Minnehaha County Courthouse Original Courtroom – Sioux Falls, South Dakota - Atlas Obscura

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Minnehaha County Courthouse Original Courtroom

Old Courthouse Museum

At the turn of the 20th century, the Minnehaha County courthouse played host to sensational public divorce trials. 

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The former Minnehaha County courthouse—now the Old Courthouse Museum—was the biggest such building between Chicago and Denver when it was completed in 1893. It loomed even larger in the public’s imagination, known as “the temple of freedom” by those who came from across the country to get a divorce there.

It wasn’t exactly easy to end your marriage in South Dakota at the turn of the century—you had to live in the state for three months (prior to 1893) or six months (between 1893 and 1908) before you could even file suit. But it was certainly less difficult than getting a divorce in other states like South Carolina, which had no provisions for divorce at all, or New York, which allowed divorce only with proof of adultery. So, unhappy spouses traveled to Sioux Falls to join what newspapers called the “divorce colony.”

The most sensational of the divorce trials of that era were held in the enormous second-floor courtroom—which has now been restored to look much as it did at the turn of the century (except the walls would have been plain then; the current colorful stencil work is more accurate to the 1910s). The original witness dock still sits in the courtroom, a circular wooden stand where divorce seekers were questioned about their marriages. And in the mezzanine are the original gallery chairs, theater-style seating with wire racks under each seat for a spectator to place his hat or her parasol. During the public divorce hearings, those seats would have been packed with townspeople—equal parts disdainful of and fascinated by the divorce colonists—and reporters. 

Today the old courtroom is used primarily for special events, including weddings.

Know Before You Go

The Old Courthouse Museum is also home to exhibits on the history of the building and the city. Admission is free.

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June 13, 2022

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