Thebes Courthouse will re-open Memorial Day

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Illinois town wants to restore, create traditions.

THEBES, Ill. -- Bringing the historic courthouse in this Mississippi River village back to life has been a long, dirty job.

Stacks of books, many provided by the WPA during the 1930s, had to be dusted and shelved. Two basement jail cells had to be cleared of years of accumulated debris, some of which washed in through the glassless windows.

And the dispute between the Thebes Historical Society, which held a long-term lease to maintain the courthouse, and the village board, which wanted to terminate the lease, had to be settled.

Mayor Scott Bomar hopes the worst mess is in the past as the town prepares to re-open the courthouse this weekend in conjunction with a town Memorial Day celebration.

"Memorial Day used to be a really big blowout" in Thebes, Bomar said Monday during an interview at the courthouse. "Over the years, it has kind of deteriorated, and we wanted to bring back the old tradition and we wanted to start some new traditions."

In addition to cleaning the building, new displays have been set up that include pictures of residents who joined the armed forces during World War II and the school pictures and trophies from the old Thebes High School.

The two-story sandstone courthouse, dedicated in 1848, served as the seat of justice for Alexander County until 1860. Sitting atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, the courthouse offers a magnificent view of the town's waterfront and the railroad bridge constructed in 1905.

A carved wooden sign claims that Dred Scott, a slave who sued for his freedom and lost an infamous 1857 U.S. Supreme Court decision, was once jailed there.

Bomar ran for mayor of this village of 500 people on a platform that included reopening the courthouse to the public. He'll deliver on that promise this summer, when the courthouse will be open for limited hours for the first time in years.

The courthouse has long been recognized as a historic treasure. According to one certificate from the U.S. Department of the Interior, discovered during the clean-up, the courthouse was described in the 1930s as "possessing exceptional historic or architectural interest and as being worthy of most careful preservation for the benefit of future generations."

To help that effort, the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, provided funding and books to convert the courthouse into a library. As volunteers, including some students from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, sifted through the material stored in the courthouse, they uncovered WPA pamphlets for establishing a rural library and books stamped with notations they were donated by the New Deal agency.

Finding those items is encouraging, said Mary McGuire, a historic preservation consultant working at courthouse. But the items that fell victim to time and the elements are, in some cases, more significant than the ones that survived, she said.

"The deterioration is heartbreaking," McGuire said.

Many of the most fragile items have been lost, she said. "There was a beaded dress from 1920, and according to the tag it was a Paris creation," she said. "It was in tatters."

The next attempt to save the courthouse took place in the 1970s, when a federal grant helped replace crumbling chimneys, restore windows and replace flooring.

The courthouse isn't heated or air conditioned, McGuire noted, and modern museums have climate-control systems that would only be a dream for Thebes.

Many of the more important items that survived have been moved to a climate-controlled location. Decisions on preservation must be made for other items that could be lost soon without help, such as a 1905 special edition of The Daily Republican printed for the convention of the Southeast Missouri Drummers Association. The Daily Republican was the forerunner of the Southeast Missourian.

While the front of the edition is intact, the brittle pages could crumble soon.

"In a sense, it is nobody's fault these things have deteriorated," McGuire said. "There is never any money in small towns to preserve old documents or artifacts."

McGuire, whose work is being subsidized by a grant from the Southernmost Illinois Delta Empowerment Zone, first stepped into the courthouse in January. The interior was photographed and over the next two months, she conducted research based on what the photos showed.

Work inside the building began in mid-March. "We need to make the state aware that we need significant amounts of funding to stabilize the structure," she said.

Re-opening the courthouse has been a tough job, Bomar said. The dispute with the historical society was settled with a bolt cutter when the lock on the front door was removed, he said.

"This last year has been a battle, but it has been worth it," he said.

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611 extension 126

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