Greene County, Arkansas

1877 Gainesville Safe


safe.jpg (61567 bytes)


Up to 1884, the safe on display at the 1888 Greene County Courthouse was at the county seat in Gainesville, Arkansas. In 1884, it was moved to the new county seat of Paragould. "With the delivery of the safe containing county records on October 6, 1884, Paragould formally became the seat of county government." So begins a chapter in Myrl Rhine Mueller's A History of Greene County, Arkansas.

Older even than the 1888 Greene County Courthouse in Paragould, the safe is the county's most tangible connection to its old county seat of Gainesville. Gainesville served as the headquarters of Greene County government for 44 years, from 1840 until 1884, when an election was held to decide whether to move the seat to the new railroad town of Paragould.

Paragould won that hotly-contested election by a vote of 943 to 737. That's how the safe came to be moved the 12 miles from Gainesville to Paragould in the fall of 1884. There are different stories about how the safe got to Paragould. One says Sheriff T. R. Wilcoxson deputized W. J. McDonald and that both carried shotguns as Cub Drafton drove the wagon led by McDonald's prize horses Bill and Ball. It is said they feared someone would try to use violence to keep the safe and its records in Gainesville. No one did.

Even if there were no written county records to tell us so, we could figure out that the county bought the safe in 1877. How? The clue is above the heavy safe doors. In hand-painted letters are the words: "Greene County, Ark. 1877."

The old written county records tell us that County Judge J. P. Culver and County Clerk David B. Warren ordered the "fire-and burglar-proof safe." The records also tell us that the county agreed to pay $905 for the sale--$305 in cash and $600 in county warrants.

The safe was delivered by train to Delaplaine. In 1877, Delaplaine was the only town in Greene County with railroad service. The train tracks through what is now Paragould would not be built for another five years. Transportation costs were high in the 1870s. It cost $200 to have the safe hauled, probably by oxcart, from Delaplaine to Gainesville.

The safe was purchased because a series of three fires had destroyed all of the records that had accumulated since Greene County was created in 1833. More than 43 years of marriage licenses, property deeds and criminal court proceedings were lost forever.

The first fire on June 11, 1873, destroyed the three-story wood-frame Gainesville courthouse. Fires on March 16, 1874, and March 6, 1876, destroyed records stored in temporary rented offices. A temporary courthouse was not finished until January 1, 1877, built at a cost $475 -- less than the cost of the fireproof safe. Arson was suspected in all three fires. It is now thought that the fires may have been set to cover up an embezzlement of county funds.

A recent issue of the Greene County Historical and Genealogical Society Quarterly discusses how the courthouse fires might have been related to an April 13, 1874, "high noon" gunfight on the streets of Gainesville between ex-Sheriff Morris M. Wright and former Confederate guerrilla leader Nate Bowlin. Wright died from his wounds. A wounded Bowlin fled to his home on an island in the eastern swamplands and then across the St. Francis River to Missouri. Bowlin later returned to stand trial and was acquited, according to a report in an 1874 Arkansas Gazette.

Since the purchase of the fireproof safe, Greene County has not lost any official records to fire. Once in Paragould, the safe went first to a temporary county office in the "Ben Wood house" on Main Street and then to a temporary wooden courthouse on what is now Second Street. When the county's new majestic courthouse, the first to be made of brick, was finished in April 1888, the safe was moved there.

And there it remained until December 1, 1990, when seven men from a county bridge crew unceremoniously moved it to the Greene County Library on a forklift. Marks from the forklift tongs can still be seen. No protective measures were taken. The crew foreman estimated that the safe weighs between 8,000 and 10,000 pounds.

For years, the safe had been in a corner of the circuit clerk's office. Circuit Court Clerk Ellen Johnson had it moved into the hallway. But the safe's traditional corner had been braced to support its weight. No such preparations were made when the safe was moved. Johnson began to worry that the safe might fall through the floor. Without even checking on bracing the hallway, it was decided that the safe would be moved to the foyer of the Greene County Library. Library director Paullean Caps has said that she thought the safe would only be at the library temporarily, until a new courthouse was built.

The petition drive to secure the safe a new home in the new Greene County Courthouse was unsuccessful in 1997. However, it is a part of an exhibit that honors the history of Greene County and provides a bridge from old to new, a connection from the past to the future in the old 1888 Courthouse.

[ Original article, May 1996 Greene County Library, updated 1998 due to the moving of the safe ]


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