Ye Olde Courthouse & Masonic Hall
Ye Olde Courthouse at 120 Center St in Omer, Arenac County Historical Society’s (ACHS) restoration project, is a stately edifice that alerts one’s imagination to life in the first decades of Arenac County history. The Courthouse was listed in 1976 as a Michigan Historic Site and in 1982 as a National Registry Historic Place. On display are Arenac County’s first jail, a “hidden stairway,” a circa 1893 barber shop exhibit and more. We encourage historians to consider our many records from the City of Omer and Arenac Township. The Courthouse also is home to the (1916-1986) North East Michigan (NEM) Baseball League Museum, “Settlement of Arenac,” Omer Masonic history and Arenac Eastern School District memorabilia.
The building that stands today is the second Omer courthouse. On 21 October 1889, a local contractor, Angus McDonnell, submitted his bid to build the first courthouse. McDonnell’s bid of $2,847.00 ($85,918.76 in 2022) was the lowest bid. He completed the structure less than ten months later–on 5 August 1890–but he lost heavily on the project. The Courthouse Board later increased his payment to total $2970.75 ($90,669.85 in 2022) so he would have at least “broken even.” A few months later, the courthouse burned to the ground.
The structure we see today, the second version, was constructed in 1890. It’s rectangular, symmetric two-story frame, clapboarded and with a hip roof and slightly projecting bay can be classified as the frame vernacular style of architecture. The entrance porch, supported by slender columns, had has an impressive fanlight window. The fanlight and sunburst carving above the portico have a fish scale shingle surround. Atop all is a cupola with two double-hung windows on each side.
The new courthouse had scarcely been completed when political forces changed its future; by public vote, the county seat was moved nine miles away to Standish. The now rejected building sat vacant for two years until it was purchased for $500 ($15,261 in 2022) by the Omer Lodge of the Free and Acceptable Order of Masons. The old courthouse then became a Masonic Hall for Masonic Lodge #377. It also at times was the location of the village hall, the fire station and the jail. Over the near 100 years the Masons owned it, the wood-frame building survived the “cyclone of 1895,” the disastrous fires of 1901 and 1914, the Great Flood of 1916 and the savage ice storm of 1922.
When the building became too expensive to maintain, the Masons moved to a smaller venue. In 1997, Au Gres locals Carol and Robert Britt moved to save the old courthouse and to preserve its contents. They repaired the foundation, painted the exterior and protected it with a new roof. In June 2005, ACHS signed a land contract with the Britts to purchase the building. By using grants and donations and by holding fundraisers, ACHS retired the mortgage in August of 2013.
In 2015, an endowment fund was established at the Bay Area Community Foundation. The annual Give Local Bay Day community-challenge fundraiser is one 0f the benefits of participating in the Foundation. ACHS’s goal is to build the BACF endowment into a financial vehicle that will sustain future maintenance of this beautiful building.
When Arenac Eastern School District closed its schools in 2017, Ye Olde Courthouse was gifted with the District’s high school yearbooks, senior composite pictures and other school memorabilia. These are displayed in a downstairs room.
Throughout the year, programs and events are held in and around the building. These events include Sucker Festival Weekend’s ever-popular bake sales (we have terrific bakers!), holiday bazaars, winter greens sales, speaker events and presentations, and gatherings like receptions and weddings. Today, Ye Olde Courthouse has regained its place as an important part of a community that once was the vibrant cultural and political hub of a newly formed Michigan county.