Thebes residents return for courthouse reopening

Sunday, May 28, 2006
As the softball flew by, Jimberlea Bledsoe, 10, held her nose in anticipation of her plunge into the water of the dunking booth at Thebes Memorial Day Celebration in Thebes, Ill., on Saturday. The celebration included food and other activities at the bottom of the hill, below the historic courthouse. (Aaron Eisenhauer)

The historic building will be open today and Monday from noon until 5 p.m.

THEBES, Ill. -- As the midday sun beat down on the open, almost treeless fields of the Thebes riverfront, Jerry Whitaker could see shadows of the past.

The images he saw from the balcony of the Thebes Historic Courthouse recalled the time before flooding forced the destruction of small businesses, homes and other buildings near the river.

"The block to the right was all businesses," said Whitaker, a 22-year resident of the area. "There was a local bar there that a lot of people went to. I played guitar there."

Whitaker's reminiscences were sparked by a chance to walk around inside the courthouse, open to the public Saturday for the first time in nine years. The rough-hewn limestone structure, erected in 1848, saw Abraham Lincoln argue cases, a convention of Democrats that in 1858 nominated Stephen A. Douglas for a U.S. Senate seat and, according to local legend, housed fugitive slave Dred Scott.

The courthouse will be open today and Monday from noon until 5 p.m.

The reopening of the courthouse saw the return of former residents and, town leaders hope, will be the day recorded as the beginning of a new era of civic pride and activity.

"I think it is great, I really do," Whitaker said of the reopening. "It is an important element of the community."

In one room, volunteers set up Memorial Day displays with pictures of townspeople who served in the armed forces. The next room houses memorabilia from the old Thebes High School, including trophies dating to the 1930s and 1940s, and class pictures and yearbooks.

"This town was so small you knew them all," said Jim Baker, a 1951 graduate. "You started out with a teacher in the first grade, and you had the same teacher the whole time."

Baker, who now lives on the Grape Vine Trail between McClure, Ill., and Tamms, Ill., said he was drawn back when he heard the courthouse would be open again. "This little town sort of gets in your blood," he said.

The reopening of the courthouse capped months of cleanup work and a struggle with the few remaining members of the local historical society for control of the building. The historical society had been leasing the courthouse from the town for $1 a year since the 1970s but had been unable to maintain the building or keep it available for tours.

The work to reopen was aided by a grant of $6,500 from the Southernmost Illinois Delta Empowerment Zone.

Mayor Scott Bomar, who made reopening the courthouse a theme of his election campaign, said he hopes the initial success will bring additional grants. The enthusiasm of the visitors has already brought offers from volunteers willing to be on staff when the courthouse is open, he said.

"This is just the very beginning," he said.

Historic preservation consultant Mary McGuire was pleased with the results. Many items, such as documents, pictures and books, had to be removed from the building to a climate-controlled facility for safekeeping, she noted, but the opening is just a beginning.

The stories told by visitors show how much the building means to residents past and present, she said.

"What is important about this structure and this weekend is we have given people an opportunity to come back and remember," McGuire said.

No decisions have been made about additional days for the courthouse to be open for visitors, McGuire said. She hopes to be ready to start an oral history project so visitors can record their stories.

"When I am out on the veranda, I see empty space" along the riverfront, she said. "They see a town. They see the people, and they see their lives."

rkeller@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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