I lately had the pleasure of helping with some tours at the Newton County Historical Museum.
We entertained fourth graders from Benton Elementary in Neosho. I used to give tours all the time, but it had been awhile. I had forgotten how much I enjoy it.
Fourth graders must be at a near perfect age. They seemed genuinely interested in the stories we shared with them, and it was great to see the smiles. I like to add a little color to my stories about local history because those stories really are entertaining – to me and to pretty much anyone, I think. Human nature is attracted to drama. It can’t help it.
Who wouldn’t be at least a little bit curious to hear about the arrest of someone famous like artist and local native son, Thomas Hart Benton? Or about an attempted jail break that left a bullet hole in the building across the street when the sheriff fired a warning shot (or was he just a bad aim?). Or about the accused ax murderess who died in the women’s cell upstairs in what is now the museum?
I didn’t share those facts with the students the other day, but all of those stories, and more, are connected to what is now the Newton County Museum at 121 N. Washington St. in Neosho. Built in 1887, it was the home of whoever was elected sheriff of Newton County, as well as their wife and kids, from that time to 1937.
The brick jail, torn down in 1956, was at the back, and the women’s cells were upstairs. The sheriff and his family basically lived with the prisoners. That was the arrangement until the present courthouse was built in 1936 and the county jail moved to the third story a year later. The current county jail on Coler Street was built in 1995.
Thirteen Newton County Sheriffs, and their families, lived in the home at the corner of Washington and McCord. Some of them have colorful stories. All might be accurately described as hard men, though I don’t know that for certain. Perhaps some were of the “Andy Griffith” type. I would love to compile a biography of every Newton County Sheriff – not just the ones who lived at what was is now the museum – but that would be difficult for the earliest ones. We don’t even know for certain where all of them are buried, much less about their lives. But we do know who they were.
The museum is filled with interesting artifacts and displays that certainly have many stories to tell in their own right. However, I have always been most interested in the old building itself, and the secrets its walls have kept. It has been desire for a long time to see the building converted into a house museum, with every room brought back to its original purpose, including the women’s cells.
A separate building would be needed to exhibit some of the displays not related to the story of the sheriff’s home and county jail, and we would also need a climate-controlled storage area so could rotate displays in and out, something we cannot currently do. All it takes is money and volunteers.
Meanwhile, we hope to see some exciting things to come as related to the historical park complex in general. Stop by the museum, hear some stories. Dig into family research. Buy a local history book. The museum is open in the afternoon, every day but Sunday.
If you want to become a member of the Newton County Historical Society it is only $10 annually and includes a newsletter. Drop by during the week and say hello to Deanna Booyer, or to Mark Bard if it is on a Saturday. Mrs. Ida Smiles is also there on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
If you ever have questions or inquiries regarding the historical park or the historical society, or anything history-related at all, feel free to call me at 658-8443. You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (my email address is a Civil War reference, if you were curious).
Wes Franklin writes a weekly column for the Daily News.