Gasconade Courthouse issue gets at heart of north-south rift

Thursday, August 28, 2008 | 4:27 p.m. CDT; updated 6:55 a.m. CDT, Friday, August 29, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Since before the turn of the 19th Century, the hub of government in Gasconade County has been the old brick courthouse that sits on a bluff high above the Missouri River in the historic German community of Hermann.

If county leaders get their way, the courthouse will be vacated and the county seat moved to Owensville, with an old school renovated into a government center.

The proposal that appears headed for the Nov. 4 ballot is creating a north-south rift in the county, which is about 90 miles west of St. Louis. Many in northern Gasconade County want to renovate the courthouse and keep the county seat in Hermann. Many to the south favor the move, saying Owensville is more centrally located, and beside that, the current courthouse is falling apart and would cost too much to repair.

"There are people in southern Gasconade County where the county seats of three or four other counties are closer than their own," said Presiding Commissioner Ron Jost, who lives in Owensville and is, along with Southern District Commissioner Jerry Lairmore, championing the move.

"This courthouse here is not functional anymore," Jost said. "It needs to be preserved as a historic building, but it's not handicap-accessible. Ceilings are falling in. Floors are sagging. It's just old."

In fact, the courthouse is 110 years old. Supporters say it is among the most attractive and historic in the state.

Glenn and Carol Warnebold of Hermann formed the Gasconade County Courthouse Society. Their goal is to keep the county seat in Hermann and get the courthouse renovated. They're hosting a pro-courthouse rally Friday night.

"This courthouse is one-of-a-kind," Glenn Warnebold said. "It sits almost on the edge of the bluff with that great view of the river. The sun glistening off the dome, old-time rotunda, the murals on the wall. It's like something out of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.' It deserves to live."

Gasconade County existed before Missouri became a state. The original county seat was in Mt. Pleasant, moved to Bartonville because of flooding, then moved to hilly Hermann in 1842.

Construction on the present courthouse began in 1896 and was completed two years later. It was funded with a $48,000 gift from a Hermann merchant, Charles Eitzen. Warnebold said it is the only privately funded courthouse in the U.S. Descendants of Eitzen are expected to be in town for the rally on Friday.

Jost said that in addition to its sagging structure, the courthouse isn't big enough. The cost of renovating it is estimated at $13 million.

For less than half of that amount, commissioners say, the county can remodel an old school building in Owensville that is being donated to the county. The building sits on eight acres and includes 60,000 square feet of space, Jost said.

Warnebold said its just part of the effort to get the county seat out of Hermann.

"The building wasn't fit for the kids or the teachers, so now they're saying it's all right for the county seat?" he asked.

Both Warnebold and Jost admit to a long-standing friction between the northern and southern parts of the county.

"I've lived here all of my 64 years," Jost said. "Even when we played basketball when I was in high school, there was a north-south issue. It's never gotten any better."

Warnebold said the move of a county seat is a big deal, especially in a smaller county like Gasconade, with a population of 15,300. He estimates Hermann would lose 100 jobs - courthouse workers and businesses that want to be near the center of government - if the move happens.

His group plans to meet with Missouri Department of Natural Resources preservationists to discuss the possibility of grants to help fund courthouse renovations. And he thinks some modifications can be made to reduce the $13 million price tag.

Jost figures it's time for voters to decide the issue. "I'm just glad it's getting on the ballot," he said.


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