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In Illinois, Historic Courthouse May Spring Back to Life

Thebes' mayor takes steps to restore site as a tourist draw. Abraham Lincoln and Dred Scott reportedly were players in the landmark's past.

November 20, 2005|Jim Suhr | Associated Press Writer

THEBES, Ill. — The white-pillared former courthouse on the bluff presides over this sleepy, flood-prone outpost, offering a breathtaking view of the Mississippi River and a feel for a time when steamboats ruled and the nation steamed toward Civil War.

Dating to 1848, the two-story sandstone gem's basement is said to have held Dred Scott, the slave whose legal fight for freedom became a landmark U.S. court ruling. Local lore has it that Abe Lincoln did some frontier lawyering there before his years in the White House.

Yet with all the history, the landmark where many disputes were decided in this southern Illinois town of about 400 couldn't avoid getting caught up in its own prickly mess.

Though the village owns the courthouse, the Thebes Historical Society leased it for years with the condition that the group keep it open for tours. But when that dwindling group no longer could keep the promise, it shuttered the place with padlocks but didn't -- or wouldn't -- give the village the keys.

Mayor Anthony Scott Bomar, impatient about seeing a tourist draw collecting dust, in recent months threatened to take back the landmark but hoped to resolve the flap "with some diplomacy." His patience ran out Sept. 23, when he ordered a village worker to cut off the padlocks and had all the locks changed. This time, the village kept the keys.

"I have every intention of working with the historical society, but I'm not going to sit around and wait," Bomar, mayor here since April, said days later. "There's no grudge, as far as I'm concerned, between me and the historical society."

Fact is, in the village that has no tax-generating businesses, he said, "the town's dying and we need some kind of flow of revenue, and that courthouse is a major attraction."

Visitors have come from Asia, Europe and countless U.S. states.

"People come to see it, and it's never open," Bomar said. "It's just kind of a bad deal."

Susan Tucker, the historical society's president, said that while her group had invested too much in the courthouse and didn't simply want to just let go of it, having the locks changed soured her willingness to help make the site work.

"We're going to give it back to the town," she said in mid-October. "We took the lock thing as the final straw. They wanted us out, so we're out."

Still, she hopes the best for the village.

"If they get something done with it that we couldn't get, I wholeheartedly support it. The mayor has big ideas, and I hope he doesn't run into the brick walls we've run into," she said. "If he can get it open, that's great."

The landmark has aged gracefully as a throwback to when Thebes was Alexander County's seat from 1845 until about 1860, when the county moved its operational base to Cairo, along the Ohio River.

A wooden sign outside the National Register of Historic Places site -- restored in 1976 with the historical society's help -- offers a sampling of what is said to have gone on here.

Scott, the sign says, did time in the "dungeons below" as he sued for his freedom. The Supreme Court ruled against him in 1857, declaring that slaves could not become U.S. citizens. The ruling was overturned by the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868. Though locals are quick to say Lincoln visited the courthouse as a lawyer, the sign makes no mention of it.

Inside, village officials say, the landmark still has the look and feel of an old-school courthouse, complete with a mannequin of Lincoln performing a wedding ceremony.

Through the rusted bars of the "dungeon," the brick flooring is visible along with a cutout of a cartoonish inmate, dressed in black-and-white striped jail garb, a ball and chain on his leg. Outside the courthouse, the windows are covered by thick, cloudy plastic sheeting, partly to frustrate vandals or thieves.

Visitors can access the large, pillared Colonial-style porch for a view of the Mississippi River that steamboats once ruled and Lewis and Clark navigated northward to eventually launch their famed westward expedition two centuries ago.

"The view is just phenomenal," Tucker has said. "You could stand up there and see every type of transportation available go by -- a boat, plane, train, truck, bike. It's just awesome. For it [the courthouse] to stay closed, it's killing us as much as it is the town."

Over the years, the historical society has seen its ranks erode from several dozen to four, given deaths, failing health or departures of the members. That falloff has left a lack of volunteers to staff the courthouse, and bureaucratic "red tape" has crimped the group's ability to get a grant that could let it hire someone to do it, Tucker said.

When the group met in August with the village board, Tucker said, the society initially planned to let the village operate the courthouse. But the group opted to press for continued control of the landmark.

"We just want to be a part of it," Tucker said then, acknowledging the society breached the lease by not keeping the courthouse open.

Bomar countered that since the landmark belongs to the village, its operations would be on the town's terms.

The landmark's contents are being inventoried and photographed, with the mayor hoping to reopen the site within months of installing heating and air conditioning without compromising the courthouse's historic integrity.

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