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Behind the big themes, celebrated figures, and dry dates of history are the interesting stories of life in the past and ordinary people. Southeast Missouri has a varied and rich history that you often don’t hear about in history classes. Join Bill Eddleman of the State Historical Society of Missouri to hear about these stories with “Tales from Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and fourth Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

Burned to the Ground: Courthouse Disasters in the Region

Mississippi County, Missouri, courthouse in about 1902. This structure replaced an earlier courthouse that burned in 1891. It in turn burned in 1997, but all but a few records house inside were saved. Photo P0018-265 by Henry Stark Jr., State of Missouri Collection P0018, The State Historical Society of Missouri.
Mississippi County, Missouri, courthouse in about 1902. This structure replaced an earlier courthouse that burned in 1891. It in turn burned in 1997, but all but a few records house inside were saved. Photo P0018-265 by Henry Stark Jr., State of Missouri Collection P0018, The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Local officials maintain public records which are essential for proving land titles, marriages, and legal decisions. The loss of these records is devastating and requires much effort to re-construct. Thus, when a disaster such as fire, flooding, or storm damages or destroys a county courthouse, it is a blow to the residents of that county.

Ten of the 23 counties in the KRCU listening area experienced no courthouse disaster. The 1837 third courthouse in Cape Girardeau County burned in 1870, but no discernible record loss occurred. Historian Louis Houck wrote that this courthouse was “old and neglected” in 1869, so it is likely officials removed the records before the time of the fire.

The earliest courthouse disaster in the area was the burning of Wayne County’s in 1853 or 1854 with the loss of all records. Theft of courthouse records occurred in 1866, and the courthouse burned completely December 14, 1892, with all records lost. Wayne County initiated an aggressive effort to re-record as many land deeds as possible after the final losses.

A common story in many Missouri counties is that the county courthouse burned during the Civil War, with local lore blaming whichever side was held in lower esteem locally. In some cases, the courthouse represented authority, while others sought to destroy records that might cause problems later. Sometimes local officials recognized the threat and secured records in other storage places such as a nearby cave. For example, Southern partisans burned Oregon County’s courthouse in October 1863 to deprive federals of a base of operations, but the clerk moved many records to Cave Spring. If the threat was immediate, some officials quickly packed records in a wagon and hauled them away temporarily. If local residents detected the fire early, they saved records ahead of it.

Five additional counties lost their courthouse during the Civil War. Dunklin County’s courthouse burned during the 1860s, but residents salvaged the records. Nonetheless, in a fire in April 1872, a new courthouse “burned to the ground…every book and paper being destroyed. The building was new, having been built at a cost of $6000.” Confederates burned the Reynolds County courthouse in December 1863, with the loss of all records. The replacement burned in November 1871, with all records lost again. Missouri State Militia Cavalry burned Doniphan, destroying the Ripley County courthouse in the Civil War, but officials had moved records to a cave. A later fire burned the replacement on January 1, 1898, with the loss of some records. Stragglers from Price’s Confederate force burned the Stoddard County courthouse in September 1864, but officials saved most records. The loss of Shannon County’s courthouse to Civil War marauders in 1863 destroyed all records, but additional fires on December 31, 1871, March 1895, and May 23, 1938, destroyed later records.

Five counties suffered courthouse loss after the Civil War. A fire destroyed Bollinger County’s courthouse and all records in 1866. A replacement structure burned in 1884 with no record loss. Pemiscot County lost everything when the courthouse burned December 2, 1882. A fire in 1906 destroyed Washington County’s courthouse, but no record loss occurred. Mississippi County’s courthouse fire in 1891 resulted in an unknown amount of record loss. The replacement building burned February 10, 1997, but quick response by officials and conservators saved 98% of the records. Finally, catastrophic flooding damaged records in the Carter County courthouse April 30, 2017. Fast-acting state officials and archivists quickly salvaged and treated soaked records, minimizing loss.

Bill Eddleman was born in Cape Girardeau, and is an 8th-generation Cape Countian. His first Missouri ancestor came to the state in 1802. He attended SEMO for two years before transferring to the University of Missouri to study Fisheries and Wildlife Biology. He stayed at Mizzou to earn a master of science in Fisheries and Wildlife, and continued studies in Wildlife Ecology at Oklahoma State University.