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Questions about laws? Want to do your own divorce? Recently opened Law Library is open to the public

Plumas County Museum Director Scott Lawson is quite proud of the planning and work that’s gone into renovating the former law offices of J.D. Goodwin and others. Photo by Victoria Metcalf

It’s like the movie “Back to the Future.”

That’s what a visitor might be reminded of when stepping into the newly renovated Plumas County Library.

Plumas County Museum Director Scott Lawson, members of the Law Library Association and builders wanted visitors and users to get a glimpse of how the law office of J.D. Goodwin might have looked in 1860 or there about. That was just 10 years after the county officially began.

Visitors won’t find the cast with Michael J. Fox or Christopher Lloyd or an exotic DeLorean DMC-12 inside or near the structure on Jackson Street.

What they will find are computers and electric lighting.

That’s where the future, or rather the present, comes in. And the computers are why the law library has been re-opened. The historical significance of the structure is important not only to Quincy and Plumas County, but to the state.

A tour in September

Lawson chuckled to himself as he inserted the key into the new backdoor to the law offices. The massive structure of glass and metal eased open — just as it should.

Its presence might seem a little out of place in a structure that began 159 year ago. But it and the concrete ramp leading from the main sidewalk along Jackson Street to the door are part of the 21st century requirements meeting ADA codes.

But the salute to modern times is quickly forgotten as one is transported to a different time more than a century ago. Yes, there’s electric lighting and two computers, but visitors immediately focus on the surroundings reminiscent of the past.

Quarter-sawn oak desks and chairs gleaned from here and there, a collection of appropriate old photographs and paintings and other furnishings went into the re-creation of an old time law office.

While the original or at least old shelving cases found in a photo of Louis Peter are no longer around, bookshelves from the former fourth-floor law library in the Plumas County Courthouse were used.

Lawson said the shelves were made to stand back-to-back in the former law library. To make them fit around the Goodwin building interior walls they had to be separated and in some cases made smaller. As far as Lawson knows, the shelves, or at least some of them, might have been original to the first courthouse.

Judging from the dimensions of the bookshelves, Lawson believes that the original carpenters had to make them on site. “I don’t know how the hell you’d get them up and down the stairs and through the doorways,” he explained about the existing courthouse.

As for the law books now stored on those shelves, Lawson said they went through the existing collection and saved all the leather-bound volumes. Longtime Quincy attorney Pete Hentschel worked diligently to move books from the fourth floor to the Goodwin building.

Picking out one of these volumes, Lawson showed Judge Goodwin’s stamp dated 1851 on the inside cover.

They also saved some others found in a green fabric cover because they belonged to one of the previous tenants of the Goodwin building.

But “the books are just window dressing,” Lawson said. Like the photos or paintings, they’re part of the décor. Out of curiosity, someone might want to thumb through a volume or two. It’s the computers and the link to modern law that is more compelling.

A visit to law research

Members of the County Law Library Association funded the computers and other parts of the renovation project, Lawson said.

Through a memorandum of understanding written by Plumas County Counsel Craig Settlemire, Lawson said he was put in charge of giving people access to the law library.

Anyone who’s interested in using it can go to the museum and Lawson will unlock the building.

It was Judge Douglas Prouty who recently outlined what’s available to the public. Of course the old leather-bound books are great for case law, he said.

But all up-to-date legal information is found on the computers. Prouty said this provides an updated and modernized law library. “Everything’s on the computer now,” he said about one of the reasons for the change.

The trustees of the Plumas Law Library Association, which includes Prouty, Judge Janet Hilde and Hentschel have also included 10 books of the Nolow Press series.

Nolow includes information on how to do wills and trusts, landlord/tenant rules, how small claims court works, how to do your own divorce, gives information on child support and living trusts and much more, Prouty explained.

And the good thing about the Nolow Press books online is that they are automatically updated. In the past it took a law librarian to update the books “back in the day,” Prouty said.

There is also the Lexis program that assists people with legal research, Prouty said. It’s up to date and includes federal as well as California law.

As the caretaker, Lawson said that the Plumas County Museum owns the Goodwin building and has rented it out over the years. Now it rents it to Plumas County for the law library.

The museum association bought the building from Morris Durrant in 1975, Lawson remembered.

Renovation project

“The whole process goes back over two years,” Lawson said about the planning and work that went into the Goodwin building.  The renovation work started in the fall of 2018. It was completed in April. “It took a long time,” he said. “There’s a lot to it.”

“We were going to pull out the carpet and found there was no floor left,” Lawson said about early construction. “It was down to the dirt.”

Pete Bartels, who used to teach woodworking and building at Feather River College, and Buster Heiman, a longtime carpenter and contractor, were responsible for doing a lot of the rough work.

Between the two, they tore out what was left of the flooring and “the building system,” he said.

The old lathe and plaster walls also needed attention, according to Lawson. When it was torn off it revealed locally made red bricks used as insulation.

Lawson said he wasn’t surprised to find more bricks — they’d located some when other work was being done several years ago. Those bricks were used to create a nearby pathway but they soon found the bricks were soft and didn’t hold up to the elements.

When Heiman’s work was done, Bartels was busy with the windows and the penaments over the doors. “He milled it all himself out of pine,” Lawson explained about some of the work.

Bartels also made the flooring out of six-inch Douglas fir tongue and groove that was period appropriate.

The ceilings are original to the structure. Lawson said they attempted to match the wood staining from one room to another.

In the beginning was J.D. Goodwin

By Edward C. Brown, 1983

The deed to the original site of the Goodwin Law office, which is the oldest known legal office in California, and has been continually used as such, was from Lewis Stark and Matilda Stark, his wife to John D. Goodwin, and was dated July 11, 1860.

There have been many illustrious lawyers who either occupied this building or else learned their law there.

A young school teacher in Johnsville, Ulysses S. Webb, could not stand the odor of the garlic which his Italian students persisted in munching in school, so he rode his bicycle the 30 miles to the village of Quincy and persuaded Judge Goodwin to teach him law. He was admitted to the Bar, and became the Plumas County District Attorney, and then ascended to the position of Attorney General of the State of California, a position which he held for 35 years which was longer than anyone else has ever served in that office. He was married to Judge Goodwin’s daughter, Grace. U.S. Webb died a multi-millionaire; however, not all occupants of the office have been so fortunate.

Another notable attorney who gained the knowledge of law in the office was Miss Nettie Abbott, who was formerly a schoolteacher in Prattville where she was born. She went on to become the only woman at that time to serve on the California Appellate Court.

The office has been owned and occupied by many lawyers, including D.W. Jenks, Louis Peter, M.C. Kerr, Morris Durant (the) Plumas County District Attorney from 1969 to 1974; David L. Adrian from 1976 to 2009 and Jeff Cunan 2010-2015 (Lawson updated Brown’s list).

In June 1961, the Plumas del Oro Chapter No. 8 of the ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus placed a bronze plaque on the building, which reads:

Goodwin Law Office, in continuous use as a legal office since 1860. U.S. Webb learned law here. Dedicated by Las Plumas del Oro chapter, E. Clampus Vitus, June 1961.

Scott Lawson added, “After extensive restoration and renovations, it is now the home of the Plumas County Law Library.”

Note: Brown was a longtime supporter of the Plumas County Museum.

Louis N. Peter

By Scott Lawson

Louis N. Peter was born March 24, 1872,, in Indian Valley to a pioneer ranching family.

He graduated from the San Jose Business College in 1893 and the following fall went to work for Judge C.E. McLaughlin of Quincy.

In 1895, Peter was admitted to the bar and in 1896 began practicing on his own account.

In 1898 he ran against U.S. Webb for the office of Plumas District Attorney, but a Democrat in the strong Republican county, was defeated by 10 votes.

In 1902, he ran again and was elected by a 52-vote marjority.

He was married to Miss Jessie Johnson, born in Big Meadows, now Lake Almanor.

L.N. Peter practiced law in the Goodwin Law Office and lived in what is today called the Variel Home behind the Plumas County Museum, until his death in 1916.

Two anecdotes

While talking about Peter’s time in Quincy, Lawson said the man could take a handy path back and forth from his law office to his home. None of the buildings that now exist blocked his way.

His death came quite unexpectedly. He went home one day, lay down on the sofa and never got up.

Another occupant of the law office was a local attorney known as Johnny Boyle, Lawson said as he recalled another story.

Boyle got into an argument with the editor of the Plumas National Bulletin, a man named F.G. Hail. They were arguing about the location of a new county high school and had very different ideas about it.

Apparently Hail had had enough and shot Boyle to death. He was sent to prison where he remained until he was given a reprieve when he was going to die, according to Lawson.

Hail was the editor of the newspaper that eventually became the Feather River Bulletin.

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