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Johnson County
Organized December 13, 1834, from Lillard (now Lafayette) County and named for R.M. Johnson, Kentucky senator and later vice president.

County Seat: Warrensburg

Address:

Johnson County
County Courthouse
P.O. Box 32
Warrensburg, MO 64093

Photograph

History
Warrensburg, the county seat of Johnson County, was laid out on a high ridge with a commanding scenic view. Until they built their first courthouse, courts met in various places.

The initial appropriation of $2,500 for Johnson County's first courthouse came in March 1838. The court accepted plans presented by Harvey Dyer, supervisor of construction, and awarded the building contract to William N. Wade.

Originally, the plans called for a 44-by-36-foot, two-story, brick building, with three doors, but this was later modified to a 36 foot square. Although a cupola was anticipated in the original design, the lack of funds prevented it ever being built.

A subsequent appropriation brought the total cost to $2,800. The court accepted the building July 28, 1842, after a prolonged construction period. The courtroom on the first story had a brick floor; the second story, with offices, was laid with random-width boards.

This is the only surviving example of one of the most popular Missouri 19th century courthouse designs. It was used for county business until 1878, when the commercial emphasis moved several blocks east toward the railroad. The building continued in use as a private residence until 1965, when the Johnson County Historical Society bought it and began restoration.

Exterior additions had been made, the brick stuccoed, and the first-floor courtroom, which originally occupied the entire first floor, had been divided into several rooms. Restoration has been guided by the original specifications and has proceeded as funds became available through voluntary contribution. Now furnished as a courthouse, a few original items are supplemented by appropriate period pieces. It is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Johnson County's second courthouse, located on the square several blocks east of the old square, came as a result of a business population shift to the new railroad depot. Citizens of Warrensburg donated a courthouse in 1875 after the county rejected bond proposals to provide facilities. The simple frame building on the west side of the square measured about 30 by 50 feet. It was used for part of the county's business activities until the 1890s.

After Johnson County citizens approved a $50,000 bond issue for a new courthouse, the court began considering plans. Among the architects submitting proposals for the 1896 courthouse were St. Louis architect J. B. Legg, who designed courthouses for Gasconade, Mississippi and St. Charles counties between 1896-1900, and Gunn and Curtis, who planned the 1891 Henry County courthouse. But the Johnson County Court was impressed with a design submitted by architect George E. McDonald for their anticipated courthouse. They met with him and then traveled to several cities in Nebraska to examine his work and check references on his reliability and trustworthiness.

Apparently satisfied with what they found, they awarded him the commission in March 1896 and approved his plans for an 84-by-104-foot, two-story building, constructed of Warrensburg sandstone. In May, J. M. Anderson, Emporia, Kansas, received the building contract for about $50,000.

Problems arose immediately with the public; there was dissatisfaction about the choice of the architect and the fact that McDonald instead of a county man was appointed supervisor. Some Johnson Countians doubted that the building could be erected for $50,000; further irritation erupted when the court did not require bond from McDonald.

Cornerstone ceremonies took place August 25, 1896, but the project was beset with problems. It became obvious that the construction would not be finished by the estimated date in December 1896, nor was it completed a year later. Not until January 1898 did the court accept the building, but costs ran only $585 above the $50,000 appropriation.

As soon as county officials moved in, the probate judge, who, much to his annoyance, had been assigned space in the basement, itemized 11 protests. He claimed the courthouse was an unfit place to keep records; sandstone had been a poor choice of building material since it admitted moisture; there was inadequate ventilation; his rooms were in inaccessible quarters; the rooms were poorly lighted, et al.

In spite of the judge's objections, Johnson County continues to use this courthouse. Three other Missouri examples of McDonald's courthouse design are in Andrew, Bates and Lawrence counties, all built within a 5-year period. This courthouse, along with the first Johnson County courthouse, is included on the National Register of Historic Places.

Copyright 2002 University of Missouri. Published by University Extension, University of Missouri-Columbia.

Additional History
Story of Old Drum

Construction on the Federal style courthouse located on the Old Town Square was begun in 1838 and completed in 1842. The site was originally owned by Martin Warren for whom the town was named. One of the three commissioners selected to choose the site was Daniel Morgan Boone. The building was originally soft red brick and then covered with buff-colored stucco in 1867. A brick sidewalk leading to the front of the building was laid in the 1840s, and a stone sidewalk and curb along the east of the building was added by 1860. The public well west of the building was built in 1846 and restored in 1976. The Courthouse was the center of Johnson County Government and activity until the railroad came to Warrensburg in 1864. The depot was built in a valley on land southeast of the Courthouse.

The most famous trial of the Old Courthouse was near the end of its use in 1870. This was the Old Drum Dog Trial between Charles Burden and Leonidas Hornsby, both from Kingsville, MO. After 1871, courthouse business was conducted in buildings on Holden street, and in 1896 the present courthouse was built in this downtown area. The Old Courthouse was used as a schoolhouse, church and for other activities until it was bought and renovated into a private residence. In 1965 it was sold to the Johnson County Historical Society who restored it to its original architectural specifications. The north door, ceilings, windows and casings, and six of the window frames are original. The plaster on the walls has been repaired without damaging the original plaster.

Construction of this Georgian or Federal style building was begun in 1838 just four years after Johnson County was created and 35 years after the Louisiana Purchase. It is on a site chosen in 1836 by three commissioners, one of whom was Daniel Morgan Boone. The building was used by Johnson County Government until 1871. The Railroad came to Warrensburg in 1864, and the depot was built in the valley. Businesses then moved and centered around the depot, and ultimately (1896) the present courthouse was built in that neighborhood. After 1871, the Old Courthouse was used as a school, church, courthouse again for a year, and a private resident until 1965, when it was sold to the Johnson County Historical Society. The building was paid for by voluntary contributions, while restoration was received two small Federal grants, more voluntary contributions, and a sizable bequest by the Lowe-Schwald-Innes Family. When the present courthouse was redecorated, the original architect's specification for the Old Courthouse was found, so that the actual restoration is not guesswork. Originally brick, the exterior was covered with stucco in 1867 and recovered in 1976 as a bicentennial project. The fence follows the instructions for a "plain board fence" and mid-19th century photographs of similar Missouri Courthouses. It is the gift of Mr. Byron Myers. The stone sidewalk, curb, and brace on the East along the front of the building were built in 1860. The brick sidewalk leading to the building was laid in the 1840's and remained buried from the 1880's to 1975. While the east and south doors are reconstruction's, the north door is original and is a fine example of the Federal style. Doors follow original specifications and coloring. Metal locks are replicas of those used on contemporaneous public buildings. Each has a brass escutcheon and large brass key. The brick floor has been restored with square brick similar to those few remaining bricks there were found in the area. The oak floor has been restored as per the architect's specification and is constructed partly of material used in the original courthouse. It is of handmade tongue and groove burr oak. The four fireplace on the second floor and the two on the main floor have been restored. Andirons have been duplicated from the old Johnson County home. Downstairs, two stoves furnished additional heat. As candles furnished the only lighting available when the Courthouse was erected, two large walnut chandeliers holding candles have been installed. Three small chandeliers are placed on the second floor. All were made and donated by A. G. Taubert. They are copies of those in the Old State House at Vandalia, Illinois, which was constructed in 1838. Sconces containing candles have been placed at intervals on the walls. Coal oil was not used until the 1860's. The window casings are original throughout the building, and six of the window frames on the second floor are original. The judge's bench is hand-crafted of solid walnut in the same design as the original, and is in the exact location. A railing has been erected which separates the judge's bench, lawyer's table, and jury from the benches occupied by spectators. The ceiling is the original and is constructed of walnut and has been repainted, as originally. A small section over the stairway shows the bare walnut with the paint removed. The plaster has been repaired without disturbing the original plaster. More original plaster remains in this building than any other pre-Civil War building in the State. The baseboard has been restored. The stairway is in the original location and constructed of walnut with oak treads. The first stairway was removed in 1867 and rebuilt on the outside of the building. This was done because the judges complained of the confusion caused by the traffic going through the courtroom during court session. UPSTAIRS All flooring is original. With random widths and lengths of the boards. This is typical of a building of that period. The walls and ceilings are also original. The main north-south partition is walnut. The rooms contained the petit jury, grand jury, and the clerk's office. The petit jury rooms were used by the sheriff. There is a hand-written sign "Sheriff's Office" on the wall by the door in the hall. This was found when the wallpaper was removed. Before public schools were formed, school sessions were sometimes held in the courthouse. There are children's cartoons on the wall in the hallway and in the grand jury room. Other graffiti may be of Civil War origin when the building was occupied by troops of both sides. The fireplace hearths were built of sloping boards and were then filled with sand. The sand was deepest close to the fire where the heat was the greatest. In the main hall are cases containing exhibits about the happenings in the building and Johnson County history.

Records at Courthouse

Recorder of Deeds: Index to deeds, 1835-1886; Deed records, 1832-1891; Index to marriage records, 1873-1912; Marriage records, 1835-1919.

Court of Common Pleas and Chancery Court: Record of common pleas, 1867-1872; Chancery records, 1837-1848.

Clerk of the County Court: Permanent record of births, 1883-1894; Register of births and stillbirths, 1883-1894; Register of deaths, 1883-1894.

Clerk of the Circuit Court: Index to circuit court records, 1844-1900; Circuit court records, 1835-1886.

Clerk of the Probate Court: Index to probate records, 1835-1890; Probate records, 1840ó1886; Administratorís/executorís letters, bonds and records, 1855-1918; Inventories, appraisements and sale bills, 1852-1897; Settlement records, 1853-1889; Guardianís/curatorís records, 1871-1896; Index to will records, 1866-1875 and 1881-1888; Will records, 1840-1916.

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