George Tibbs, the newly appointed county engineer, began surveying the Johnson County seat in 1836 and submitted the plat for ―Old Town Warrensburg‖ for recordation on May 23, 1837. The plat featured the county courthouse in a central public square that measured 302 feet on either side. The plan featured streets that were sixty-six feet in width, alleys that were fourteen feet in width, and 144-by-72 lots. Hall L. Wilkerson filed the first addition to the town plat in 1837. Among the early businesses were the general store opened in 1836 by John Evans in the valley east of the future site of the public square. W. H. Davis and Company erected a mercantile store in the 1830s.
The original courthouse was the site of Senator George Graham Vest’s famous "Tribute to a Dog" which he used as his closing argument in Burden vs. Hornsby facing the public square. E. W. Berry erected a hotel on the north side of the courthouse square in 1837. The first hotel established in 1837 and a subsequent one in 1841 were log buildings, as were the town’s other early buildings. The city’s first brick building, built in 1842 on the southeast corner of North Main and West Gay Streets, housed a general store. The courthouse served as the initial community focus. Not only was it the physical seat of justice and the county’s administrative headquarters, the grounds hosted political speeches, patriotic celebrations, public lynchings, and sale of property including slave auctions. Prior to the official development of a public school, children received instruction in the courtroom.
|1869 Map, 30 Years after Initial Plat Warrensburg, MO|
The Old Johnson County Courthouse
On the Old Town Square in Warrensburg remains the only surviving example of one of the most popular nineteenth century courthouse designs in Missouri. The Old Johnson County Courthouse still stands at its original location on North Main Street and through restoration efforts retains much of its Federal style.
Only four years after Johnson County was created, in 1838, construction was started on the building. William N. Wade was awarded the building contract and Harvey Dyer was designated the supervisor of construction. Martin Warren, for whom the town is named, originally owned the property on which the courthouse sits. One of the three commissioners who chose the site was Daniel Morgan Boone, son of Daniel Boone.
The initial $2500 appropriation was not enough to execute the original plan. To begin with, the plan called for a 44-by-36 foot, two-story brick building with three doors and a cupola (dome-like structure placed on the roof top). Lack of funds required the base to be modified to a 36 foot square and the anticipated cupola was never built.
After a prolonged construction period, the court accepted the building on July 28, 1842. Additional funding brought the final cost of the Old Courthouse to $2800. The entire first story with its brick floor housed the court and the wooden-floored second story contained offices. The exterior of the building was originally red brick, but was covered with buff-colored stucco in 1867.
The courthouse served as a federal garrison during the Civil War and was the center of Johnson County government activity until the railroad came to Warrensburg in 1864. Most of the business district slowly moved several blocks east toward the depot and ultimately a new courthouse was built in that neighborhood. Near the end of its use as a courthouse in 1870, the Old Drum trial took place, during which George Graham Vest delivered his classic speech, Eulogy of the Dog .
After 1871, the Old Courthouse was used as a school, a church, a courthouse again for a year, and finally a private residence during which time it was repeatedly remodeled. In 1965, the Johnson County Historical Society purchased the property and began restoration and preservation efforts guided by the original specifications.
Once again furnished as a courthouse with original items supplemented by period pieces, the building has been restored to its 1870 appearance. The plaque commemorating Vest’s famous speech remains at the entrance to the Old Courthouse.
The building is now part of the Johnson County Historical Society museum complex and is available for tours. The Old Johnson County Courthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places.
|Old Town Warrensburg, MO Plat|