Exploring Central Missouri

This post has nothing to do with comics.  However, it’s my website, so I’ll put whatever I want to on it.  Comics resume at the end of March.

Missouri is Kansas City in the west, St. Louis in the east, and the eleventh century in between.  Central Missouri is a place where Todd Akin won county after county in 2012, sometimes by close to a 2-1 margin, and where his billboards — paid for by private citizens acting on their own initiative — besmirch the landscape out of sheer spite and hatred four months after the election.  It consumes more pseudoephedrine, by weight, than it does soap.

Yet, buried in this utter desert of human culture and civilization is some fascinating history and architecture.  If you live here, exploring it is one of the best things that you can do with your time.  If you’re driving through, stay off of I44 and see some of the countryside.  I’ve collected a few examples of interesting places between Cape Girardeau and Springfield that I took pictures of in my spare time.  If you know of a good one that I’ve missed, feel free to leave a comment.

De Soto, Missouri

De Soto

De Soto Missouri, founded in 1803, is about 10 miles off of I55 along Hwy 110.  Its main economic activity, and raison d’etre, is a Union Pacific Railroad car repair yard, seen here in part at the right side of the photo.  I went through De Soto for the first time at night while trying to take a shortcut from I55 to I44 without going all the way to St. Louis (didn’t work) and was immediately taken by its Main Street.  The photo above only barely does it justice.  At night time in January, with Christmas lights still on the trees and every vintage streetlight and neon Budweiser sign cutting into the surrounding darkness, it was a sight to behold.  In a country where “Main Street Historic Business and Arts District” usually means three boarded up storefront churches and a DMV, somewhere off to the side of a six-lane parkway leading directly to Walmart, De Soto’s is a brilliant exception.  It’s nearly a mile long and every single space is filled with a business of some kind, all apparently thriving and without a single parking lot among them.  It’s delightful.

Not unique to De Soto is the fact that the entire town was built around the railroad line that goes through it, with the central business district literally right along the tracks.  Some might find this unremarkable, but it’s an artifact of a very specific time period in American history.  If you go into areas that weren’t densely populated until after the advent of the automobile, you’ll find a different pattern where the town is built on either side of the main US Highway or Interstate, which is generally still the main way of getting there.  De Soto’s Main Street is several miles from US67.  Many older cities, such as St. Louis, were settled in a “from the docks up” pattern along the coasts or navigable rivers.  Central Missouri didn’t really begin to develop until after the Civil War, when railroads made it practical to get goods to and from the interior, but was close enough to civilization that its major towns were built and settled by the time cars made travel by road a competitor.  When you look at a picture like the one above, it’s not hard to imagine people pulling stoves and kegs of beer off of boxcars and wheeling them on hand trucks right into stores along the main drag, which I think is pretty cool.

John’s Modern Cabins

2013-01-30 14.18.48John’s Modern Cabins is a former motel/speakeasy/dance-hall-of-ill-repute located about a quarter mile south of Exit 176 on I44.  It’s no longer on an improved roadway, so you have to park and walk a short distance along the former roadbed of I44, which was realigned in the early 21st Century, and down the former roadbed of US66, which was realigned in the late 1960s — this first realignment being the one that put the motel out of business.  It’s on private property, but then again so is the tiny island where the people who care about that live.

John’s Modern Cabins was originally called Bill & Bess’s Place when it opened in 1931, only nine years after US66 was paved and, not coincidentally, two full years before Prohibition was rescinded.  Several of the small tourist cabins on site date to that time, while a larger dance-hall has since been demolished to make way for I44.  It’s hard to imagine anyone actually using this place as a motel in the road-trip-to-Disneyland sense of the term, not least because it’s absolutely in the middle of nowhere and Rolla, with a much nicer hotel that still stands (as a bank), is right up the road.  A 17 year-old woman was murdered at the dance hall in 1935 by her jealous husband* which, I think, paints a much clearer picture of the type of joint this was: think Elbow Inn Bar & BBQ with a little bit of Bates Motel thrown in for good measure.  It closed down in the late 1930s — not coincidentally after Prohibition was rescinded — and changed hands a few times before a man named John Dausch bought the place in 1951, renamed it, expanded it and continued the long local traditions of selling booze illegally (in this case on Sundays) and providing cheap, shady motel rooms to Soldiers from nearby Ft. Leonard Wood.  I44 was built and US66 rerouted in the late 1960s, which ruined most of the smaller mom-and-pop motels in the area, and the site was entirely abandoned shortly after Dausch’s death in 1971.

By this point, of course, any interesting artifacts that weren’t too heavy to move have been hauled off to be sold in any of the countless “Antique Malls” hocking countrified bric-a-brac from everyone’s late grandma’s attic that dot the area, so the main interest from the standpoint of exploring is in the buildings themselves.  These may never be demolished, as being full of asbestos they would be expensive to remove, but instead are slowly returning to Earth.  If you liked reading The Road, you should probably stop and see, just to appreciate the aesthetic aspects of it.

*He got 13 years; in Missouri, killing a woman had only recently been made a felony.

Stony Dell Resort

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I included the Hipstamaticed picture with the full knowledge that it isn’t impressing anyone. 

If anyone out there has a Led Zeppelin cover band you can thank me for the album cover later.

Stony Dell Resort is another abandoned motel along former US66, in this case about a half-mile north and east of Exit 173 off of I44.  It also dates to the 1930s and unlike John’s Modern Cabins actually had a business model that didn’t rely on mistresses and white lightning.  The facility took advantage of the artisan wells that are all over Central Missouri to fill a swimming pool, and also offered boating on the nearby Gasconade River, tennis, and a host of other wholesome activities, as well as the “Home Cooking” advertised by the fallen-down sign.  I44 doomed it, too, and the majority of the site is apparently paved over, but there are about eight buildings left in addition to the grouted stone springs that go up the hill behind it.

Stony Dell is in the former town of Arlington, a town that owed its existence to US66 and more or less died along with it when I44 went through.  The former town center, with its iconic sign and post office, is now directly under a highway bridge and boasts the cheapest RV park in the area — no small accomplishment.

Cairo, IL

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Cairo (pronounced quay-row, not like Egypt) is obviously not in Missouri, but is just across the river and deserves mention not just because it’s visually interesting, but because it’s often misrepresented as a ghost town, a characterization that omits a lot, even as it gets it included on websites (such as this) that are full of abandoned building photos.

It’s not a hard characterization to make, from a distance.  If I’d been a little bit more careful in cropping cars out of my pictures, it would look as if there wasn’t a human being for miles.  In reality, though, there are thousands of people living there, many of them in a public housing complex about five blocks from where I took the lower picture here.  There’s a dollar store, a Ford dealership, two gas stations and about four BBQ joints on the main road through town, which I would have gotten in the picture if I’d turned around.  In short, Cairo isn’t a ghost town so much as it’s the ghetto.  If you’ve been to East Cleveland, you’ve been to Cairo.

It turns out that Cairo’s history is a lot more meaningful as a ghetto than as a Walking Dead set, however.  Like many Mississippi River ports, it was never a particularly savory place to begin with.  The railroads, and later the interstate highways bypassed it entirely and river boats quit needing to stop for coal, so that by the 1960s the economy was beginning to decline.  It was at this point that cultural factors (by which I mean, racism on the part of the white residents) turned what would have been a slow, steady stagnation into the shitshow that you see above.

It’s a story that’s been told more thoroughly elsewhere.  To begin with, Cairo is the farthest South place in the continental U.S. that never legally had a slave in it, and its status as a transportation hub, surrounded on three sides by the slave states of Missouri and Kentucky, meant that in the 19th century it was a key Underground Railroad center (as portrayed in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and that throughout its history, as now, it had a much larger black population than most other nearby towns or, proportionately to its size, than Chicago.  Even though Cairo is in Illinois, it shared much more in common, culturally, with the South, and in 1909 had one of the relatively few lynchings in the Northern U.S.  This combination of cultural factors proved to be its undoing.

In the 1960s, with the aforementioned economic decline beginning to bite, the black residents of Cairo, who were numerous, had to deal with the unanimous refusal of the city of Cairo or its downtown businesses to hire any black people at all.  This wasn’t a wholly new proposition in the U.S., but the black residents, inspired by the recent successes of the Civil Rights Movement, began a boycott and protest against the town’s racist hiring practices.  The Mayor of Cairo responded in a Hedley Lamarr-esque fashion by deputizing members of a local fascist organization called the White Hats, who did what you would expect and began shooting up the housing project, roughing up protesters and generally being disgraceful.  This led to a long series of violent incidents, with law enforcement busting heads and (unconstitutionally, in retrospect) confiscating weapons from the housing project’s residents, while several of the white-owned businesses suffered mysterious fires.  Eventually, Illinois Lieutenant Governor Paul Simon sent in the National Guard to break things up and the white business owners decided that rather than cater to black people they’d just take their casserole dishes and lawn jockeys elsewhere, which they did in large numbers, leaving the huge block of abandoned storefronts and empty houses that’s often photographed.

The reason why this matters is that it’s a microcosm, albeit a supercharged one, of what happened in other cities across the Midwest: racism, redlining and unfair labor practices led to black people getting screwed over, which led to protests and violence which led to white flight which brings us to today, where Detroit is a national laughingstock while property values in Grosse Pointe have never been higher.  In visiting Cairo to marvel at the novelty of an American city that looks like 1945 Berlin, it’s important to remember how it fits into the big picture — in much the same way as when visiting Antietam it’s important to come away with more than just pictures of cannons.  Fortunately, the kind of people that mortally wounded Cairo are slowly but surely dying of old age, and with luck the rest of us can learn some important lessons about community and tolerance in time to save Detroit.

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