Day 90/ May 27th – Boonville, MO to Arrow Rock, MO: Small-town drama

There was a group of people milling around on the pavement on Main Street as we came into Arrow Rock.  One of them, a short, slim man, peeled off and jogged over to us.  He was wearing very expensive, very fashionable glasses, like a partner in a successful firm of architects.  We decided he was not from central Missouri.

“Are you the couple walking across the country?”  We conceded that we were.  “Hi!  I’m Keith.  I’m staying at your B&B.  Kathy told me you were coming.”

News travels fast in Arrow Rock – as well it should, with a population of only 79.  The town is one of the hidden treasures of the Midwest, a more or less perfectly preserved mid-19th-century river port and plantation town tucked away on the edge of woods by a bend in the Missouri.  It gets its name from the nearby flint outcrops that local Indians used to make their arrowheads, which were named ‘Pierre à Flèche’ by a passing French explorer in 1755.  The town was founded in 1829 on the site of a ferry and a trading post, and was briefly called ‘Philadelphia’, until someone must have realised that name was taken and changed it to Arrow Rock.  It enjoyed a rapid boom, serving travellers on the Missouri and down the Santa Fe Trail, and by 1860 it was home to more than 1,000 people.

Oddfellows' meeting hall in Arrow Rock

Arrow Rock: One of the loveliest small towns in the Midwest

Now it was a sleepy place, little more than two long parallel streets of lovely, large clapboard and brick Federal houses on rolling lawns shaded by oaks and chestnuts.  The entire town is a National Historic Landmark, and many of its houses today are holiday homes, owned by well-heeled Kansas Citians looking for a taste of genteel small-town tranquility.  We strolled around it just before sunset with only a few squirrels for company, pausing to peer into the iron grille of its tiny old stone jail, just large enough to house a single person.  Town legend has it that it was only ever used once to hold a prisoner, who made so much noise that he was let out after only a day.  Along Main Street were the handsome brick Old Tavern – the oldest restaurant west of the Mississippi, sadly closed today – a clutch of antique shops, a country store and a tiny post office.

It was as if Norman Rockwell and Thornton Wilder had got together to design the perfect small American town.  But Arrow Rock wasn’t just a historical curio.  Life in the town in summer revolved around the Lyceum, the only professional theatre between St. Louis and Kansas City, which for fifty years has hosted a season of plays and musicals that now attracts 25,000 people each summer.

Keith was an actor from New York, in town to star in a run of The Producers in early June.  He was an Arrow Rock regular – this was his third season – and had even dressed up as Benjamin Franklin for the town’s Fourth of July parade last year.  He was staying at our B&B with his partner Bryan, a theatre stage manager, who was in town for a week’s holiday and, presumably, for moral support for Keith.  They invited us to share dinner with them (our first ‘home-cooked’ meal for many weeks), and we sat around the kitchen table comparing notes on the very different challenges of transcontinental walking and staging Broadway musicals.

In the kitchen of Borgman's B&B, Arrow Rock, Missouri

Getting advice on walking routes across Missouri from Kathy

The B&B, a lovely Victorian house of creaking wood floors and patchwork quilts, was owned by Kathy Borgman, a wiry and energetic woman in late middle-age, described by herself and everyone we met in Arrow Rock as “the glue” that holds the town together.  She appeared on every other page of a coffee-table book about the town in our bedroom upstairs, and was the president of the Friends of Arrow Rock, which owns and preserves a dozen of the buildings in the town.   We asked her what she liked most about living here.

“For a little small town, it has a very cosmopolitan feel, it’s very progressive.  It’s not like the other little towns you could end up in, which seem so marginal.  It’s attracted some extremely talented people.”

Many of those people seemed to have moved to Arrow Rock to devote themselves, as she had, to its preservation and invigoration.  Mercifully, it seemed to have been spared the hollowing-out by second home-owners that has blighted many similar towns in Britain.

“If you end up here, there’s usually a real reason that you are here.  You don’t just happen here because of a job.  People who end up here really connect with the place in some kind of way – which makes it very opinionated!  The people that buy the weekend homes tend to be just as actively involved in the community as people who live here full-time.  We have some people who have second homes here who are more engaged; we have some people who live here full-time who don’t participate in any of that.  It kind of cuts both ways.  We wish we had a few more full-time people, though.”

With Bryan Landrine at Arrow Rock

With Bryan at our B&B in Arrow Rock

After many evenings spent in Super 8s and Days Inns beside the interstate, we felt doubly lucky to have stumbled on Arrow Rock.  In many ways, it was the loveliest American town we’d yet seen, and full of quirk and charm.  With such a tiny population, we might have feared for its survival, were it not so clearly thriving and in such evidently good hands.

Sally with St. Bernard near Boonville, Missouri

Another canine companion - this one had to be retrieved by its owner in his pick-up a mile down the road

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One Response to “Day 90/ May 27th – Boonville, MO to Arrow Rock, MO: Small-town drama”

  1. robert huffstutter Says:

    Enjoyed your narrative about your travels. Impressive, well-written and left me with a wish for more to read. As one familiar with Missouri, I can appreciate many of your descriptions and accounts. I have a large collection of photos posted on Flickr if you get over, take a view of my photostream. Thanks for some great writing.

    Robert L Huffstutter

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