The Harrisonville Courthouse Square has a distinction not well known among Cass County residents. Constructed in the late 19th century, this district is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“This is the place where early county residents came to experience commerce, culture, politics and public life,” says Cynthia Ammerman, executive director of the Cass County Historical Society.
First organized as Van Buren County in 1835, and then renamed after U.S. Sen. Lewis Cass of Michigan in 1849, Cass County has an absorbing story to tell. Thanks to the Cass County Historical Society, the rich history of the courthouse square and surrounding county is available to all who would like to learn about its treasures.
Members of the historical society, which was formed in 1965, have extensively researched, explored and preserved the county’s records and artifacts for more than five decades.
“There was a huge ‘wow’ factor the first time I walked down into our archives and saw how comprehensive and vast they are for such a small organization,” says Ammerman, who was named executive director a year ago. “We have county records that pre-date the founding of our county.
“We also have a full collection of the Cass County Democrat Missourian. Our intangible history is so valuable, and we have that in the archives. We have one of the most comprehensive county collections in the state.”
Though committed to preserving this past, the Cass County Historical Society has taken some leaps into the future.
“I’m so excited about the partnerships we’ve fostered the past year,” Ammerman says. “The Kauffman Foundation has become one of our legacy partners. Ewing Kauffman was from Cass County, and we’re developing Mr. Kauffman’s history during the time he grew up here.”
A digital upgrade for the society’s exhibits is also in the works, and a grant from Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area will help fund the project. Next Exit History, which has worked with the Smithsonian Institution on its exhibit projects, is assisting with the exhibit design. In 2019, the Missouri Humanities Council will bring its traveling exhibit, “Over There: Missouri and the Great War,” to Cass County.
Current projects include studying lesser known aspects of the county’s history.
“We’re really exploring and researching World War I and the early 20th century. It was passed over in the historical society timeline. We’re developing profiles of all soldiers who were born in Cass County.
“We’re also working on our agriculture history and linking that to the greater areas in our region.”
And the society is partnering with the family of G.M. Allen to inventory and preserve the thousands of artifacts and heirlooms in their family home at 600 E. Pearl St.
“The Allens have been a prominent family in Harrisonville and Cass County. They had a presence as lawyers, bankers and judges, and their family history is important here,” Ammerman says. “They founded a bank on the historic square, and the building still exists. They also helped found the first fire department.”
Artifacts in the Allen house include furniture that pre-dates the Civil War, a judge’s desk and decades of personal journals.
“In one house, you have four generations of stories that are all linked and many layers of history. Through personal records, which will become public records, we’re able to dive into our county’s early 20th century history, which hasn’t been told. These records are very important for linking all of our past together. They open people’s eyes and their imaginations.”
Ammerman is a historian at heart. History books were the Cass County native’s favorite reading, and she always envisioned a career in the field.
“I was mini-historian when I was a kid. I wandered around fields and explored abandoned houses and went to cemeteries. My family instilled in me very early to have an appreciation for place.”
Ammerman focused on historic preservation in college.
“My research area is preservation policy. This policy is not very strong in rural communities. …
“In urban areas, preservation is ingrained. Urban residents know the history of where they live. Urban areas have historic districts, but this structure has not been practiced in rural communities. This is one of the things I’m educating about, and it’s how I approach everything as director of the historical society.”
One of Ammerman’s most important discoveries has been that people want to uncover and then share their own family histories.
“Historical societies and museums play an important role in communities because we house those memories that families may not know even existed,” she says.