Descending into Prineville from the east is the city’s iconic scene: a sprawling town nestled into a valley with a striking clock tower as its centerpiece.
The clock sits atop the Crook County Courthouse, one of the oldest buildings in Central Oregon and a symbol of Prineville.
As the building approaches its 110th anniversary, few seem to be aware that it’s an open time capsule — from the volumes of records still stored in the Crook County Clerk’s office to the heights of employees’ children recorded on an interior wall.
Construction of the Crook County Courthouse began in 1907 and was completed in 1909. The building is considered the “Gem of Central Oregon,” said Steve Lent, the Bowman Museum historian.
Lent has become the unofficial tour guide, relaying bits and pieces of Crook County history from the basement of the building, where jail bars can still be seen to the top of the clock tower that houses a 1907 clock still using its original crank system.
“Other cities have built their courthouses and city halls over time, but we still have the Gem of Central Oregon right here,” Lent said.
Construction of the courthouse cost $75,000, and it was built using rimrock from a local quarry just west of town.
The three-story clock tower was one of the tallest buildings in Oregon at the time of construction and it still stands tall — even though weather and settling have forced it to shift a bit, Lent said.
A windstorm in 1989 caused the most significant damage. Today, visitors can see bolted down plywood hurricane straps and trusses supported by welded braces that reinforce the 47-ton clock tower.
The interior of the courthouse is laden with what appears to be beautiful oak — though visitors learn that oak was much too expensive in the early 1900s, so pine was purchased and made to look like oak, Lent said,
“It’s the most magnificent fake oak,” he said.
In the main courtroom, which still has the original wall clock at the back of the room, eagle-eyed visitors can spot significant dips in the wall from the 1989 windstorm in addition to years of bearing the weight of the clock tower.
It’s still the “grandest courtroom you’ve ever seen,” Lent said.
Up three flights of steep stairs is a view of the city from the top of the clock tower. Visitors who make it to the top can spot signatures on a wooden post from past tours, some that date back nearly 90 years.
The clock itself is a Howard No. 2742 that was purchased for $750 in 1907. The four-face model is incredibly low-tech. The Armstrong crank-wound drum lifts a box of weights using a pulley mechanism.
The weights are the original pieces of lava rock used during the construction of the courthouse and were weighed to provide perfect accuracy. It is wound every six days or so, and a bit of oiling will keep it functioning for years, Lent said.
The Crook County Clerk’s Office is on the building’s first floor. It’s full of deeds, marriage licenses and election history. The vault is a goldmine for history buffs, Lent said.
The opportunity to dig into Crook County history made the 68-year-old historian as giddy as a child.
“I almost wet my pants coming in here to look through this stuff,” he said.
The careful documentation dates back to 1882 and some records that are kept there are originals that weren’t able to be transcribed. Deeds and easements can be viewed from the earliest years of Central Oregon history.
From the clock tower to the clerk’s office, there are indications of past employees.
On a wall in one of the vaults, county workers had documented the height of their children over the years.
Lent stands over 6 feet tall and “no one has topped mine yet,” he said.
Some of the heights and names written in pencil have faded and Crook County Clerk Cheryl Seely hopes to put a clear coat over the names to preserve a little more of the courthouse’s history, she said.
Seely, 48, was born and raised in Prineville. In the fourth year of her first term, she still marvels every day at the building she works in, she said.
“We have tourists walk through and are amazed that we actually work in here,” Seely said. “People look at this building like it must be a museum. It has always been a spectacular building to me. I absolutely love being in the building that represents so much of our history.”
Seely worked in real estate for many years before she was elected as county clerk. She said seeing the deeds and easements recorded in history was a treat back then.
She has found election sample ballots from the early 1900s that still have corrections made by former clerks, penciled onto the cloth that they were printed on, she said.
She also recently found a catalogue from 1909 for desks and cabinets — some of which can still be found in use by deputies or staff in the building, she said.
This “perpetual historical monument” — as designated in 1963 by county officials — still stands as one of Prineville’s proudest features, Seely said.
“We have run into a few things, and it’s so neat to connect with them,” she said. “It’s a public building and it’s amazing to see. People should just come in and see it. We are so lucky to be here in this building and we are more than happy to show them around the history of it.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7829, firstname.lastname@example.org