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History of the Pettis County Courthouses

Pettis County, covering 686 square miles in west central Missouri, was first organized on January 24, 1833.  The county was named for Missouri congressman Spencer Pettis.  Pettis County Courts first met in St. Helena, also known as Pin Hook, at the home of Mr. James Ramsey’s until a new courthouse could be built in Georgetown.

Because of the poverty of the community, the people of Georgetown initially wanted a log courthouse.  George R. Smith attempted to persuade the people to build a brick building.  The suggestion was met with great opposition, for no brick had ever been laid in that portion of the county and it was thought there was no one who understood the art.  To overcome this opposition, George R. Smith and James Ramsey submitted a written proposal to the court to manufacture and erect a courthouse within two years.  On December 26, 1835, Smith and Ramsey were awarded the contract for a square brick building with cupola. The $4,000 courthouse was dedicated on November 6, 1837, but was not officially completed until December 1837.

Even without comparison to the nearby log homes, the new courthouse was magnificent.  The two-story red brick structure featured a shingled roof, rather than the board-covered comb roofs used on cabins.  It was topped by an octagonal observatory accented by a unique weather vane, which featured a golden globe with an arrow on which a fish pivoted in the wind.  The Georgetown courthouse was used by the County until 1865, and the building remained until it was destroyed by fire on June 22, 1920.

Sedalia residents gathered along the streets to watch as the Pettis County Courthouse burned on June 16, 1920

It was agreed that Sedalia should be responsible for building the next courthouse and move the county seat there.  In 1865, citizens cleared almost enough money from an elaborate Fourth of July celebration to finance the construction, and built a large, frame building near Ohio Avenue between Main and Second Streets for about $900.  No known photographs exist of either the Georgetown or the first Sedalia courthouses.

It was common practice at the time for attorney offices to be in the courthouse, and the rent provided the court additional revenue.  But in 1882 a group of disgruntled attorney’s declared the courthouse facilities unsatisfactory and removed their offices, initiating a movement for a new courthouse.  After a year of arduous campaigning appealing to the public’s pride, the citizens generously and overwhelmingly voted in favor of a $100,000 issue to build a new courthouse.  This strong support inspired a tribute:

"Praise God, from whom all blessings flow, that Pettis County is not swayed nor likely to be by old fogey notions and antediluvian ideas as to expenditures or public funds for the public good."
The committee responsible for selecting a courthouse plan went to Nodaway and Buchanan counties to view their recently built courthouses then crossed over the state line to see the Leavenworth County courthouse in Kansas. They stopped at the Jackson County courthouse in Kansas City, Missouri, on the way back.

Architects came to Sedalia, bringing their courthouse plans. Among them were J. Oliver Hogg of Hannibal; Lynch and Masters of Sedalia; Mr. McPherson of Omaha, Nebraska; Mr. Nichols of Atchison, Kansas; George Mann of the firm Eckel and Mann, St. Joseph; and Parsons and Son, probably a Topeka, Kansas, firm. The court selected the proposal from J. G. Cairns and J. S. McKean of St. Louis in May 1884.

W. B. Larkworthy, who built and was credited as architect for the courthouse in Clark County, Missouri, and who constructed the Quincy and Adams counties’ courthouse in Quincy, Illinois, received the $100,000 contract. A local reported regarded the $248,000 courthouse at Quincy, designed by architect McKean, as one of the finest public buildings in the West, and described the Pettis County version as a smaller scale counterpart. McKean, who was from Quincy, collaborated with Cairns on the project.

The dimensions of the new courthouse were 100 by 145 feet, with a 22-foot tower. This basic form, a high tower decorated with classical motifs and topped by a lantern, rising from the center of a base featuring four corner pavilions, remained a popular design to the end of the century. Carthage stone was used for the base and the upper portion had stone veneering. Crossing halls and public offices were tiled and two courtrooms occupied the second floor. Walls of the courtrooms were frescoed and the ceilings were painted with allegorical scenes by Italian artists. The oak furniture was hand-carved.

This fine courthouse of the 1880s was in use until June 16, 1920, when workers caught the tower on fire and the building was destroyed.

Voters rejected three bond issues before authorizing $350,000 in April 1923 for construction of a new courthouse. Shortly afterward and above public protest, the court accepted the architectural plans of William E. Hulse, who was associated with a firm specializing in public buildings from Hutchinson, Kansas. Citizens objected to the decision for several reasons: the court made the arrangement with Hulse before a committee or superintendent had been appointed, raising a question of legal procedure; the architect catered to the court and did not provide an appropriate plan with conveniently arranged space; attorneys criticized the third floor location of the Circuit Courtroom without elevator service; and others questioned placement of the most important county offices on the second floor rather than on the more convenient first floor.

In October 1923, Western Construction Company of Des Moines, Iowa, was awarded a $285,500 contract to construct the building, which did not include heating, ventilation, plumbing or electrical work. The 136 foot long, 96 foot wide and 55 foot high three-story building was completed in 1925. An open house was held in April and the courthouse was formally dedicated in May of 1925. This courthouse continues to house the county offices of Pettis County.