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Moved to Justice

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

New Madrid has had three courthouses--that we know of.

Early days in the county's history, being what they were, it didn't need a courthouse.

When the Spanish were here in the 1790s they conducted government business in New Orleans. The only local public official was the Commandant and he conducted business in a local fort or from his home. Then the United States took charge in 1803 and the Louisiana territorial government conducted most of its business in St. Louis for the next 10 years. In 1813 the Missouri territory was formed with five districts, one being New Madrid.

From thence forward, government began to decentralize into the districts. The New Madrid County court met in Rossville, south of Sikeston, in 1814 and a jail and courthouse are mentioned; but it appears neither was built. By 1819 the seat was moved to nearby Winchester, located about where Walmart sits in south Sikeston; a jail was constructed there. A courthouse was planned but apparently never built.

(Photo)
Plat of the 1823 County Court Addition to New Madrid. The 1854 Courthouse was built on either lot 47 or 48 facing Jefferson St. By 1860 the encroachment of the Mississippi River had reached Limit Street on the south side of the addition. None of the street names exist today. Jefferson Street is now Main Street. By 1882 the entire addition had been swept into the river. [Sketch by H. Riley Bock, compiled from deed records and lot descriptions]
At that time, Winchester was centrally located in the county, but soon Missouri gained its statehood in 1820 and Scott County was carved from New Madrid County in 1821, so the location of Winchester no longer made any sense. Anyway, the small hamlet had not grown much; the jail was in disrepair, so the seat of government was moved back to New Madrid in 1822 where it has been ever since.

The county purchased a tract of land north of the town, platted it, and built its first courthouse. One block was set aside as a public square with Market Street on its west, Clay Street on its north, Washington Street on its east and Lawrence street on its south. This courthouse was a small building located on the public square facing Market Street. Not much is known about the first courthouse other than it was the first frame building in town.

In the early 1850s it was deemed inadequate and a new one was built in 1854 on Jefferson Street.

(Photo)
Sketched in 1871 by A. R. Waud of Harper's Weekly, the 1854 New Madrid County Courthouse was built at a cost of $2,750 under the supervision of T. J. O. Morrison. The sketched location of the building is not the original site; it was moved north on Jefferson Street by the time this sketch was made. The original location was on the west side of the street facing east; here the building is on the east side facing west. The building appears to have been moved to this location prior to 1862 as shown by a sketch made then showing its north side at this same location.

This second courthouse was 45 by 60 feet and had a central courtroom and an array of offices on either end and a porch on its front. It appearance has remained a mystery until now.

Although shrinking in land size, the county's population was growing and continued to do so after it gained its present day boundaries when Pemiscot County was established in 1851.

Encroachment of the Mississippi River on the town caused the county to have to move the courthouse, perhaps three times, to keep it from falling into the river. It arrived at its final location in 1875 on the corner of Powell and Riley streets where the Candlewood Apartments currently sits.

By the 1890s the building was inadequate for the growing county, but the citizens refused to authorize the construction of a new one. One reason for the refusal was that nearly every town in the country wanted it to relocate to their town. Bond issue after bond issue failed to gain the necessary votes for approval.

However, the argument about building a new courthouse was settled on Sunday, September 24, 1905, when the 1854 courthouse burned to the ground. Most of the records were saved. Officials moved their offices into various buildings in downtown New Madrid.

In 1912 an election decided that the new courthouse would be built in New Madrid rather than Lilbourn. With financing finalized, construction began in 1915.

The cornerstone to the present courthouse, the largest building ever built in the county at the time, was laid on July 4, 1915, ninety-nine years ago. Problems with contractors and shortages of materials due to World War I slowed construction. In January 1919 the county government moved into the new building, which was still not quite finished. The offices had been scattered around downtown New Madrid in their temporary locations for 14 years.

Next year is the building's 100th birthday and the County's 202nd.



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H. Riley Bock
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