BLOOMINGTON (AP) — Call him the Courthouse Man.
In August, 74-year-old Charles Aiken fulfilled his long-harbored dream when he took a photo of the courthouse in Sand Point, Alaska. It was the 3,144th courthouse he's photographed over the past 45 years, placing him in the pantheon of photographers who have shots of every county courthouse in the country in their portfolio.
"It felt pretty good, kind of like finishing a very long term paper, even though it was a self-imposed assignment," said Aiken, who was joined for the occasion by his wife, Kathy, and their two sons — Geoff from Bloomington and Bob from Chicago. "We got a bottle of champagne and did some celebrating."
Over the years, Kathy has accompanied Charles on hundreds of his courthouse-seeking excursions, some of which have been hard to reach. Like the one on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.
"We had to ride mules along a narrow path that wound its way down a 1,600-foot sheer cliff to the ocean where the courthouse was," Kathy told The Herald-Times. "I thought I would die that day, falling off my mule and crashing into the rocks at the bottom."
Charles admits that if there had been a divorce lawyer at the bottom of that cliff, he'd no longer be married.
When Aiken photographed his first courthouse in 1969 — in Bridgeport, California, in the Eastern Sierras — he had no intention of shooting every courthouse in the country.
"That was the furthest thing from my mind," he said. "I just thought it looked like a neat little building, so I took its picture."
Over the next few years, he took photos of a few dozen courthouses, including those in his namesake counties — Charles County in Maryland and Aiken County in South Carolina.
"In Aiken County, it was strange seeing my name on everything from water towers to police cars to cheerleaders," he said.
In Indiana, Aiken photographed the oldest courthouse in the state (built in 1846) in Rising Sun, and the iconic courthouse in Greensburg that has a tree protruding from its tower.
"When I first saw the tree, I was afraid it would be removed before I got a chance to get a picture," Aiken said. "I later found out that it was the sixth tree to be transplanted into the tower."
His collection also includes photos of the oldest courthouse in the nation, built in 1727 in King William, Virginia; and of an unsightly courthouse in Letcher County, Kentucky — which shows a mangy mongrel strolling along the sidewalk in front of the building.
"The Letcher County courthouse is the ugliest one I found," he said. "Even the name is ugly."
Kathy said the most unusual courthouse Charles photographed is a double-wide trailer in Hoonah, Alaska — population 750.
"We had to fly to Hoonah in a tiny little plane," she said. "The trailer is very primitive, and if a ruling is needed there, the residents have to fly a judge in from somewhere else."
Kathy said her husband often gets quizzical looks from the locals when they see him setting up his tripod on a courthouse lawn.
"Guys will come out of the diner across from the courthouse square or climb out of their pickups and ask him what he's doing," she said. "Then they tell him they think he's crazy."
Charles said some grizzled old-timers in an eastern Kentucky burg didn't take too kindly to his clicking shutter.
"They got kind of feisty, and I actually felt threatened," he said. "So I acted like I wasn't taking a photo ... but then took it anyway."
In Westchester County, New York, Charles was shooting the courthouse from the upper level of a nearby parking garage when he was approached by the county sheriff.
"You can't take a picture of our courthouse," he growled. "There's a murder trial going on there right now."
Charles compliantly nodded, but when the sheriff turned away for a brief second, he shot the courthouse and summarily slipped out of town.
"I prefer to shoot the front of the courthouse, which is usually the side with the flagpole," he said. "Sometimes it's difficult to tell which side is the front, so I'll go inside and ask, but it's amazing how many people don't know where the front is."
Charles said it's not just courthouses that fascinate him.
"This project gets me off the interstate and into all the small towns," he said. "I enjoy seeing the geography and the architecture, and I like meeting the people and seeing what's going on the community."
When Aiken first began taking courthouse photos, he was teaching Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards to members of the U.S. Navy.
"I'd travel all over through my job, so it was a fun way to spend a weekend during a two-week teaching trip," he said.
But it wasn't until 1980, after he had taken photos of about 2,000 courthouses, that he decided he'd try to photograph every courthouse in the country. That was the year he joined the Extra Miler Club, a group of about 400 members whose motto is "The closest distance between two points is no fun."
"Everyone in the group has a different travel goal," Charles said. "Most want to visit every county in the country, but some want to take photos of every county sign in the country, and others want to visit the highest point in every state, or get stamps from all the national parks."
Charles said he is one of 34 club members who have visited every county in the country, but the only one who has photographed all the courthouses.
"I shot more courthouses in 1984 than any other year," he said. "I did a lot of traveling in the Southeast that year and would knock off 15 to 20 courthouses a day."
He said for years he was embarrassed by his obsession.
"But when I finally admitted to people what I was doing, they would say, 'That's cool,'" he said. "So now, I don't mind talking about it."
He said he's sure some of the courthouses he's photographed no longer exist, but he doesn't go back and shoot the new ones.
"If I took a bad picture of a courthouse and happen to be in the area, I will reshoot it," he said.
Aiken's jobs, all of which involved travel, made it easy for him to photograph courthouses during his down time.
After working for the Navy from 1973 to 1991, he continued teaching OSHA standards as a consultant to the Navy, then taught OSHA safety classes for the Federal Emergency Management Agency and later for the Department of Labor. Finally, he did inspections of Job Corps centers across the U.S.
Aiken said that now that his quixotic quest has been realized, he will shift his focus to putting together a website that would feature not only all his courthouse photos and when they were taken, but maps, populations and historical information about each county.
"Maybe I'll get an IU student who's a computer geek who can help me," he said. "I have no idea when I'll get it done. I figure it will take me about 1,500 hours to put together all the information I'll need for the website."
Aiken is certainly no neophyte editor. He edited the 2003 and 2013 editions of "The American Counties," a large reference book filled with population and historical data on every county in the U.S.
After shooting his final courthouse, he was driving through Canada with Kathy when he spotted a county courthouse in the distance.
For a millisecond, he felt a faint urge to photograph it.
"But I decided against it," he said. "At my age, I didn't want to get started on another project."