The history of the Museum Building begins with the growth of the Railroad industry in Sullivan County.
In the year 1897 the people of Milan were informed that the O. K. Railroad Co. would extend their line of railroad from Trenton to Pattonsburg, thereby, filling up a gap, and connection with the St. Louis, Pittsburg and Gulf R. R. and would then have through trains to both Omaha and Kansas City, that the road was under the control of the Pittsburg and Gulf Co., and that a general division headquarters of the road would be established at some place along the route from Pattonsburg to Quincy, and that Milan would be considered upon being assured by the officials that if Milan would raise a subscription of some $15,000.00 for the purpose of building a round house, general headquarters building, coal chutes and tracks, her chances would be good, some of our citizens went actively to work to raise the amount. Several mass meetings were held, and our people were all plead with to aid in a great enterprise for the upbuilding of the city. Most of our citizens responded liberally, not only in the city, but from the surrounding country, and within a few weeks it was settled that we could raise $15,000.00 (heading the list of subscribers were Isaac Guinn, Addison Payne, Sr. and Caleb Payne, they each gave $500.00 and many others gave lesser amounts—312 people subscribed.) Trustees were then appointed to take charge of the funds and look after the disbursement of the same. These trustees were J. C. McCoy, Wm McClanahan, J. H. B. Smith, T. S. Poole, J. A. Niblo, Sr., and Warren McCullough.
In the year 1897 the people of Milan were informed that the Q. O. and K. C. Railroad had now recognized Milan as the proper place for the division. The company had not asked the citizens of Milan for money, but requested land, a round house (to be built of brick or stone), a two-story brick office building and coal chutes. The building should be 38 X 84 feet, two stories and full basement, with 18 rooms. About 40 to 50 clerks were to be employed.
The office building was favorably located for visiting Railroad executives. After a day’s work, they could attend entertainment next door at the Opera House and spend the night in Hotel Stanley (erected in 1892) across the street. The new building was indeed quite handsome. It was constructed of buff colored bricks capped with an elaborate pressed metal cornice about 15 inches wide. The entrance was through a circular archway leading to double wooden doors. The doors open into the foyer which leads to the offices on the lower floor or to open stairway leading to second floor. The stairway steps, decorative newel posts, and balustrade are constructed of beautifully grained oak. The seven foot doors leading into the rooms are solid oak. The construction started late 1897 and was completed in 1898. Although the round house and machine shops were soon occupied and buzzing with activity, there was no evidence that the division office was ever moving to Milan. The building remained vacant from its completing in 1898 until July 2, 1908, the day the Sullivan County court house was destroyed by fire. The old court house, built 1859, stood in the center of the town square. Because it was constructed of hard native lumber, it burned slowly—enabling all of the county records to be saved.
The county court acquired the railroad building as a court house. The railroad office building was equipped with vaults, electricity and water and it was expected it would serve the county satisfactorily on a strictly temporary basis, but it was thirty-two years later when the county offices were moved into the new court house in the middle of the square.
During the years the county business was conducted from the railroad office building, Sullivan County experienced economic growth, World War I, depression and decline, and preparation for World War II—all significant events in the history of the county.
The number and variety of business increased rapidly in the early 1900’s as the growing population (then over 20,000) demanded more goods and services. The citizens were not happy about not having a court house on the square, but in 1913 they rejected a bond issue to raise the $100,000 needed. As the county geared up for World War I, the county offices became more crowded as space was needed for a draft registration board. The first registration was on June 5, 1917.
Women were encouraged to sew at home for the soldiers, and a sewing room was opened up in the court house with instructors to help. Following the peace treaty of 1918 the county was anxious to settle into a more normal lifestyle. Soon the economy was beginning a downward trend. Prohibition in law and the sheriff and other lawmen were kept busy with bootleggers. The Quincy, Omaha and Kansas City railroad company dismantled their stock yards and machine shops—signs of the economic depression looming on the horizon.
By 1930 the population of the county had decreased to 15,150—a trend that would continue up to 1990’s with a population of less than 7,000 (1990). In the late 1930’s the economy of the county showed general improvement perhaps as a direct result of the war in Europe. The price of farm commodities improved, jobs in defense plants in the cities became available, and even the railroad activity picked up. Young men were again registering for the draft, and the civilian sector helped with the war effort with volunteer work and purchasing war bonds.
With the prospect of federal funds becoming available (WPA) the voters of the county approved two bond propositions on June 7, 1938. One authorized the county to issue bonds for $68,000 to be used to erect a court house in the center of the town square. The other proposition authorized bonds for $7,000, to provide and equip a county jail. The federal government would provide 45% of the amount necessary for construction of the court house and jail.
The new court house was dedicated April 25, 1940, and after the records were transferred from the old court house, the county court prepared it to be used as a jail. Prisoners were to be kept on the upper floor, so iron cells were placed in the large north room and bars were placed on the windows that were not bricked in. Women prisoners were kept in a smaller room on the east side just south of the stairway. The first floor was remodeled to provide living quarters for the sheriff and his family.
By 1960 the county court decided it was not feasible to continue keeping prisoners in the railroad office building, so the building was again vacated. Shortly after the jail was moved, President Johnson’s “war on poverty” began to function in the county and funds became available for a “headstart program” A building was needed and in 1954 the Milan Jaycees remodeled the building to serve as a school for preschoolers. The iron cells on the top floor were removed, a second bathroom was added on the first floor, and the kitchen was remodeled. The heating system and electric wiring were upgraded at that time. After two years the headstart program moved to the new Jaycee building, and a new federal agency moved in the building. The county court leased the building to the Green Hills Human Resources Agency. A new roof was installed and the coal furnace was replaced with a gas furnace. In 1979 the GHHRA subleased the top floor of the building to the Sullivan County Historical Society to be used for a museum. Again, the roof was repaired and a great deal of renovation took place. When the Green Hills Agency moved to Trenton, the county agreed to sell the building to the Sullivan County Historical Society for $1,000. The deed to the property is dated April 15, 1985. The Society has maintained the building with a minimum amount of funds. Because of the cost of heating the building, it is not open to the public during the winter months. It is the Historical Society’s goal to refurbish the building and maintain it so the citizens may enjoy the stately old building that has been such an integral part of Sullivan County’s history.