Nostalgia

Stockville is in Frontier County, Nebraska. The population was 25 in 2010. It is the county seat of Frontier County, Nebraska. That means the courthouse is there.

Folks outside of Stockville but within Frontier County think the people of Stockville stole the county seat back in the day. It is clear that something happened because men from another town tried to steal it back.*

The driving time from Lexington, where I practiced law, to Stockville is about an hour and ten minutes.  A good part of that is gravel. You can save time by taking a dirt road, but it is perilous when wet.

Born in 1897, Robert Van Pelt was from Stockville. He became Nebraska’s federal judge in Lincoln. He also never forgot his home town of Stockville. Much of the historical material about Stockville comes from Van Pelt’s writings.

I knew Judge Van Pelt. A year or so before his passing at 91 while still sitting as a senior district judge, he participated in my sad little swearing-in ceremony as a United States Magistrate Judge. My wife had just died unexpectedly. Accompanied by my children, and my dear mother-in-law Merle, I took the oath. Judge Van Pelt told me that I would do fine so long as I never did anything that would make her ashamed. That was good advice.

Photo credit: Ammodramus - Own work.  Frontier County Courthouse in Stockville, Nebraska; seen from the southeast. The building was constructed in 1889.

Photo credit: Ammodramus.  Frontier County Courthouse in Stockville, Nebraska; seen from the southeast. The building was constructed in 1889.

The first time I ever went to the courthouse in Stockville a horse was tethered to the steps of the courthouse. There were other peculiarities. In order to get to the district courtroom, you had to walk up very, very narrow stairs that turned several sharp right angles to reach the second floor. Once there, you found a large room with chairs for the jury near a heater that went from the floor to the ceiling. If I remember correctly, the district judge (who rode the circuit) sat at an ordinary desk. Counsel were seated at two tables and each table would seat two people. The witness sat next to the jurors and the heater.

I tried a civil jury case in Stockville. My opponent was John Wightman, a friend of mine from Lexington. John is a very good lawyer. He is extremely smart, and his take on people is even better. I suppose that is why he is now a Senator in the Nebraska Unicameral.

I vividly remember breaking for lunch. I had two choices. I could grab a burger and something to drink at a tiny bar. (The burgers were greasy and great.) Or I could walk across the street to the unused church. Ladies from Curtis, Nebraska would come to Stockville when a jury trial was conducted to raise money for charity by providing lunch. These fine women would cook up a great big meal served family style in the basement. The judge, the jurors, the lawyers, the witnesses and anyone else who was hungry all ate together. Not wanting to offend the jury, I decided I would eat with them and everyone else. For a dollar, I got more than I could possibly eat. I really liked the chicken.

After each lunch, we would resume the trial. After each trial day was over, I drove back to Lexington and returned in the morning. I don’t remember whether I took the dirt road or stayed safe on the gravel. While I have absolutely no recollection of what the case was about, I know I lost. I have a clear memory of shaking John’s hand and congratulating him while the jury shuffled out avoiding my gaze.

What’s the point of this story? I’m not certain. But I can say it makes me happy.

RGK

*According to a brief history of Stockville, “At one time the men of Stockville armed themselves to stop an attempt to seize the county files by force and set up shop in another town. The incident, luckily, ended without bloodshed and the county files remained in Stockville.”

23 responses

  1. As someone who has spent his life living in large urban centers–New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta–I love these slice of life stories from both contemporary and years past Nebraska. That’s as much of a drawn back curtain for me as the mysterious world if the federal judiciary.

  2. Over twenty ago I attended an Association of Trial Lawyers of America (now American Association for Justice) convention and seminar. After an afternoon program featuring some of America’s great trial lawyers demonstrating closing arguments, I was pumped up. The great Bob Chaloupka (who never missed an ATLA convention) came up to me as we walked out.

    He asked, “What did you think” I said, “Wow, they are great, just amazing.”
    “ What did you think Bob? “Try that in Frontier County”*

    The air went out of my balloon.

    *Later Bob obtained a record verdict in Frontier County in a wrongful death case. A mediator told me a few months before the trial that Bob had done his client wrong by turning down the final offer at the mediation. Bob, being a trial lawyer, not a mediation lawyer, let the jury quadruple that offer.

  3. Might as well give you my best Stockville story as well. I took my driving test there, trying to find a place to legitimately parallel park was interesting but, the best part was, i took it in a crew cab company pickup, and when the Examiner went to get out, the seat belt wouldn’t release (we never got it to). Yep, I passed, anyway. 🙂

    And I miss that bar, as well.

  4. Vince,

    I loved trying cases where Bob was the plaintiff’s lawyer. He was so good, so funny, and so easy to deal with that my job was relegated to sitting back and watching with admiration. All the best.

    RGK

  5. NEO,

    The bar is gone? Darn. I really liked that tiny little shack. It had a unique ambiance, and you could not beat the food and drink. All the best.

    RGK

  6. Not sure but I think I heard that. I haven’t been there in ten years either. Yep, it was unique, and the food was great. I get a chance, I’ll check and report. Mostly check 🙂

    Best to you,

    Neo

  7. Mark,

    Thanks for writing. Flip your perspective for a moment. Can you imagine me walking into “Department xxx?” What the heck is a “Department?” Boy, would I be the proverbial duck out of water.

    All the best.

    RGK

  8. luv this! very cool story about a time gone by; ps I would have grabbed the drink once or twice though; :).

  9. My favorite thing about private practice is traveling to the various counties. Jury trials in small counties are great. it makes me laugh when you get to that question in jury selection “does anyone know anyone else on the panel?” And every single hand goes up.

  10. Those who want to know more about the Stockton courthouse and Judge Robert Van Pelt, a very remarkable jurist and human being, can go to the court’s judicial archive on its website at http://www.ned.uscourts.gov. (I recommend the excerpt from Otis Young’s book.) When Van Pelt’s mother sent him off to college, she said, “Always tell the truth, Robert, because they can’t take that away from you, and always be clean because soap is cheap.” I’m sure he did not disappoint his mother. And you did not disappoint your mother-in-law.

  11. Judge Van Pelt was so wise and such a kind man. His clerk Chris, part of our clerk gang, was sent down every day to get Judge Van Pelt a piece of pie for lunch at the little diner next to the pawn shops by the federal building in Omaha (not the new gorgeous one, the old turquoise one where I worked). On the subject of old courthouses, one of my last trials before leaving private practice was in West Point and there was a sign on the men’s bathroom door that read: Please Drain Your Birds in the Bucket Out Back.

  12. With a construction date of 1898, that has to be one of the oldest courthouses in Nebraska.

    The Hooker County courthouse, built in 1912, is a youngster by comparison.

  13. First, Judge, let me say, don’t ever stop blogging! This site is one of the few intellectually stimulating places one can find these days, plus, the entertainment value and good humor is priceless!

    Now, I must comment on Stockville. Having practiced in North Platte for 20 years before coming back east to the Council Bluffs-Omaha “big city” environment, I attended many hearings at that unique courthouse – never had the pleasure of a jury trial there. My first time there was at one of District Judge Jack Hendrix’s signature docket calls for Frontier County. The Judge and his court reporter, Charlie Duffield (a pen writer – a lost breed, indeed), holding court with a room full of attorneys waiting their turn for motions, etc. I recall one time I arrived early for a hearing and stood looking out the second story window of the courtroom as opposing counsel from OMAHA arrived after his long drive from the “Metro”. He parked on the west side of the courthouse and I will never forget the look on his face as he got out of the car – he must be at the end of the world – who would ever think that was a real “courthouse”? I’m sure he thought he had made a wrong turn somewhere. I went downstairs to greet him and calm his fears that he was lost. Yes, the bar closed down not long after I first went to Stockville. Harold Kay, whom I practiced with when I was out west, told me some great stories about that courthouse and his adventures there. He also enjoyed those church lady lunches during jury trials and your description of that experience is exactly the same as his. If I recall correctly, Harold told me the courthouse didn’t even have indoor restrooms until sometime in the 60’s. I recall trying a three-day jury case in Mullen, Hooker County – the first one up there in about 25 years – and at that time the courthouse there had one uni-sex bathroom for the whole place. So, we stood in line with jurors, parties, witnesses, etc., waiting our turn. Ah yes, justice on the cutting edge of civilization. Doesn’t get any better than that!

  14. Korey,

    One of my former law partners was picking a jury in Lex. It was not Jim or Ed.

    Anyway, he asked who was married. He knew the answer: everyone. The next question was to a lady seated in the front row. He knew the woman and her husband very well. He turned to her and asked: “Are you married?”

    I don’t remember the exact answer but it was something like: “Yes. That’s why I raised my hand. That’s also why you and your wife played cards last week over at our house with my husband.”

    The place absolutely erupted.

    All the best.

    RGK

  15. Marv,

    So great to hear from you. I hope all is well.

    Your time with Harold must have been very interesting to say the least. You may remember the Cornland Dressed Beef case that we tried for nine days in front of United States District Judge Denney and a jury in North Platte. Harold represented our insurance carrier, and I represented the company because there was a possible coverage issue. Anyway, lots of good lawyers. I have some ribald tales to tell about one night in Denver after we all got done with depositions. Truth to tell, and on second thought,I will never reveal them. But here is a hint: They begin with a Disco ball and end with ten lawyers in one cab.

    Judge Jack was a great guy wasn’t he! As for Charlie, the pen writer, I am afraid he made much of it up. Sometime ago, I heard they lost one of his transcripts and couldn’t find anyone to read his notes. I don’t know what they did.

    Watch out in the big city, my friend. Thanks for writing. All the best.

    RGK

  16. Thank you Laurie. I had forgotten about the archives (which you are responsible for).

    Judge Van Pelt was a judge for all seasons. I suppose that is why the Supreme Court appointed him several times to serve as a master in disputes between various states. And, of course, his knowledge of the Rules of Evidence was admired nationally. Not bad for a truth-telling but clean young man from Frontier County.

    All the best.

    Rich

  17. 1st Clerk,

    Judge Van Pelt was, indeed, wise and kind. As for the sign, I hesitate to ask what it truly meant. And that is NOT an invitation for you to tell me.

    All the best.

    RGK

  18. Oh my, I’m quite sure I heard about that disco ball and cab ride. My lips are sealed. HWK had many other tales of various watering holes and eateries around the country – he knew them all. As for pen writer Charlie, I recall that he always had a tape recorder as back up. Perhaps that saved the day for him.

    Another pen writer I recall fondly is Peggy Casper with Judge Strom I had the pleasure of trying two jury cases in Judge Strom’s court – one in Omaha and one in North Platte (negligent embalming trial) – and Peggy was right in the middle of the bench conferences not missing a thing. Memorable courtroom experiences with those two in charge.

    I try to stay on my side of the river, so the “big city” ways are mitigated for me most days – well, we have those nasty casinos, which I avoid. 🙂 Metal detectors at courthouses still drive my libertarian genes crazy – Pottawattamie County has not yet joined that game, but it is coming. That might be a sign to retire from courthouse duty.

    Best wishes and, as I always say to friends and clients, “Stay out of trouble.”

    MOK

  19. I have a friend who is a retired public defender who says that a courtroom is a room that contains a desk, tables and chairs. It is not necessary for it to look like a castle or a palace or contain any marble. I suspect one would have to travel some distance from Stockville to find any marble.

    I wonder if Judge Posner would be willing to hold a trial in the Stockville Courthouse he claims the federal courhouses are too big and too expensive.

  20. John,

    The mental image of Judge Posner in the Frontier County courtroom strikes my funny bone. Thanks.

    All the best.

    RGK

  21. Judge:
    Yours truly has been blessed in many ways, not the least of which has been when I was practicing lawyer (I am now a full-time state ALJ). I have had the best of all possible worlds, i.e., appearing in the the “marble palace” courts of New York City, as well as the tiniest town & village justice courts out on Long Island. But in every instance I have always been amazed at how our profession, ultimately, is about the people in those buildings rather than the buildings themselves. In sum, there are lots of characters–and good people–everywhere. And yes, I can imagine you walking into “Department xxx.” Rather than a duck out of water, I’d think you’d be surprised at how quickly you’d adapt.
    Robert

  22. Robert,

    Thank you. You are right our profession is about people. Sometimes that is curse. Often a blessing. Always fascinating.

    All the best.

    RGK

%d bloggers like this: