Last weekend, a friend and I visited the Barry County Museum in Cassville.
I was impressed.
It is exactly what I have always envisioned for the Newton County Museum. Except that we have more to offer. That is, we could.
The Newton County Historical Society's main museum building, at 121 N. Washington St., in Neosho, was built in 1887 as the sheriff's home. Whoever happened to be elected sheriff lived in the house, rent free, as long as he held that office. His family resided there as well. In total, 13 sheriffs lived in the house that is now the county museum. This arrangement lasted until 1937, when the jail was moved to the third story of the then-new Newton County Courthouse, built the year before in the center of the Neosho Square.
Of course, living in the sheriff's home had its drawbacks. The biggest was residing next to the county prisoners. The brick county jail was attached on the back side of the house. It was torn down in 1956 on the orders of a county commission who felt it was blight.
The parlor — today the only room in the museum that has kept its original use — was located next to the small room inside the back door where prisoners were first brought after their arrest. I suppose it might be considered a very primitive booking area of the day. There the prisoners were deloused (only sometimes, would be my guess), and taken into the main jail through another door that has now been sealed shut because there is no longer a jail building. The room is now office storage space.
The sheriff's wife doubled as cook for the inmates, at least during certain time periods of the jail's history. The "bean slot," on the other side of which the prisoners would line up to receive their plates of hot grub, is still present in what was the kitchen. Today, the room is the museum office.
The sheriff and his family lived even more closely to the female prisoners, in the same home in fact. The women's cell is upstairs in the museum, though it is now the antique tool room. At one time there were two cells there, but the dividing bars are long gone and one of the doors has been sealed shut. It is now a single room, used to display antique tools.
Just outside the women's cell, in the hallway, is a little window that the sheriff could open to check in on the prisoners from time to time (or tell them to quiet it down). The little window, with a single bar in the middle, remains today but now opens to a blank wall. The jail is gone.
Although we no longer have the old jail, the sheriff's home in itself holds many possibilities. From the earliest time of my short five-year-involvement with the Newton County Historical Society I have seen the need for a separate facility, with about the same square footage of storage space, for county history displays that could conveniently be rotated out every few months. This is exactly what our neighbors at the Barry County Museum have. Actually, they change out displays every six weeks, the staff there proudly told me.
Page 2 of 2 - The old sheriff's home that we have used as a county history museum since 1958 has its own story to tell. It should be allowed to tell it, in my opinion. What is now an office should again be a kitchen. What is now the tool room should again be a women's jail cell. Those rooms and all others would be straight out of the late 1800s / early 1900s. Can you envision it?
The office and artifacts not a part of the story of the sheriff's home would be located in a separate building (there is space in the current boundaries of the county historical park). There would also be adequate storage space so we wouldn't have to try to display everything all at once. Space has been a problem for the Newton County Museum since the beginning, is my guess. And, over a period of 55 years, that problem has only enlarged.
I have personally wanted to see our Newton County Historical Museum go in this direction for a long time. Well, for five years anyway. My visit last weekend to the Barry County Museum reawakened that desire.
I don't know if these things will ever happen or not. But, at one time, man probably wondered if we would ever reach the moon.
Wes Franklin serves on the Newton County Historical Society Board of Directors. He is also public relations director and events coordinator for the City of Neosho. Contact him at 658-8443.