A small cluster of houses that had initially been known as Sparhawk’s Landing (after George and Martha Sparhawk, prominent landowners in the area), became Thebes in 1843 and had enough pull to win the county seat shortly after that.
Not everyone was impressed with the new Thebes. In an 1883 history of the area, William Perrin wrote:
It was named, perhaps, in honor of Thebes, the ancient capital of Upper Egypt, but differs from its ancient namesake in that the latter stood upon both sides of the river Nile, while our Thebes sometimes has a river on both sides of it. Ancient Thebes began to decline 800 years B.C.; our Thebes when the county’s capital was removed to Cairo. The ruins of ancient Thebes are among the most magnificent in the world; these of our Thebes are only equaled by a half-score of other towns in Alexander, Union and Pulaski Counties. Troja fuit!
With the county seat came a need for a county courthouse. Henry Ernst Barkhausen got the contract to build it, and he got to work at end of 1845. The Greek Revival building was constructed on top of the bluff using local limestone for the exterior walls. The courtroom was on the second floor, while the first floor housed a couple of dark cells and offices. As you traveled up or down the river, the courthouse really stood out among the forested banks of the river.
Berkhausen was a native of Prussia; he came to the US in 1835 and settled near Thebes about two years later where he sold wood to passing steamboats. He also ran a ferry from Thebes to the Missouri riverbank. He was apparently not content with designing an iconic building, so he began to study medicine at the same time he was supervising the courthouse construction. Except for the first two years of his practice, he spent the next thirty years tending to the medical needs of Thebeans.
Thebes saw a limited amount of economic activity outside of the courthouse. An iron ore mine operated for a bit, and the town had a flour mill, a general store, and a couple of saw mills nearby. The glory years didn’t last, though. In 1859 the county seat was moved to Cairo. Some Thebeans worked in river-related occupations, while many others farmed.
Thebes population has been pretty stable since 1960, hovering around 450 people. The town today looks rather down on its luck, especially the areas that have been repeatedly flooded, but it is blessed with one of the more scenic locations along the river.