The area which became Nodaway County was once a part of Native American lands covered with tall waving prairie grasses on the uplifts or “narrows”. Imagine the vast prairies heavy with game and uncluttered by trees, except along the three north-to-south rivers and the small creeks!
Missouri territory became a state in 1821, but Native Americans still held the triangle to the northwest, which contained very fertile and desirable land. Three obstacles were in the way of making this a part of the State of Missouri: 1. Missouri would be changing free soil to slave soil, the violating the Missouri Compromise: 2. The Native Americans had just been assigned the land by treaty and would have to be again relocated; 3. Missouri was already a very large state. By untiring efforts the plan of acquisition was accomplished by September 17, 1836, when the Sac, Fox, and Iowa Native Americans, by treaty, relinquished their rights to the huge area of land. This was known as the “Platte Purchase” and several counties, including Nodaway, would be organized from the former Native American lands.
By 1844, the population had increased to the extent that an organized county was needed. The organization passed the Missouri legislature and was approved by Governor Edwards, February 14, 1845. Nodaway County began self-government.
The county needed a courthouse for a seat of justice, but until that was accomplished the judges and court offices met at the home of I.N. Prather in White Cloud Township, April 7, 1845, for first official action. In the July term of the county court, the proper location for the seat of justice was deemed to be Maryville, named for Mrs. Mary Graham, wife of Amos Graham then the county clerk. Mary was the first white woman to have lived within the boundaries of the site which would become Maryville. In 1846, the few voters (white male) in Nodaway County selected Thomas A. Brown as their first representative to the legislature in Jefferson City.
One of the early actions of the court was to approve a liquor license for James Vaughan who established the village’s first saloon; he also kept a store in the building. The court officers continued to meet in homes until a courthouse was build. It took a long time, considering it was a log cabin. In January 1846, the men ordered that $250 be spent for a courthouse with dimensions of 32 feet long and 20 feet wide, to be made of goof longs and durable timber. Windows were to have 12 lighs of glass and the whole thing was to be chinked with mortar. Benjamin Sims was low bidder and the court called for the building to be completed by September 1, 1846. It was not, but was finally finished in October 1847, resting on the site of current Appliance and TV Mart at North Main and West Second. In 1850, an effort was made to move the courthouse site eight miles South of Maryville to the farm of I.N. Prather, but the idea was rejected.
The first courthouse lasted until 1853, when it was apparent that a larger and better building was needed. In July of that year the county court ordered a building built with James Ray as supervisor. The cost was $6,461.32. The brick two-story building was put in the center of the town square with a small jail beside it at the northwest coroner. The jail cost $3,000. The brick was made in Maryville for the almost square building of about 50 feet each side. To reach the second floor the judges and clerks used an outside stairway; sawdust covered aisles stretched through the middle of each floor. Benches made of timber logs lined the courtroom walls, and the building was also used by the people for a school, store, church and meeting place for various lodges. Led by two Union veterans just home from the Civil War, the citizens planted trees on the courthouse lawn which had been bare to that point.
By 1880, the jail was condemned as unfit and unsanitary, and the small courthouse was not the proper edifice for the growing county so both buildings were removed form the square to ready the site for a new building. A jail was built on East Fourth, and work began on the present courthouse in 1881. Completed by February 1883, the new courthouse was made of thick brick walls with a tower which continues to dominate the Maryville skyline. The building is 111 feet 6 inches by 70 feet and cost $60,000. The cornerstone contains many historic items and remembrances of that period. Contractors were Allen and Allen of St. Joseph, and the architect was Edmund Eckel, who at the same time designed the unique rotary jail, now replaced. Called “Modern Renaissance” when it was built, today the style is described as having Italianate features. The red brick was made in St. Joseph and the sandstone was brought from Parkville. At first the tower clock had to be wound everyday until a motor was applied to the works in the 1940’s.
At a dedication in 1883, the portraits of the circuit judges serving to that date were placed on the walls of the courtroom. The artist was Mr. Churchill, who made each of the portraits with grey-blue background and had them framed alike. Judge William Herron, who commanded a Union regiment and was commissioned its colonel, Judge I.C. Parker, later to become the famous “hanging judge” of Arkansas Territory, are among those first circuit judges to be honored.
In the 1970’s Nodaway’s beautiful courthouse was at risk. Consultants recommended it be taken down and a new modern building be erected in its place. Concerned citizens and a wise county government urged renovation, and when accomplished brought about placement of the building on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, monuments dot the law in memory of veterans of the various wars, and these include a marble bench dedicated to black soldiers who served from Nodaway County. A small monument to an elm tree, which shaded the first county offices as they met, is east of the building. The millstone of Lanning’s Mill from what is now Ravenwood are has found a resting place by the front sidewalk. By Martha Cooper