Earlier this week, I made a visit to what we call “the old courthouse.” What's inside holds more than we know or could even dream about. It's time we, as Phelps County residents, took a serious look.
Earlier this week, I made a visit to what we call “the old courthouse.” It was the same building where I obtained my marriage license decades ago, back when I was starting a now-distant career as a wildlife management biologist with the state. Both the wife and a career in the Ozarks timber are long gone, but the memories of piney woods and a curvaceous Pensacola brunette, remain.
As I mounted the steps, my hand on the warmth of the well-worn rail, I was already feeling the magic of time. In the dim light I stopped at the door that had “Phelps County Genealogical Society” printed on the cover over the glass. I opened it and entered into bright light. Three or four couples were engaged in what could only be described as a din of conversation of the hushed variety throughout various rooms crammed with books and paper files. All that was missing were the decorative glasses filled with an iced beverage. This seemed to be a party of a different kind, catered by historians.
The Society’s office was a busy place on Tuesday afternoon. The visitors were full of hope, delight and frustration, because like Agent Fox Mulder of the 90’s television show, The X Files, they were here because “they needed to know.”
I was in the middle of the hive of the Genealogical Society’s activity, but not having direct relations from Phelps County, my mission was different. I was here to visit with Sheila Wood about the future of the group. They are, after all, the stewards of the county’s records, family histories and collections such as the Watts collection, a fantastic resource that could expose the last piece of information for someone’s family tree puzzle. And make no mistake—for anyone that has been transfixed by family history, for those who have experienced its black hole attraction, these dusty records have tremendous value.
Why? Because it’s all about family. Phelps County is where they put down roots—at least for a while. All the successes, all the misdeeds, all the wonder that makes up a person’s life culminating in celebration and secrets are hidden in some of these books and records. You just have to find it and that’s part of the problem.
Sheila says they would like to find a new home, not because they aren’t grateful to have a place to nest and store the county’s old records, but because they need to be someplace that older people with physical ailments can access. As Sheila bluntly puts it, “Only old people do genealogy.”
They need more space where they can spread out and really dig into all the genealogical wealth they have been bequeathed. Even they don’t know what they have since records are stored, stacked and boxed in various places. They also want to build their membership because they need more hands on deck to help more people fill in the gaps of their family histories, and I might add, the county’s history as well. The Genealogical Society currently pays a reasonable rent to the Phelps County Historical Society (they own the old courthouse) for storage and meeting space at the courthouse from their member’s pockets.
Here sits a worthy non-profit that is plagued by the same afflictions as many—a lack of professional sales and marketing expertise and money. Bake sales come to mind.
But such a giving group, a progressive town and a progressive county deserves more than a loaf of banana bread in exchange for $5. Our historical wealth and it’s subsequent safekeeping should not be left to the vagaries of human interest or lack thereof.
I proposed a question to our Presiding Commissioner Randy Verkamp. “Shouldn’t the county be somewhat financially responsible for the stewardship of it’s own history?” He wanted to ponder the fairness of such a proposed question, but quickly locked into a roads and bridges mantra. I’m not saying he was entirely wrong, nor am I quick to dismiss the question.
In my eyes, at some point, the county has abdicated some of its responsibility to its citizens—both past and present. That’s right. Placing value on the county’s records garners the same respect as for those laying in our forgotten country cemeteries. I’m not saying the county coffers should be tapped to maintain the resting places of our dead, but I think they could pony up $125 a month to pay the monthly courthouse rent for this volunteer group that tirelessly devotes hours to the cause—to this value that resonates deeply within our citizens in their older years. Heck, if it’s not for Gen. Sterling Price and his Phelps County men who fought at Wilson’s Creek, think about simple Bulldog Pride and those that come home every year for high school reunions. Don’t our county commissioner’s think of Rolla and the surrounding communities as a special place and maybe always has been? Enough to want to elevate the value of the storage and use of old county records?
I know Mr. Verkamp, Mr. Stratman and Mr. Hicks well enough to believe they do. I heard Mr. Verkamp express these very feelings at Thursday’s meeting. Talking about all the current changes in Rolla, he said, “Boy, isn’t this a great place to live?” He felt it.
I know they are stewards of the county’s tax money and that roads and bridges spending are the priority. But I think the collective attitude has to change towards our county’s history.
The Phelps County Historical Society is currently soliciting funds to restore the third-floor windows in the 1912 jail addition. It’s more banana bread or the county, and the two historical organizations can work together to come up with a plan to see that our historical structures are maintained for future generations.
I encourage a partnership between the county, the Phelps County Historical Society and the Genealogical Society. Working together, they could quite possibly get a referendum to help finance specific needs for the safe-keeping, and more importantly, the use of this history to open up a whole new world to those wanting to make their family connections come alive—the good and the bad. Because we need to know.
Those memories? Our memories? Of what value are they to anyone but me? Because if I feel they are important, I know they are to others as well. As human beings we need to feel connected.
I do take comfort in knowing my name will be typed in the family tree next to my siblings by one of the nieces or nephews sometime in the distant future. It’s inevitable that someone will get the “family genealogical bug.” For now, however, they’ll giggle and marvel at all the photos my mother—their grandmother and great-grandmother—has plastered all over her two refrigerators at the family farm. They’re already lost in time and the memories, even at a young age. They sense the value of family, which I sadly realize, not everyone is blessed to have. Ours is blessed. Our connections through historical family knowledge have value even though we can’t always explain why that is. I suggest we all explore them so that we may protect and act upon the treasures we have—it will make us a better town and county and better people for having done so.