The role of the county courthouse, from its inception in the late eighteenth century through the middle of the twentieth, was to bring the functions of government close to the people. It was also a place where people came together to conduct business and socialize. Saturday mornings near courthouses were bustling, with vendors selling produce, old men chatting on courthouse walls or benches, and people getting breakfast at nearby cafes or doing the weekly shopping. In Missouri, county courthouses are still popular gathering places and sources of local pride for county citizens. Here are ten favorites from around the state.
The Howard County Courthouse (1887), Fayette
Named for Benjamin Howard, the first governor of the Missouri Territory, Howard County is known as the “mother of all counties,’’ having once consisted of 22,000 square miles or one-third of the Missouri Territory. In 1821, Missouri’s new state constitution set the size for counties and Howard County gave birth to thirty entire Missouri counties and parts of six others, plus eight in Iowa. The county shrank to not quite 464 miles and today is home to just over 10,000 people. This classic Missouri courthouse, the third for the county, is seated in the middle of a classic town square in central Missouri. A fire in 1975 gutted the building, but the extensive rebuilding preserved the exterior walls.
The Dent County Courthouse (1870), Salem
Dent County in the south-central region was formed in 1851 from parts of Crawford and Shannon Counties. It was named for Lewis Dent, an early settler from Virginia and a Missouri state representative.
This building is actually deceptively long and spreads back from the front. The Victorian-style structure is the third building to serve the county, which has a population of almost 15,600. The courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Livingston County Courthouse (1914), Chillicothe
Livingston County, population 15,000, is named for Edward Livingston, a US secretary of state under President Andrew Jackson. Located in north-central Missouri and organized in 1837, it is one of the counties formed from Howard County.
The first Livingston County courthouse was a temporary log cabin covered with clapboards and with nary a window for the first eighteen months, although some were cut in later. The first permanent courthouse was built in 1841.
The court condemned that courthouse in 1864 and ordered it razed. County offices were housed in different buildings around town until the current grand building, a popular courthouse design from 1910 to 1930, was selected.
The Carter County Courthouse (1871), Van Buren
Carter County, population 6,200, was established in the southeastern part of Missouri, near the Arkansas border, in 1859. It was named for Zimri Carter, an early pioneer and settler from South Carolina, and formed from Ripley, Shannon, and Wayne Counties. The first courthouse was a frame two-story, four-room building put together with wooden pins. The next, planned as temporary, was hewn-log, built in 1867. This third courthouse is unique in that it is the only Missouri courthouse covered with native cobblestones. The cobblestones were added in 1936 during a major remodeling, after proposals to build an entirely new courthouse were defeated.
The New Madrid Courthouse (1915), New Madrid
New Madrid County, on the Mississippi River in the Bootheel, was created in 1812 and named after Madrid, Spain, because it was under Spanish control at the time. It is one of the oldest Missouri counties and near the epicenter of the 1811 and 1812 earthquakes. It once included a big chunk of Arkansas. Part of the county almost completely surrounds a small piece of Kentucky. The population is 18,200.
The court bounced around from New Madrid to Big Prairie, Rossville, Winchester, and then back to New Madrid. Several different buildings have served as courthouses, including a red cypress one destroyed by fi e in 1905. Fortunately, this 101-year-old structure looks solid enough to withstand the next quake.
The Jasper County Courthouse (1894), Carthage
This Romanesque-style courthouse may be the most magnificent one in Missouri. Jasper County, which originated in 1841 in the southwest corner of the state, has more than 118,000 residents and encompasses Joplin. Named for Sergeant William Jasper, a Revolutionary War soldier, the county’s first courthouse was a log cabin, followed in 1842 by a larger structure, which burned during the Civil War. Temporary structures were used for thirty years before the current courthouse was built. Constructed of stone from local quarries, this castle stands in the middle of a lively, classic town square. Look on the grounds for a memorial to Annie White Baxter, the first woman in the country to be elected a county clerk—almost thirty years before women could vote. She was involved in planning and overseeing construction. The courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Lafayette County Courthouse (1847), Lexington
Lafayette County, population 33,000 and now part of the Kansas City metro area, was formed in 1821 and named for the Marquis de Lafayette, of the American Revolutionary War. This courthouse is the third one and the oldest in Missouri still in use as a courthouse. A Civil War cannonball embedded in one of the columns during a battle, and it—or maybe a replica—remains there. The courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Mississippi County Courthouse (1999), Charleston
Mississippi County, population 14,000, is in the southeast corner of the state and is named for the Mississippi River, which forms one of its borders. Created in 1845, the county was a flood plain and bayou until the construction of levees transformed it into a fertile farm area for cotton, soybeans, and rice. Large farms dominate the area that is essentially flat. The county seat of Charleston is a Southern-style town with handsome old homes.
The county’s second courthouse, finished in 1901, was destroyed by fire in 1997, making the current third courthouse one of the newest in the state. The grounds are beautifully maintained, and the red brick and architecture of the modern building carry forward the Southern style of Charleston.
The Ralls County Courthouse (1858), New London
Ralls County, population 10,000, is in northeast Missouri, near Hannibal. It originated in 1820 and was named for Daniel Ralls, a state representative.
This third courthouse was built using locally quarried limestone. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this is one of only two nineteenth-century temple-style courthouses still in use in Missouri as the official county building. The other is the older Lafayette County Courthouse in Lexington. The simple, traditional lines of the pediment and columns were modeled after Greek temples.
The Nodaway County Courthouse (1881), Maryville
Nodaway County, population 23,000, is in the northwest corner of the state. It was established in 1845 and named after the Nodaway River. The first courts met in private homes or a schoolhouse. The first courthouse was a two-room log structure. The next courthouse was a square, brick building. This gorgeous redbrick courthouse, trimmed with sandstone, is the county’s third and a fine example of a tall-towered, late nineteenth-century courthouse. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, and alterations have been minimal.