BLYTHEVILLE — The search for missing blueprints and the discovery of hidden rooms inside two Mississippi County courthouses have shown the importance of preserving history and helped bring together two northeast Arkansas cities after years of mistrust, officials said.
“There is an old saying that these old buildings will talk to you if you let them,” the county judge of Mississippi County, John Alan Nelson, said with a laugh. “They are mostly mumbling to me right now, but you get the point.”
Nelson and other county officials accepted bond proceeds from Stephens Inc., totaling $17,252,847.39 on Tuesday to fund renovations for the county’s two courthouses.
The county retained historical architect Aaron Ruby of Revival Architecture to prepare the blueprints and designs for the Blytheville courthouse. Work is expected to begin by October.
“We are excited for what is going to happen over the next few months,” Steven Savage, public affairs director for the office of the county office, said of the Blytheville Courthouse. “We are going to renovate all of this stuff and add an additional courtroom, but we are going to try to keep it as it was in 1919 with a few new additions.”
Meanwhile, a committee made up of Osceola residents will decide how the funds will be used for work on Osceola’s courthouse.
Mississippi County, population 44,756, is one of 10 Arkansas counties that has two county courthouses.
Osceola was chosen as the county seat initially, and a courthouse was built there in 1912. In 1919, a courthouse was built in Blytheville after the town was designated as a second judicial district for the county.
The two county seats are about 15 miles apart.
The cities have fought for the past several years over the fate of their courthouses.
Quorum Court members called in 2016 for a vote on a proposal for a half-percent sales tax to help fund a $22.5 million courthouse. Justices of the peace said they were concerned about costly repairs needed to maintain courthouses in Osceola and Blytheville.
Plans called for building a 55,000-square-foot courthouse near Interstate 55 and U.S. 61 in south Blytheville.
Osceola residents filed an injunction, saying passage of the levy would cause “irreparable harm” because it would force Mississippi County taxpayers to pay for a courthouse they had not authorized to build by election, said Bart Calhoun, a Little Rock attorney who represented Osceola residents.
Many Osceola residents feared a new courthouse in Blytheville would mean shutting down the courthouse in their city, Nelson said.
“The courthouse in Osceola became a part of the city,” Nelson said. “So much has happened in those streets. Stories have been told from family to family about events that have happened in and around that courthouse. It would be an insult to their heritage to take it away.”
The battle between the cities caused fractures within the county and drew national attention in 2015 when The New York Times wrote about the fear of Osceola residents over losing their courthouse.
The situation came to head in the judicial system when a special circuit judge temporarily blocked the sales-tax election for the Blytheville courthouse.
The courthouse issue came up again in 2017, and Nelson happened to be at a Quorum Court meeting where the fate of the courthouses was addressed.
“They were deciding whether to renovate the Blytheville courthouse or make a new one, and one of the justice of peaces turned to me and asked what my thoughts were,” Nelson said. “I told them if I was elected, I wouldn’t tear down either courthouse. They then decided on renovation.”
Nelson described himself as a preservationist by nature.
“Both courthouses are very beautiful buildings, and there is a lot of historic value to them,” he said. “A lot has happened over the last 107 years under those roofs. Once you lose something like that, you lose some part of the community.”
Nelson decided in January that he would keep the promise he made during the primaries and went around Mississippi County speaking about the need to keep both courthouses functional.
“We went to 32 events in the span of five weeks,” he said. “We would speak sometimes to only 10 people, and sometimes there would be crowds of 50 people. We made sure to tell the whole story and not sugarcoat anything.”
Mississippi County held a special election in February, asking voters to approve a bond issue in the amount of $18,100,000. The bond issue passed with 72% of voters in favor of it.
The bond finances the renovation of both courthouses, as well as construction of a 17,390-square-foot addition to the Blytheville building.
As plans began to come together for the Blytheville courthouse, a search for the original blueprints uncovered secrets about the two buildings that have garnered attention on social media.
Drone video of the Osceola courthouse, laser-engraved tile of a historic photo of the Blytheville courthouse and pictures of the 1952 third-floor renovation blueprints have added to the interest surrounding the courthouse renovations and the search for the blueprints.
Blytheville officials have started to release information about some of their finds over the past few months, including a hollow space where a staircase once stood and an empty hidden room in the boiler room.
“We have no idea the original intent of the room,” Nelson said. “We also found a hollow spot on the third floor and noticed a piece of metal bolted down. We removed the metal and found a centerpiece for a pole that appeared to have been a stabilizing piece for a staircase.”
Nelson said a longtime courthouse worker had a photo that showed a spiral staircase in the background, but it is unknown where the staircase went.
The hidden past of the Osceola courthouse also has begun to reveal itself.
“We were doing an inventory of stuff down in the bottom of the courthouse and found a room with a jail cell in it,” Nelson said. “As we continued looking, we found an even older jail cell.”
Nelson said that when it comes to old buildings, you never know what you’ll discover until you start digging.
That, he said, is what makes them worth preserving.
Print Headline: Courthouse finds in northeast Arkansas reveal hidden past