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By Dr. Jim Foster
“The question should not arise whether we need a court house or not, but the question should be,”how long are we to stand in disgrace up to our eyes, and have our public business entrusted in the hull of an old building that the unlimited appetite of fire has long been anxious to devour?” Hunnewell Bee newspaper, Shelby County, Missouri, March 4, 1891.
By August 25, 1892, Stanford Drain, a widower, was living out his final days on his farm along the southeast edge of Shelbyville, Missouri across from the town mill. Stanford watched on this day as nearly 1,500 horse drawn vehicles and their drivers brought an estimated 8,000 citizens to his pasture for the annual “Old Settler’s Reunion” that began in the year 1888. Mr. Drain was one of those first settlers to come to Shelby County in the year 1834 settling near what would become the Bacon Chapel community. The establishment of Shelby County by The General Assembly of Missouri in January of 1835 was followed by the first Shelby County court session held on April 9, 1835, at the settlement of Oakdale on the eastern side of Shelby County. By February of 1837, state funds totaling $4,000 were given to the county to erect an official court house in the county seat named Shelbyville. A two-story brick structure was to be built on the site with the first story being 14 feet in height and the second story an additional eight-feet-six inches in height. The state mandated that a three-foot foundation be used to support the structure. The court house and the square tract of land known as the court house square became the site for the celebration of remembering those early settlers who came and established Shelby County. Stanford Drain was one such settler who in an emergency offered his pasture to save the celebration in 1892.
By early June of 1891, the landscape of Shelbyville was very much that of a forest and nestled in amongst the trees was the aging county court house that had gained the ridicule of the citizens of the county and the public scorn of the Hunnewell Bee newspaper and other county papers whose editors were calling for voters to approve funding of a new court house. The county sheriff and inmates of the jail, located adjacent to the court house, cut down trees, limbs and brush on the court house square. On the afternoon of June 29, the brush piles were lit on fire. By early evening, the court house was ablaze. It was thought that a spark from the brush piles landed on one of the wooden shutters attached to the belfry at the top of the building. The wooden shingled roof of the building was engulfed as citizens ran into the structure to save the court records as well as furnishings. The bulk of the records were saved. The law library of Judge Hale was lost as were the many biographies that he had written about many of the first settlers of Shelby County at the time of their passing.
The Old Settler’s Reunion was moved to Drain’s pasture where Judge Hale called the celebration to order and Rev. J.F. Shores gave the blessing. There were children’s games, gold coins given to the three oldest settlers in the mass of people, speeches by other judges and citizens throughout the county and music provided by The Shelbyville Cornet Band. Uncle Steve Gupton told the story of his wife and their log cabin in the early years of the marriage in Shelby County while George W. Chinn of Clarence spoke about the hardest of times and struggles dealt to those early settlers. The pasture became covered with linen tablecloths in preparation for the day’s meal as the local news reporter stated that it was a gathering of “Republicans, Democrats, saint and sinner, Greek and Goth, Jew and Gentile, old and young, big and little who all enjoyed the feast.” The shade of trees gave them the perfect protection from the heat of the sun.
The beginning of the construction of new Shelby County court house deemed it necessary to move the Old Settler’s Reunion as members of the Masonic lodge began the day’s event with the laying of the corner stone and the parade of people left the court house square and embarked to Drain’s pasture. J.B. Legg of St. Louis designed the new brick structure which needed 100,000 feet of lumber for the frame work at a total cost of $25,000 for the project. As progress was made on the building, Stanford’s health deteriorated and the secret society known as The I.I.O.F.F. provided two men to stay with him at night as Stanford’s son Vernon Drain was a member of the group and an attorney practicing in Shelbyville. Stanford Drain died at age 82 on November 20, 1892 never seeing the completion of the court house which happened by the end of June, 1893. On January 4, 1917, Vernon L. Drain was sworn in as the new circuit court judge serving Shelby and Macon counties.
In the aftermath of the destruction of the courthouse, the various churches in Shelbyville took turns in allowing court to be held in their churches. The community came together to save our many county records that still today are preserved by our local Shelby County Historical Society in conjunction with our courthouse officials so that those doing historical, or family genealogical research may have access to vital records. The 133rd Old Settler’s Reunion is currently being planned and is one of the oldest held events in Shelby County. I have in my mind an image of Stanford Drain’s pasture on an August day in 1892.