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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.

Former United States District Court Judge Edward J. Devitt's grandson, Mark Hoffman, speaking at the reopening of a 130-year-old courtroom in Fergus Falls, Minn. on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.jpg
Former United States District Court Judge Edward J. Devitt's grandson, Mark Hoffman, speaks at the reopening of a 130-year-old courtroom in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, on Wednesday, May 18, 2022.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum
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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.

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Dozens of people, including judges, politicians, clerks, family and friends joined in the reopening of the historic courtroom at the Edward J. Dewitt United States Courthouse on Wednesday, May 18, 2022 in Fergus F.jpg
Dozens of people, including judges, politicians, clerks, family and friends joined in the reopening of the historic courtroom at the Edward J. Dewitt United States Courthouse on Wednesday, May 18, 2022, in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

“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.

The bronze bust on the courthouse first floor of former United States District Court Judge Edward J. Devitt.jpg
The bronze bust of former United States District Court Judge Edward J. Devitt on the first floor of the courthouse named for him in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.
C.S. Hagen / The Forum

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.”

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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.

C.S. Hagen is an award-winning journalist currently covering the education and activist beats mainly in North Dakota and Minnesota.
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