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Monday, Aug. 29, 2016

Society records courthouse history

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Scott County Historical Society members Dr. John Kendig and Caryl Hariston look over a copy of the pen-and-ink drawing depicting the first county courthouse
(Photo by Scott Welton, Staff)
BENTON - When the Scott County Courthouse was listed in the National Register of Historic Places, county residents got more than just a listing: a bit of history was preserved.

The courthouse was listed on Jan. 28, and a copy of the official National Register listing from the National Park Service delivered to the county Feb. 10.

A historical narrative written as part of the application process, however, puts all in one place, in writing, county history that is increasingly hard to piece together as time moves on.

Work on the document began in 2002. "It's been through several revisions," said Dr. John Kendig, member of the Scott County Historical and Genealogical Soceity.

In addition to Society members, "there were a lot of contributors," Kendig said, so it is the results of "a group effort."

For example, Kirstin Glaser, a "historic preservationist major at SEMO," according to Caryl Hariston, secretary for the Society, "helped with the architectural description and how to write it properly."

Those working on the history found the present county commissioners and County Clerk Rita Milam to be "most helpful, as was everybody else with their time and their documents," Kendig said. "That made it nice."

The courthouse's listing almost seemed to be foreordained.

"The Historical Society was looking for a project and realized the courthouse was not on the National Register," Kendig said.

At the same time, Scott County commissioners were applying for a grant to put in an elevator and bring the courthouse into compliance with American Disability Act access requirements, according to Hariston. The grant required that an application to list the courthouse in the National Register be filed.

Historical Society members are pleased with how the elevator turned out.

"It had to be in context with the original construction," said Hariston. In addition to being "very convenient for the people," she said, the elevator is "not obstrusive; it blends in."

Scott County residents have not always been so keen to preserve old courthouses, however, as shown in the courthouse's historical narrative.

The narrative includes early Missouri history, noting early trading settlements along the Mississippi River on high ground were established under both French and Spanish rule: St. Charles, St. Louis, St. Genevieve, Cape Girardeau and New Madrid.

After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the area was divided into the Louisiana Territory and the New Orleans Territory.

When Missouri was admitted as the 24th state on Aug. 10, 1821, the Cape Girardeau and New Madrid districts were first designated as large counties. The area now comprising Scott and Mississippi counties was carved out from New Madrid County on Dec. 28, 1821, according to Hariston. Kendig explained the division was made by the Missouri Legislature to achieve equal populations in the counties.

The area which became Scott County was mixture of both landscapes and people: bedrock hills in the north inhabited by German immigrants and southern alluvial soil lowlands populated by Scotch-Irish planters who had moved west from Kentucky and Tennessee.

Due to its central location, Benton was selected as the county seat.

Before the first courthouse was built, the first term of the Scott County Circuit Court was held Feb. 11, 1822, in a farm house adjacent to the King's Highway, according to the narrative.

Erected in 1822, "the original courthouse was a log cabin," said Hariston. "The (present) county courthouse is actually the fifth building they've used for a courthouse."

"It was also used as a church, school and bar," Kendig said, "and as an enclosure for pigs and sheep - an all purpose room."

At only about 20 square feet, the cabin was a "makeshift" facility but served the county for about 15 years.

It was finally replaced in 1837 by a two-story brick building, but workmanship or design were found to be substandard, deterioration being noted by 1844.

Safety issues and other consideratons led to its removal and replacment by a frame structure which was completed in 1858. This, in turn, "was damaged during the Civil War," said Kendig. To preserve surviving records and to be in an area "more under Union control," the county government was moved to Commerce on Jan. 26, 1864, where it remained until 1875 when it was returned to Benton.

A new brick courthouse was built in 1883 for $11,000 but was only used until 1912. The building "just became rickity and unsafe and probably smelly," Kendig said.

Original plans for the present courthouse did not include lighting or heating for the brick-and-concrete building, priced at $70,000. By the time light and heat were added in, the cost was estimated to reach about $100,000.

According to the narrative, the building was dedicated April 20, 1914, with the Scott County Democrat newspaper proclaiming it the "Most Magnificent and Best County Building in Missouri," reporting it took "eighty-five car loads of crushed rock, 100 loads of gravel, 84 car loads of sand, 70 car loads of cement, 11 car loads of terra cotta and 40 car loads of bricks" to build.

"I've never heard of a building described that way," Kendig said.

Ninety years later, county officials have authorized a series of upgrades as the building "is trying to be kept functional for the people," he said.

County commissiones are slated to award a $270,000 contract today to upgrade the courthouse's heating and air conditioning. With recent renovations and the National Register listing, the cycle of demolishing and rebuilding may have ended for a while.

"It seems to be enduring," said Kendig of the present building. "I'm proud of my courthouse. I think most (county residents) are." He described it as "an imposing structure" that looks "like a courthouse."

A copy of the narrative describing the courthouse's history is available to the public at the Riverside Library in Benton.