Jack Snelling drove 4,347 Missouri miles to see all 115 courthouses in 10 days
In May, Jack Snelling hit two milestones. First, he graduated from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree of music in composition. Second, he completed an epic road trip that combined his love of history, geography and the open highway.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always loved roads, highways and maps,” says Jack, who grew up in St. Louis suburb Webster Groves and has spent the past five years in Columbia. “As a kid, I would spend hours on my mom’s computer on Google Maps, just looking at different places and imagining what the roads were like.”
At 16, armed with a hand-me-down car from his father, Jack began exploring the St. Louis area. He quickly became a wanderer, always opting for the road less taken. Once a Mizzou Tiger, Jack challenged himself to avoid Interstate 70 and find scenic routes on his trips between St. Louis and Columbia.
While music was his focus at Mizzou, Jack also earned a minor in geography. “I became really interested in the historical highway system,” he says. “I made a class project out of figuring out where all those old highways went.”
Through this research, Jack learned the original purpose of the Missouri highway system was to connect the county seats. Essentially every county seat is about 30 minutes away from another county seat and so on. The calculations began for Jack: 114 counties + one historic courthouse in St. Louis = 115 county seat courthouses that are about 30 minutes apart. If he drove for 6 hours, he could visit nearly 12 of these notable buildings each day. In 10 days, he could check them all off his list. Who’s ready for a road trip?
Of course, Jack wanted to use the original road system for his travels. That may seem as easy as plotting a route on Google Maps or pulling out an atlas. Not so. The 1920s-era historical highway system in Missouri predated the federal highway system. Roads have been replaced and renamed. So, Jack went about recreating the original 1922 Missouri highway map.
“I was able to find some maps and records of the actual laws or plans that were passed for roads,” he says. “So, I was able to go through all that information to see where the roads were. For example, if you see a road called Old State Road, chances are that’s the original. Also, if you’re on a random road that has a suspicious number of old tire and auto repair places, that’s a good indicator you’re on an original highway.”
Once his map was complete, Jack decided the most efficient path would be to start in St. Louis and spiral around the outside of the state to eventually end in Columbia (see map). Plan in hand, Jack hit the road. At each stop, he’d admire the courthouse and town square and snap a selfie. Then it was back on the road.
“The scenic route takes you through the middle of every town, so I really did get a chance to experience the town, even if I didn’t stay long,” Jack says. “I made a conscious choice at the very beginning to be OK with delays and not being as efficient as possible. I wanted to appreciate the drive and the places I saw.”
Each of the 115 courthouses Jack visited were unique, but he was surprised by how similar the town squares were in each city. “All of them virtually look the same across the entire state, and they have the same kind of businesses — there’s nearly an H&R Block in every single county seat, usually right by the courthouse,” he says.
After traveling 4,347 miles in 10 days, Jack can now confidently debunk the “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” saying — at least where Missouri county courthouses are involved.
Cass County: The Harrisonville courthouse, which was completed in 1897, features yellow brick and a seven-story clock tower with four-faced clock. “It was definitely the most unique out of all the courthouses,” Jack says.
Cole County: While the Missouri State Capitol building can overshadow it, Jack says the Jefferson City courthouse was one of his favorites. The building, completed in 1897, features a Romanesque Revival style, clock tower and corner pavilions.
Gasconade County: Built in 1898, the courthouse in Hermann overlooks the Missouri River. This building was a gift by local merchant Charles D. Eitzen who left $50,000 in his will for the building. It is believed to be the only courthouse in the U.S. funded entirely by a private donation.
St. Charles County: The historic county courthouse in St. Charles was designed by architect Jerome B. Legg, who also designed the courthouses in Ste. Genevieve, Gasconade, St. Francois and Mississippi counties. It was completed in 1903 in the classical revival style.
Jasper County: Jack says the Carthage courthouse, which was completed in 1895 and features the medieval castle elements of turrets, towers and arches, blew him away with its beauty: “It was like I was at Walt Disney World.”
Henry County: Of the modern-style courthouses, Jack says Clinton’s was one of his favorites, with its huge top-to-bottom windows. The building, which was completed in 1893, features Italianate arches, large towers and peaked roofs.