© 2022 KRCU Public Radio
Southeast Missouri's NPR Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
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 of Days Gone By.” Listen in on the second and last Thursday of the month during Morning Edition (7:45 a.m.) and All Things Considered (4:44 p.m.)

Abandoned County Seat of Shannon County: Old Eminence

Courthouse Cave near Old Eminence.jpg
Photo Courtesy of R. Scott House, all rights reserved.
Courthouse Cave near the site of Old Eminence. The tradition is that court was held here after the old county seat was burned.

A number of Missouri counties found it necessary to move their county seats early in their history. Often, the goal was to find a central location so residents would not have to travel as far to conduct public business. In the case of Shannon County, the destruction of the county seat during the Civil War doomed the original site.

“Old” Eminence was 12 miles north of present-day Eminence, on the Current River near the center of the original county. The original log courthouse, built in 1845, was 16 by 20 feet and cost a whopping $75. The only other building was a jail. No commercial center existed anywhere in the county. The road to old Eminence was also poor and required crossing the Current River.

Most accounts of old Eminence were in the writings of Civil War soldiers. An example is in the diary of August Scherneckau of the First Nebraska volunteers in mid-February 1862, “…It was a bad road, steep hills and muddy bottomland. Several times we had to double up the teams and finally came again to the Current River, across from the town of Eminence…”

The First made camp nearby, and three days later Scherneckau visited, “…In the afternoon I went up to the town, which is the county seat of this county…. The town consists of only two log houses opposite each other. One is the jail, and the other, also two stories, is the courthouse, now a hospital….”

Many of the soldiers who bivouacked in the area took time to explore one of the numerous nearby caves. Henry P. Strong of the 11th Wisconsin Infantry, provides details that identify Round Spring Cave, about three and a half miles upstream from old Eminence. “After proceeding inward a short distance we found the passage to rapidly reduce in space until we had to get flat down and crawl like lizards … From this narrow passage we suddenly emerged into a great chamber… Stalactites of almost every conceivable shape pending from the ceiling … and stalagmites, in columns and in the appearance of statues stood upon the floor and on the shelves which ranged like galleries around the walls.” He continues with a description of Round Spring, “Near this cave there is the finest natural well in the world….A stream flows from the well coming out 20 feet from it, which runs a saw mill in fine style.”

The Civil War was disastrous for the Ozark region. Armies moved across the area, making poor roads worse and stripping the area of food and forage. Soldiers of both sides often killed men supporting or suspected of supporting the “other” side. Sometime after 1863, arsonists torched the courthouse and jail.

When the County Court met at the February term of 1868, the main business was to move the County Seat to a more accessible and central location. Thomas J. Chilton deeded 50 acres to the county on the lower Jacks Fork, and Eminence was platted in 1868. Builders completed a new courthouse within a year, 30 feet square and weather boarded.

Nature gradually reclaimed the site of old Eminence, and an improved road on ridge tops meant abandonment of the route to the old county seat. In 1983, archaeologist Cynthia R. Price led an effort to learn more about the site. Excavations confirmed the location of the courthouse and jail, and no other structures. Besides delineating the buildings, excavations unearthed a small number of mid-19th Century artifacts, and the lock plate for the old jail.