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Missing for decades, court documents found in cabinet

Monday, April 13, 2009 | 5:00 p.m. CDT; updated 10:33 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, June 3, 2009
During the renovation of the courthouse, a cabinet full of 100-year-old documents from the Sturgeon Court of Common Pleas was found by Christy Blakemore, Boone County circuit clerk.

STURGEON — The locomotive didn't slow down when it hit the yearling heifer. At least not enough to miss 11 nearby sheep.

When the carnage was sorted on Sept. 11, 1865, the lawsuit said, 12 of E.H. Cave's animals lay dead alongside the tracks of the North Missouri Railroad Co. outside Sturgeon.

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Until a chance discovery during the recent Boone County Courthouse expansion, Cave's lawsuit and hundreds of others like it were every bit as lost as his unfortunate livestock.

From 1860 to 1921, the Sturgeon Court of Common Pleas heard minor disputes, divorces and financial settlements, like the $66 that Cave wanted from the railroad company.

Today, Boone County civil cases such as Cave's would be tackled by the 13th Judicial Circuit Court. It was in that court's offices that the records, presumed lost for decades, sat in plain sight, in a cabinet the staff had decorated with houseplants.

"In all my years here, I have never been in that cabinet," Circuit Clerk Christy Blakemore said. She said she finally took a second look at the antique she'd walked past dozens of times each day when it came time to pack it up for the circuit's move during the courthouse expansion.

Blakemore said she pulled out one of the drawers and was surprised to find well-preserved handwritten or typed documents dating back to the Civil War era. Shelf after narrow shelf of deeply creased, fussily folded documents were preserved in thick paper packets collapsed in an intricate origami and sealed with brass tabs. Other documents, indexes and ledgers can be found in broad drawers filled with leather bound volumes in various stages of disintegration.

Administrative archivist John Korasick works in the state archives. He had tried to find the Sturgeon Court records several times in the past five years.

"Nobody knew anything about these files," Korasick said. "These are records that have basically been thought lost for almost 40 years."

"I was pleasantly surprised when somebody called and said they'd found some old records out at the courthouse," Korasick said. "I was really happy to find these Sturgeon files finally."

The next step will be to find volunteers to sort through and organize the documents, which will then be taken to the state archives in Jefferson City, where they will be put on microfilm and eventually made available online. The originals will be returned to the Boone County Courthouse.

Korasick hopes to complete the project within a year, but he warned that he might hit unforeseen obstacles.

"This should be really significant to local and family history," Korasick said.

Korasick said the records would likely yield information about the local economy, naturalization proceedings and even litigation relating to the Civil War.

Laid out in 1856, Sturgeon was originally intended to be a depot for the North Missouri Railroad, Korasick said. The tracks still run through the center of town, passing a little more than 100 yards from the Court of Common Pleas. It's fitting that the rumble of passing trains would have been a regular accompaniment to litigation that so often featured negligence by the companies who ran them.

A review of the records showed lawsuits like Cave's — alleging that farmers lost stock because the railroad failed to erect proper fencing — were common. Fortunately for local farmers, such suits have slowed in recent decades.

Connie Kaprowicz, spokeswoman for the Columbia Water and Light Department, which oversees the COLT railroad, said the railroad's employees can't recall its trains hitting livestock. At this point, there's enough fencing to keep stock off the tracks, she said.

But the Sturgeon Court of Common Pleas dealt with more than livestock claims. Divorces, many of them train wrecks of a different sort, were steady business.

When Mollie Milliken married J.B. Andrews in December 1885, she knew he had the resources to buy a home of his own in Sturgeon. But he chose not to do so. Instead, the newlyweds moved in with his adult son, Joseph, and his family. Things went south fast; the marriage wouldn't hold together past March 1886.

"(J.B.) refused during all the time they lived together to take (Mollie) to church and told (Mollie) he was ashamed to appear in public with her or to recognize her as his wife," the document read.

If her "morose and jealous" husband weren't enough, Mollie also had to handle stepson Joseph.

It wouldn't have been so bad if Joseph had only "circulated false and scandalous reports" about Mollie, but when she "asked him to give the source of his information, he gathered up a hatchet and threatened to kill (Mollie) and called her all manner of vile names."

Still, Mollie stuck around — until that time she went over to Mexico, Mo., to visit her sister. While she was gone, J.B. gave away, wrecked or sold their possessions in a last-ditch attempt to drive her off. It worked. The extra money he got from the sales probably came in handy when the judge ordered him to pay alimony.

Wronged husbands filed their fair share of lawsuits as well. In an 1886 filing that would make even a daytime television host blush, Isaac Alexander accused his wife, Allie, of committing "the crime of adultery with one Patrick Seymour by sexual cohabitation with him and by having such intercourse with him on diverse times and at diverse places." The record didn't indicate the judge's ruling.

Accusations of horse thievery and other agrarian shenanigans also crop up with a regularity one might expect from a community that, even today, sits surrounded by rolling farmland.

M. Butler trusted John Barnes with his trim gray colt, all 14 hands and 1 inch of it — until Sept. 17, 1866, when the horse, its saddle and its bridle went missing.

Butler sued Barnes for $108.

Other lawsuits stemmed from battles over disused haystacks, informal hay cutting agreements and showdowns over the quality of horses that came up lame or otherwise flawed soon after their sale.

Many of the older Sturgeon documents showcase the flowing calligraphy of early court clerk Thomas Carter, who also served as lawyer or litigant in many of its cases. His son, prominent Boone County lawyer Don C. Carter, stored the records until 1969 when, as a result of a state statute, the records were transferred to the Boone County Courthouse.

Although the Court of Common Pleas closed when operations were centralized in 1921, the building still stands, now joined by a technicolored playground and a covered picnic area in the middle of Sturgeon's city park. Sloping outbuildings, both later additions, disrupt its narrow two-story brick profile, and crumbling bricks expose the structure's frame to the elements. White paint flakes off like dandruff.

During the Great Depression, a family lived in the building and used it as a chick hatchery, Kemner said. Starting in the 1940s, Boy Scouts, Girl Guides and other community organizations met there. In the '70s, it returned to active city use as an office for city administration and polling — a battered exterior sign still tells residents how to pay their utility bills.

The ailing structure last saw real use in the '80s, Kemner said. "They just put odds and ends in there right now."

Kemner is spearheading an effort to restore the building.

"We're trying to preserve the Court of Common Pleas and turn it into a museum," she said. Volunteers hope to raise money to remove the outbuildings, repair a large crack in the building and shore up its foundation, among other things. Fundraising for the costly effort is still in the beginning stages, Kemner said.


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