In 1854 Stanislaus county was organized with a population of under 1,000. In a period of 17 years, the county government moved from place to place as voters vied for the seat in their area. The first election was between Adamsville, named for one of the first medical practitioners on the plains, and Empire City, with developers promising they would post a $10,000 bond to build a courthouse if their town was favored.
In the June 10, 1854 ballot, Adamsville, a small settlement a few miles from the mouth of the Tuolumne River, won the first county seat. It consisted of a wooden platform under the shade of a large oak tree. Later, in the course of one 10-to-6 working day, the county officers took off their coats and worked together to enclose it with upright boards to hold a roof.
In November 1854, the county seat was moved upstream to Empire City, the center of steamship navigation of the Tuolumne. The courthouse consisted of a small frame building, and the developers never built the layout they promised.
In December of 1855, the vote favored the mining town of La Grange, which was 25 miles further up the Tuolumne and brought in people and prosperity. The supervisors bought for $1,700, a wood-frame 2 story building.
In 1860 the county obtained 110,000 acres north of the Stanislaus River, which included the town of Knights Ferry, the center of trade for the miners and a mining and agricultural center. In 1861 the closest vote of all county seat contests was between Knights Ferry, 422 votes, and La Grange, 393 votes. For 11 years Knights Ferry held court in a comfortable two-story brick building valued at $8,000.
In 1870 the new town of Modesto, first named Ralston, was founded. The construction of the Central Pacific Railroad line north and south through the heart of the county led to the decline of the river towns and made Modesto the most populated town. The citizens petitioned the legislature to have an election calling for a change in the county seat. An election was held in 1871, and Modesto became the fifth and final county seat, only 4 miles from it’s first home in Adamsville in 1854.
The Board of Supervisors rented the upper story of the Easton Building for $83 per month, and one room was used as a court. It is said that on the first floor was the Easton saloon where “the judge and jury could get refreshments.”
From 1872-73 a 3-story courthouse was erected at a cost of $60,000 on a block donated by the railroad company. The original “Classic Revival” courthouse was designed by architect A. A. Bennet of San Francisco and erected by Robinson Bros., a Stockton contracting firm. The building was located where our current clerks’ offices are currently located, and the ground entrance faced “H” street. The building was an example of all of the architectural beauty that modern art could apply, and the grounds in front were tastefully laid out as a public park with many beautiful shade trees.
A “Goddess of Justice” statue was placed atop the roof, with a sword in one hand and the scales of justice hanging from the other. The February 27, 1874 issue of Stanislaus Weekly News tells how she lost her scales of justice 6 months after she had been placed atop the building.
“The finely executed figure surmounting the splendid new courthouse and which was intended to represent the Goddess of Justice balancing a pair of scales, during a windy gale of the past week, loosened her grip on the balances and they came to the earth with a crash…it is to be hoped this unfortunate occurrence is not significant of any event fraught with direful forebodings.”
In 1939 the Stanislaus county “Hall of Records” was built at a cost of $200,000 and took 60 days to complete. The building became occupied by 10 county departments and is the portion of the current structure that faces “I” Street.
In 1957 the original courthouse was demolished to make way for a new structure, and the Goddess of Justice that had resided atop the building for 84 years was taken down. Her scales of justice had never been replaced and her sword had been patched with a piece of baling wire. The county ordered it saved for posterity as a historical landmark, and she was taken to a warehouse until it was decided what to do with her.
On April 23, 1960, the new $1,500,000 courthouse structure was dedicated and, as one author stated, is the “large undistinguished box” that currently occupies 800 – 11th Street. The Goddess of Justice, who formerly ruled atop the old court building, was set upon a pedestal and placed in the patio area. She was reinforced to correct the warp in the 3 redwood planks that are doweled together to make her body, but still had her scales missing, 2 fingers broken off and part of the cord around her waist was missing.
In 1976 the Goddess of Justice was refurbished by Estanislao Chapter No. 58 E Clampus Vitus 58, and placed in the lobby area of the courthouse. She was finally returned to her proper stature with her scales of justice in hand.