evident that they in those days had as good an opinion of Mr. Goble as we of the present day, while we think he is a little too old to do heavy mason work; yet, if called upon, that he would be as willing to serve as a grand juror to punish wrong doers as he was in those early times. I also find the name of our venerable and worthy friend, Michael Hartzell, that he served two terms as a grand juror in vindicating the law in this new-forming community. I also find that John Tindall, the sturdy and prosperous farmer of Bowling Township, and Charles Titterington, the leading farmer of Edgington, the father of our present county treasurer, each served a term as a grand juror in the house of John Barrel; all of these four are now present on this glad day to witness the laying of the corner stone of the new court house, which to them must be an event of more than usual interest. I also find that William Bell was a grand juror at the house of John Barrel at the April term, 1837. This gentleman, who always took such an interest in the affairs of our county and City of Rock Island, and always had a pleasant word and smile for everybody, is absent in body, but we know must be present in mind. He is living with his daughter, Rosa, at Toledo, Ohio, and in a ripe old age. This was the beginning of our long court dockets of hundreds of cases and terms of court dragging through tedious months. to which has been added the county court, now given common law jurisdiction with a civil and criminal docket, and with its long probate docket upon which are the estates and through which already has passed nearly all the titles to real estate within the limits of the county. The population of the county has grown from 350 to about 45,000; at the time of the organization there was one straggling village on the site of the City of Rock Island and here and there a settler throughout the county. Now there are six incorporate towns and villages, full of activity and business, and two large commercial cities, teeming with industry, thrift and enterprise, growing in importance and multiplying in wealth; then the taxable property of the county was a few hundred dollars, now it is over eight millions. For a few years there were only two terms of court in each year, but very soon the legislature gave this county three terms of the circuit court, with a probate court in session substantially all the year round. The number of criminals which come before the courts of our county for correction are surprisingly small. Few counties in the state send a less number to the penitentiary, schools, and the jails for punishment, in accordance with their population than the County of Rock Island. As evidence of how carefully the legal limits are observed among us stands forth the fact that in the affairs of our county, transacted by our honorable board of supervisors, every step of the way in which they proceed being regulated and determined by law, not a legal contest is raised or issue made concerning the new court house, the greatest building ever yet erected in the county, which is rising to is completion and will be built from foundation to dome without the circuit court having taken cognizance of it in any manner whatever except to hear the hammers of the workmen and to finally obey the summons to quarter itself in the magnificent court room; as grand as the old hall of William Rufus, the pride of England for a thousand years; which is being provided for it in accordance with law, there to administer the law for the people “with malice towards none and with charity for all”. Among the names of those who have served their day and stamped upon the events of the times in which they lived, the impress of their character and have gone to their reward, and are in your memories while I speak, are; Joseph Knox, Ira O. Wilkinson, E. R. Bean, John B. Ham ley, Alfred Webster, J. J. Beardsley, Robert W. Smith and Patrick O’Mara. The oratory of Joseph Knox will always be remembered by those who have heard him. The impression that his oratory made upon my mind when a young man, was that it was close akin to that of Demosthenes. History records that when the issue was before the Athenians whether they would submit to Phillip of Macedon, or resist him with arms, that Demosthenes espoused the cause of war; in this he was opposed by the accomplished orator, Aschines. When Aschines addressed the people they would say, what wonderful eloquence, what a great orator; when Demosthenes would speak they would leap and shout, “let us go and fight Phillip.” Mr. Knox was often greeted with similar responses. Judge Wilkinson was a slave to his profession; he never allowed his mind to be occupied by anything which would draw him away from the pure pursuit and practice of the law. He was for many years the mentor of our bar and no young lawyer struggling with legal difficulties ever went to him but he received him kindly and furnished material help with-out claim of compensation. He did not lay down his work until the hand of disease arrested his powers, and like “Nicanor” he “lay dead in his harness.” General Hawley will be remembered as the impetuous, vigilant and aggressive advocate. He was like the plumed knight of Ivry, always to the front in the thickest of the contest, pushing every advantage until victory crowned efforts. Patrick O’Mara was the silver-tongued orator of the bar, young, promising and brilliant; he was a shining mark for the shafts. of death, which too soon claimed him for a prey. Time forbids further mention of the merits of the dead, but the best and the highest efforts of those who have gone and those who remain are to be found in the records of the courts, published in the 58 volumes of the Appellate and in the 155 volumes of the Supreme Court reports. It is in this work the real test comes of the lawyer’s knowledge of the law and his merits as a lawyer, who has within his grasp and comprehension the highest elements of law. There have been nineteen different judges who have held court in our county. Richard M. Young was the first judge who ever held court in our county. He came from Galena and was succeeded by Daniel Stone, who came from the same place. Sidney Breese held the second term. He afterwards became a member of the supreme court and served a number of years; was elected to the United States Senate where he served a term, after which he went to the supreme bench again, where he remained until his death in 1878, full of years, honors and good deeds. Benjamin R. Sheldon held the May term. 1849; He afterwards went on the supreme bench, where he remained until his death, a good man and a strong judge. Thomas Ford held the April term of our court in 1836; he afterwards became governor of the state and in his declining days wrote Ford’s History of Illinois, the best yet written of the state. Of those who are not now in office, I know of only two who are living-the Honorable J. W. Drury, who was circuit judge from 1856 until 1859 or ’60, and the Honorable Arthur A. Smith, who first held court here in 1879 and resigned on account of ill health in the fall of 1894. Thus far I have said nothing about the offices of county judge and county clerk. The county clerk’s office is the great work-shop of the county; in that office all the taxes are levied and extended, the judgment for tax sales entered and the record of the sales made and kept. In that office all the business done by the board of supervisors is written up and recorded; aside from this is the probate business of the county, which has grown to be of immense magnitude, and to which is added the records of the county court, civil and criminal proceedings; within the last few years has passed through the county clerk’s office the proceedings for the paving assessments, which has been a stupendous work in itself. To appreciate the volume of the work which is done in. this office you must be acquainted ‘with its vastness and its importance. I would be pleased on this occasion to speak of the men who have acted as county clerks, and who have been responsible for and so ably and faith-fully discharged their obligations, but time forbids any lengthy notice. Of the ex-county clerks who are still with us, Joseph Conet is the oldest. He will be remembered by all as long as we can remember anybody, as being the most accommodating, courteous and willing public servant that ever served in the court house. The readiness to serve and aid anyone who had business in his office came natural to him; what he did was disrobed of every semblance of affectation or effort. Mr. Conet was succeeded by Major Beardsley, who came into office in the latter part of the war and performed herculean labors in the interests of the widows and orphans of the soldiers who died or had fallen in battle during the Rebellion, whom he ever carried on his heart. The accounts kept in the book of remembrance by Him, “who neither slumbers or sleeps” will show a great credit to the major’s account for the disinterested and patriotic work of these years. John V. Cook succeeded the major and his memory is embalmed in the hearts of all who knew him; he was succeeded by Mr. Donaldson, whose efficiency and reliability were not excelled by any one. Colonel Hjalmar Kohler, the present incumbent needs no commendation from me, his work shows for itself and his manner and demeanor in office are sufficient to win for him the highest respect and regard. Of the ex-probate justices and county judges there are only two living today, Captain T. J. Robinson, who acted as associate justice, with John W. Spencer as judge in 1849, and J. M. Gould who takes part in the exercises of this occasion, who was county judge in 1854 to 1857. There has been no more responsible position in our county than that of looking after the trusts in the hands of executors, administrators and guardians, and faithfully have these trust estates been guarded and protected by our county judges. The present incumbent, the Honorable Lucian Adams, has grown gray in the service of these trusts and no one has ever been allowed to suffer in his hands. Three members of Congress have been sent from our County. The Honorable John B. Hawley, the Honorable William H. Gest and the Honorable Benjamin Cable. We are indebted to these gentlemen for great services in securing appropriations for the National armory on the Island, for the great bridge across the Mississippi River, the Moline darn, the viaduct, the new government building now being erected, and the Hennepin Canal. The soldiers of Illinois were foremost at Donaldson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain and in Sherman’s march to the sea. General Sherman was their great leader in that famous march, but it is said if the old hero had fallen by the way, the boys would have gone right on to the sea. The Illinois soldiers brought home from the fields of the south three hundred battle flags taken from the enemy, and it was an Illinois flag that floated over the advance guard of the soldiers who first marched into Richmond with President Lincoln at their head, in April, 1865. All honor to the old soldiers and love and charity to all their kith and kin. Solomon’s Temple surpassed all former ones in its glory and grandeur, but in following years there was erected a second temple, and the glory of the latter house exceeded the former. The days of the early pioneers were full of noble deeds, efforts and struggles, around which a halo of heroism lingers, while the names of the men and women who took part in the stirring events of those days are held in tender remembrance by their descend-ants and the people of today. No state in the Union excels Illinois in the race of noble pioneers who wrought out of the broad untracked and untilled prairies the beginnings of the greatest agricultural state of the Mississippi valley, and which laid the foundations of greatest and grandest common-wealth of the Union, and no county in all of the one hundred and two in the state can boast of a nobler band of early settlers than can our County. The limit line of pioneer and old settlers’ life is drawn at the year 1850 and all time subsequent is counted out. Let due honor and credit be given to the early settlers and old pioneers and to all who have helped in the early efforts to lay the base of the institutions of which we are so proud today and to which we can point with becoming pride; but no one will think of comparing what has been accomplished in the advancements of civilization since the date of the limit with what has gone before. In 1850 the City of Rock Island had been organized only one year and was a municipal infant, and Moline, now the proud city of factories, schools and churches, was still a village, and outside of these there was not an organized town or village in the county; the iron horse had never sounded his sonorous tones on the shores of the Father of Waters; the great plow factories of the Twin Cities were only in the prophecies of the dim future; the magnificent water works, now sending flowing water through every street and into every house, were unthought of; paved streets, which have come to us within the last eight years, and which make our cities the rivals of those in the old world of a century’s growth, were not even in the dreams of the oldest inhabitant; while every man was his own letter carrier, express messenger and “telephone girl.” Never since the days when Adam and Eve went forth from the Garden of Eden, unsandaled and uncovered, was human nature so well clothed, so well fed, so well housed and surrounded with the conveniences and luxuries of life, as today; we are all pleased to hear the old settlers talk of the “good old times,” and never tire of hearing rehearsed the events of early pioneer life; but we who did not live in these “good old times” may be excused for speaking of the “good new times.” Today the forces of the “good old times” and the forces of the “good new times” meet on this common platform to lay the corner stone of the new court house and blend without rivalry in a united effort for the common weal. At the April term, A. D., 1893, of the board of supervisors, F. M. Sinnet, Esq., was elected chairman, and in his address to the board, returning thanks for his election, among other things he said that the necessity existed for the erection of a new court house, and he believed that the times were propitious for its erection. During this session of the board, Joseph Fitzpatrick, Esq., then supervisor from Black Hawk, came to the office of Sweeney & Walker and talked to the same effect, and Mr. C. L. Walker prepared resolutions setting forth that the necessity existed for a new court house and that the times were propitious for the building of the same. The resolutions were delivered to Mr. Fitzpatrick who introduced them in the board then in session and they were adopted. The resolutions, among other things, provided for the appointment of a committee to report on the feasibility of the project at the next meeting in July. In the meantime Charles J. Searle, our young and vigorous state’s attorney, with his accustomed zeal and enthusiasm, took hold of the work and put the report of the committee in shape, which was presented at the next session of the board and adopted, and the cause of the new court house was squarely before the people. The press, which has always been a great factor in the pushing forward of the welfare of the county in all channels, took hold and advocated the enter-prise, the people with great unanimity seconded the move and the board of super-visors, pushed on until the building of the new court house became a fixed fact. Messrs. Larkin and Collins and the Rock Island mechanics have completed a credit-able foundation–one strong enough to sustain the National Capitol-from which will rise a building worthy of our county and the times in which we live.
Source: Historic Rock Island County, pub. Kramer & Company, Rock Island, Illinois, 1908