Hidden Treasure at Defiance College
“When he first began to take on this project, I couldn’t understand why he wanted to do this,” Harry Wiebe said. “It seemed like a monumental task, and I think he expressed that it was just something he just developed a passion for.”
During a sabbatical in 1981, college professor turned artist Hermann Wiebe started painting Ohio’s county courthouses. Ten years later, he had painted all 88. His son, Harry, said it was a project of love.
“He and my mother (Elizabeth) would take trips to visit all the 88 counties,” Wiebe said. “They did a lot of research together, and I think it was wonderful for them to be able to take their trips to go to all the counties.”
Hermann Wiebe began teaching at Defiance College in 1964 and retired more than 25 years later in 1990. Trustee Harold McMaster purchased Wiebe’s courthouse collection after Wiebe’s retirement and donated it back to the college. The paintings are now housed on campus in the Pilgrim Library.
“It happened at time when this building was being built and there weren’t plans – we didn’t know these paintings were coming – so some things had to be changed around a little bit to find them a beautiful home. So, we’re pleased they ended up in the library,” Michelle Blank, Pilgrim Library’s director, said.
The library’s archivist said Wiebe chose what time period he wanted to illustrate for each courthouse.
“I remember helping them do research – getting them in our library, our books – on the history of the courthouses so they could be accurate in their depictions,” Barbara Sedlock said. “He admired the architecture and it reminded him of the European and Victorian architecture that they knew in Europe before they immigrated to the U.S.”
Both Blank and Sedlock said Wiebe was a beloved professor at the college, where he taught Russian and German as well as some English composition classes.
“He was a well-loved teacher,” Sedlock said. “He was a wonderful faculty teacher to work with on committees, and things like that, and very devoted to Defiance College.”
“When we have alumni come back – either they remember Professor Wiebe or were here during that time – and so they enjoy looking at them,” Blank said. “No one else has it, so it’s something unique just to Pilgrim Library.”
The collection brings together the past and the present.
“As a collection, I think they are important to record what the courthouses in Ohio used to look like – especially like the one in Tiffin was torn down recently,” Sedlock said. “I mean, they may not look like this 50 years from now but as a piece of history, it’s nice that the college is able to display this and make it available for the public.”
A piece of history in Defiance is its own county courthouse. Built in the 1870s, Wiebe decided to paint the building back in its heyday, before it was altered.
“Back in the 1950s, they removed the mansard roof and clock tower and built a concrete block third floor structure, which is not particularly attractive,” Defiance County Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph Schmenk said.
Judge Schmenk added that many community members don’t know about Wiebe’s collection.
“Defiance College has been part of the community for generations, and it’s a tremendous resource that we really don’t appreciate as much as we should,” he said.
Harry was 35-years-old when his dad started painting the courthouses. He, too, wished he had appreciated his dad’s work a bit more.
“Mixed emotions when I’m here because I recall a lot of those times and those days, and we’re very proud and happy that he and his work is being recognized,” Wiebe said. “If I would have ever known that it was going to come to this point, I probably would have tried to pay a little more attention to what was going on at that time.”
For Harry, the collection brings a source of comfort. Wiebe died in 2006. His memory, though, lives on through his paintings.
“They’re in a wonderful environment and they are in the right place,” Wiebe said. “This is where dad’s heart was. He enjoyed his time at Defiance College and enjoyed what he did, and I’m glad that they’re here.”