Historic federal courtroom in Fergus Falls reopens after renovations
In its heyday, many farmers were prosecuted in the courtroom for having illegal stills in their backyards during Prohibition in the 1920s.
FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — Dozens of civilians, judges, politicians and clerks showed up for the grand reopening of a historic 130-year-old courtroom on Wednesday, May 18, in the Edward J. Devitt United States Courthouse.
The halls were lined with soft drinks on ice, commemorative coins and an art display from Jacqueline Ness-Ludwig, a graduate from Fergus Falls Public Schools who later returned to become an art instructor.
On the first floor, a bust of Edward J. Devitt, a United States District Court judge who died in 1992 after nearly 30 years of federal judicial service, sat under a black cloth waiting to be unveiled.
The United States Courthouse at 118 South Mill St. was officially renamed Edward J. Devitt United States Courthouse and Federal Building in 2014.
For Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota John Tunheim, the day was a joyous occasion.
“This is an exciting day for our court,” Tunheim said, adding that the room was the original federal courtroom authorized by Congress in 1896.
In its heyday, many farmers were prosecuted in the courtroom for having illegal stills in their backyards during Prohibition in the 1920s, and a second courtroom was added. Daily use of the courtroom began to wane in the 1950s, and the room eventually became a storage area.
Six years ago, renovations began to “lovingly restore it to its original splendor,” Tunheim said.
“I always thought it made no sense to leave this courtroom empty when we had a busy docket,” he said.
Carpet and modern-day electronics still need to be installed, but the courtroom closely resembles its original shape, he said.
The room is named after Devitt because he was a “rock star when running a courtroom,” said Eric Tostrud, appointed in 2018 to the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota.
Tostrud was one of Devitt’s last clerks, and he remembered his time with Devitt as the “best job I ever had,” he said.
Devitt’s grandson, Mark Hoffman, said Devitt was “born to be a judge. He was a true natural, and to have his sculpture here in this building with his name on it is an incredible honor.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., could not attend the ceremony but wrote a letter saying Devitt was an “outstanding public servant.”
Devitt was elected as a Republican to the 80th United States Congress in 1947. In 1954, he received an appointment from President Dwight D. Eisenhower to a seat on the United States District Court for the District of Minnesota. He served as chief judge from 1959 to 1981.
Tostrud said he heard rumors that at one time Devitt was being eyeballed for the U.S. Supreme Court, a posting he would not have accepted because he loved working at the state level.