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Thebes courthouse, visited by Lincoln, gets major upgrades

THEBES — A hundred years ago, the view from the balcony of the historic Thebes courthouse would have been pretty majestic, Debbie Goins imagines.

Steamboats rumbled up and down the Mississippi River, moving livestock from the town’s wharf north to East St. Louis. Trains ran into and around town on several different railroad lines, then headed on to Missouri across the 3,910-foot, two-track railroad bridge, at that time the biggest of its kind in all the U.S., according to Southern Illinois historian Lowell A. Dearinger.

And the courthouse, built in the 1840’s, looked out over all of it, from atop the highest hill in town.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

The historic Thebes Courthouse is in the first phase of a renovation project that will see repairs made to the balcony and columns, replacement of windows and a new interior staircase. The work is expected to be completed in February.

It was visited by Abraham Lincoln. Famed local General John A. Logan argued cases in its second-floor courtroom. Its jail held Dred Scott, the former slave whose lawsuit demanding freedom was denied by the U.S. Supreme Court in the run-up to the Civil War.

But Thebes ceased to be the Alexander County seat in 1860, and by the 1970s, the little-used courthouse was in rough shape.

“When I was a girl it was in bad disrepair,” Goins, 61, remembers. “We kids used to go and play in the jail cells.”

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Debbie Goins examines the door to the men's dungeon in the lower level of the historic Thebes Courthouse. The door is believed to be the original door from the building that was built in 1848.

Goins, a retired teacher, now lives in Marion. But she remains involved in the effort to preserve the courthouse, a landmark on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2014, she and other members of the Thebes Historical Society commissioned an architectural assessment of the building’s condition.

It found major structural and safety issues.

The building needed a new roof, new joists, new floors, and lots of tuckpointing. The upper balcony was unstable, and appeared to be pulling away from the building.

“We even had to block off part of the stairs,” Goins said, that looked too dangerous for visitors to use.

The cost of the repairs dwarfed the historical society’s budget, and the grants it received.

Then came a godsend.

A private donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, began to fund repairs. First, it was small projects, like new hand railings. But after the 2014 needs assessment, he told Goins and the historical society he could do more.

“He said we’ll just knock off everything on the list, one by one,” Goins said.

Now, the courthouse is in the middle of an $83,000 face-lift that will include a complete overhaul of that rickety upper balcony that overlooks the river, plus repairs to the columns that hold it up.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

A new staircase in the historic Thebes Courthouse is nearly complete. The work is part of the first phase of renovations to the building which was built in 1848 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

They're the first major renovations to the building since the 1970s.

“It will look like new when completed,” Goins said. The project will also bring a log cabin built in Thebes in the 1800s to the courthouse lawn, to show guests what home life might have looked like when the courthouse was built.

These days, the courtroom doesn’t see any trials. But Goins and the historical society keep the building open from April to October, as many weekends as they can manage with their all-volunteer staff.

They’ve hosted visitors from all over, Goins said, from tourists who pull off the highway, to a guy who was canoeing down the Mississippi river on his way to New Orleans.

Every October, the historical society teams up with local high school students for its “living history day.”

“We find historical records and newspaper clippings from the 1800s that describe real cases from Thebes,” Goins explained. “Then, we dress in period clothing and perform skits about them.”

Luckily, local historical records often don’t include many details about the crimes and trials, Goins said, allowing the actors to “take a lot of liberties to make it funny and fun.”

Between friends, family and visitors, the event never fails to pack the courtroom.

“We’re hoping the next generation will keep this going,” Goins said. “There’s not much left that’s historical, in this area.”

Much of Thebes history, from the bank, to the icehouse, to the old train depot, has been knocked down, or damaged by Mississippi floodwaters.

bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

The Thebes Courthouse, which served as the Alexander County seat from 1848 until 1864, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“People from Thebes say you’re either on the hill or under the hill,” Goins said, when describing locations in town. “The courthouse is on the hill. And here lately, every time you hear about flooding, it’s everything under the hill that floods.”

Even beyond the floodplain, Goins says a lack of state funding allows many historic places in Southern Illinois to waste away.

“We’re such a rural area, it doesn’t affect as many people to maintain a landmark,” Goins said. “I understand that from a business perspective, but I think history is valuable no matter where it’s at.”

Without state support, Goins said local landmarks like the courthouse will depend on future generations of donors and volunteers to stay open.

“If you want to get involved here, there’s plenty for you to do,” Goins said. “I never would’ve thought when I was a kid that I would be interested in doing something like this, but now I love it.”

Today, the view from the balcony of the Thebes courthouse is much different than it once was. Where houses once dotted the Mississippi riverbank, there are empty, grassy lots. Where there was once train and boat traffic, things are quieter now.

But this summer, once the courthouse restoration is complete, the view up the big hill in Thebes should be just as good as it was in 1846, when the building first opened its doors.

GOP and Democrats trade blame for shutdown, no deal in sight

WASHINGTON — The partial government shutdown will almost certainly be handed off to a divided government to solve in the new year, as President Donald Trump sought to raise the stakes Friday and both parties traded blame in the weeklong impasse.

Agreement eludes Washington in the waning days of the Republican monopoly on power, and that sets up the first big confrontation between Trump and newly empowered Democrats. Trump is sticking with his demand for money to build a wall along the southern border, and Democrats, who take control of the House on Jan. 3, are refusing to give him what he wants.

Trump worked to escalate the showdown Friday, reissuing threats to close the U.S.-Mexico border to pressure Congress to fund the wall and to shut off aid to three Central American countries from which many migrants have fled.

"We will be forced to close the Southern Border entirely if the Obstructionist Democrats do not give us the money to finish the Wall & also change the ridiculous immigration laws that our Country is saddled with," he wrote in one of a series of tweets.

The president also signaled he was in no rush to seek a resolution, welcoming the fight as he heads toward his own bid for re-election in 2020. He tweeted Thursday evening that Democrats may be able to block him now, "but we have the issue, Border Security. 2020!"

Incoming acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Trump canceled his plans to travel to Florida to celebrate New Year's at his private Mar-a-Lago club.

The shutdown is forcing hundreds of thousands of federal workers and contractors to stay home or work without pay, and many are experiencing mounting stress from the impasse. It also is beginning to pinch citizens who count on public services. Gates are closed at some national parks, new farm loans will be put on hold beginning next week, and in New York, the chief judge of Manhattan federal courts suspended work on civil cases involving U.S. government lawyers, including several civil lawsuits in which Trump himself is a defendant.

The Smithsonian Institution also announced that museums and galleries popular with visitors and locals in the nation's capital will close starting midweek if the partial shutdown drags on.

With another long holiday weekend coming and almost all lawmakers away from the Capitol there is little expectation of a quick fix.

"We are far apart," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told CBS on Friday, claiming of Democrats, "They've left the table all together."

Mulvaney said Democrats are no longer negotiating with the administration over an earlier offer to accept less than the $5 billion Trump wants for the wall. Democrats said the White House offered $2.5 billion for border security, but that Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer told Vice President Mike Pence it wasn't acceptable.

"There's not a single Democrat talking to the president of the United States about this deal," Mulvaney said Friday

Speaking on Fox News and later to reporters, he tried to drive a wedge between Democrats, pinning the blame on House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

"My gut was that (Schumer) was really interested in doing a deal and coming to some sort of compromise. But the more we're hearing this week is that it's Nancy Pelosi who's preventing that from happening," he said, alleging that if Pelosi "cuts a deal with the president of any sort before her election on January 3rd she's at risk of losing her speakership, so we're in this for the long haul."

Pelosi has all but locked up the support she needs to win the gavel on Jan. 3 and there is also no sign of daylight between her and Schumer in the negotiations over government funding.

Mulvaney added of the shutdown: "We do expect this to go on for a while."

Democrats brushed off the White House's attempt to cast blame.

"For the White House to try and blame anyone but the president for this shutdown doesn't pass the laugh test," said Justin Goodman, a spokesman for Schumer.

Pelosi vowed to pass legislation to reopen the nine shuttered departments and dozens of agencies now hit by the partial shutdown as soon as she takes the gavel, which is expected when the new Congress convenes.

Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill added that Democrats "are united against the President's immoral, ineffective and expensive wall" and said Democrats won't seriously consider any White House offer unless Trump backs it publicly because he "has changed his position so many times."

"While we await the President's public proposal, Democrats have made it clear that, under a House Democratic Majority, we will vote swiftly to re-open government on Day One," Hammill said in a statement.

But even that may be difficult without a compromise because the Senate will remain in Republican hands and Trump's signature will be needed to turn any bill into law.

Trump said during his campaign that Mexico would pay for his promised wall, but Mexico refuses to do so. It was unclear how Trump's threat to close the border would affect his efforts to ratify an amended North American free trade pact.

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Marion electoral boards to hear objections to city candidates on Wednesday

MARION — Marion City Council convened two electoral boards to hear testimony regarding two objections to candidates in the upcoming municipal elections.

John Gordon and James Meadows objected to the candidacy of Jason Powell for city commissioner because he had not lived in the city for a year before the 2019 elections. Meadows also protested the candidacy of Dennis Ball for mayor because Meadows believes Ball is not a resident of the city of Marion.

Before hearings could be scheduled, two electoral boards had to be seated. Usually, a municipal electoral board is made up of the mayor, the city commissioner with the longest term of service and the city clerk. That would be Mayor Anthony Rinella, Commissioner John Goss and City Clerk Alice Rix.

In the objection to Powell’s candidacy, Commissioners Goss and Jim Webb cannot serve on the electoral board because they are running for re-election. Rix, Rinella and Commissioner Angelo Hightower were seated as the electoral board for that objection.

In the objection against Ball’s candidacy, Rinella and Hightower cannot serve because they are running for mayor. The electoral board for that objection consists of commissioners Goss and Webb, and Rix.

At each meeting, the boards adopted rules for the hearings. They appointed Attorney Rhett Barke of Gilbert, Huffman, Prosser, Hewson and Barke in Carbondale as the hearing officer. They also appointed Gail West as the clerk for the hearings.

Barke explained that these steps had to occur before hearings could be set.

“Now we have the power to subpoena witnesses,” he said.

The burden of proof lies on the person raising objections. The objector speaks first, then the candidate has the chance for rebuttal.

“Eligible objectors have to live within the city limits,” Barke said.

The hearings were set for Jan. 2. The hearing on Powell’s candidacy will be at 1 p.m., followed by the hearing on Ball’s candidacy at 1:30 p.m.