The story behind the Cape River Heritage Museum is one of a long journey made by a number of dedicated members of the community. The building at 538 Independence is a perfect home for the museum because it has an important place in Cape Girardeau history. Construction of the building, which originally served as a combination courthouse, jail, police and fire station, began in August 1908 and ended in 1909.
The efforts to find a permanent home for the town’s historical treasures began as part of a bicentennial project in 1975. The need arose with the demise of the former Cape Girardeau Museum Corporation, which was located in the Common Pleas Courthouse on Lorimier Street in downtown Cape Girardeau.
The project was the work of three groups: the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation, the City Bicentennial Committee and the University Bicentennial Committee.
The search committee wanted to establish the museum in a historic part of town and in a location of historic significance. The group selected a site on Cape’s waterfront where the Dempsey Grocery Company had been located at 127 N. Water St.
Renovations began in 1976 and the Southeast Missouri Museum opened in 1977. In 1980, a little more than three years after opening, the museum was forced to close because of the many repairs the building needed and the unavailability of funds for renovations or the purchase of another building. In May 1981, the museum’s board reached an agreement with the city for the use of the old fire house. The name was changed to Cape River Heritage Museum to avoid confusion with the museum at Southeast Missouri State University.
Old Firehouse Dept. No. 1
The Fire Dept. No. 1 Headquarters sign above the front door is another reminder of the building’s history and historical significance.
Originally, the building’s first floor housed the offices of the fire and police chiefs, and the fire inspector. The dispatcher’s office and living quarters also were on the first floor.
Later a garage was added to the rear of the building to house the pump wagon. The horses were kept in a stable behind the building. Further construction added a second story above the garage. A later two-story addition to the building’s rear brought it to its present shape.
In the facility’s early days, the jail and courtroom were on the second floor. Later the jail was moved to the basement and the space became the fireman’s training room and general quarters. The kitchen, the dormitory, and the assistant chief’s office also were located on the second floor. The men who were the town’s first firefighters were volunteers, which was not uncommon at the time. Many small communities in Southeast Missouri still rely on volunteer firefighters today.
In 1960 the police department moved to the corner of Sprigg and Independence streets, and on Feb. 15, 1981, the fire department moved into its newly constructed headquarters on what had been the site of the old police headquarters.