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100 Years of Homecomers: Courthouse reach century mark with festival
Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series leading up to Tuesday's opening of Jackson Homecomers, which turns 100 this year.
Beverly Niswonger has gotten used to the quirks at the county courthouse.
After six years of dusting, mopping and planting, the creaks and groans of the century-old building are just background noise to her. It's the little things that matter more to the courthouse custodian, like the lack of electrical outlets in the hallways. Or that boiler in the basement that needs checking every day.
"It's just like having a big house with lots to do," Niswonger said.
She'll have even more to keep up during next week's Jackson Homecomers, marking the 100th anniversary of both the annual celebration and the completion of the old courthouse, though it's still the "new" courthouse to some. The building is a replacement for the 1872 structure, which was itself a replacement for several prior buildings because of fire and expansion.
The present courthouse was finished in summer 1908, coming in several thousand dollars over budget for a total of $82,075.93, according to court records in the Cape Girardeau County Archive.
"It is considered commensurate with the wealth, population and progress of Cape Girardeau County," it was written in the 1908 circuit court minutes. "May it indeed be and remain a temple of justice."
Justice was served first to Walton Limbaugh, whose charge of "gaming on Sunday" was the first heard on day one of the 1908 circuit court term. Limbaugh had illegally bet 25 cents on a game of craps the previous year "contrary to the peace and dignity of the state," according to court records. Limbaugh pleaded guilty and received a $2.50 fine plus court costs.
The building, now recognized by its clock faces sitting high above the county seat of Jackson, originally opened to the public clockless. According to Cathi Stoverink, archivist with the Jackson Heritage Association, it appears the planners had intended to transplant the clock from the previous courthouse, but for some reason that never happened. The 1872 courthouse was demolished in 1909, and a homemade clock was added to the new building just before the outbreak of World War I, according to Stoverink's research.
Today, a nondescript door in the associate circuit clerk's office leads up a flight of stairs to the dusty courthouse attic. The area is used mostly for storing holiday decorations, but a small door leads out onto the roof -- perhaps the one used by Homecomers patrons who can be seen standing atop the building in a photo of the first celebration. Another set of wooden steps climbs up even higher to the weight-driven clock, maintained for about $13 a month by Scott McDowell.
"The thing is real temperature sensitive," McDowell said.
When the temperature starts to fluctuate at certain points in the year, the time is thrown off and McDowell has to stop by to fix it. He usually makes two visits a month to the courthouse to keep the clock ticking on time.
"Oh, it'll get off by a half an hour easy. It's all in the spring," he said.
McDowell said about 100 names and dates are written on the walls up in the courthouse dome. Other than the automatic winders that were installed and a motor he's getting ready to replace, McDowell said the clock itself is original.
Visitors to the courthouse can find other signs of the building's origins 100 years ago. The radiators are likely original, according to Don McQuay, Cape Girardeau County's public works director. Outside on the courthouse grounds, a mulberry tree, known to many as the old hanging tree, still stands despite being battered by the ice storm earlier this year. The last legal hanging took place after John Headrick was led up the platform at 6:24 a.m. June 15, 1899 -- nine years before the new courthouse was constructed, according to Stoverink. Headrick had been convicted of murdering James Lail.
The fountain that now sits in front of the courthouse was dedicated in 1962 by the Jackson Chamber of Commerce "to the veterans of all wars fought to perpetuate the sovereignty of the United States of America." The fountain is cleaned by the city of Jackson about once a year, Niswonger said.
A nearby statue of a World War I soldier was installed in memory of those from the county who died in that war. Forty names are etched into the memorial.
According to Stoverink's research, a cornerstone in the building contains several items from 1906, including coins, newspapers and a Bible. A new time capsule will be started during the 2008 Homecomers.
For its 100 years of service, Niswonger said, the building is in pretty good shape. It's her job to help keep it that way. The top-floor ceiling collapsed in 2006, sending plaster and debris into the associate circuit clerk's office and Judge Gary Kamp's Division III courtroom. McQuay was in the building investigating reports of cracking sounds when the ceiling started to come down.
"We got out just in the nick of time," he said.
The collapse occurred after hours, and no one was injured. Court was temporarily moved to other locations, but the building did not close. The ceiling has since been replaced with drywall.
In fact, the courthouse has closed on few occasions. Circuit Clerk Charlie Herbst, serving his 33rd year in that position, remembers a big snow storm in 1979 that closed the building for about a week. Weather has also closed the courthouse for a day or two at a time over the years.
Niswonger, who works in the building alone for several hours in the early morning, said she's never felt scared. She knows of no secret passageways or trap doors -- although the location of the original building plans is unknown. She remembers working in the basement about midnight shortly after she was hired and hearing the elevator come down. No one got off. Niswonger shrugs off other stories she's heard as simply tall tales.
A statue of a soldier on the third floor can be a bit unsettling at times. It's actually the original statue from the Common Pleas Courthouse in Cape Girardeau that has since been replaced, she said.
"He always looks like he's looking at you," Niswonger said with a laugh.
The walls were repainted not long ago. The floors are waxed, the trash emptied daily. The exterior is power-washed when the county can afford it. The daily maintenance is part of an effort to keep the county courthouse in service well past its 100th birthday -- and Niswonger thinks the historic building is holding up pretty well.
"I like to think of it as being distinguished," she said.
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