Roadtrip: Missouri and Oklahoma

It was hot and humid yesterday when I arrived in Marshfield, Missouri. I went to bed early so I could get up early when it was cool enough to take a long walk.

I was out the door of the bed and breakfast at a quarter to seven. It was already in the high seventies, and the dew point couldn’t have been much lower than that. I walked up Clay street, across the one line railroad over which I’d seen three BNSF locomotives pull a mixed freight last night, up a block to the courthouse square. The Webster County courthouse, a gray Depression-era Art Deco building, is undistinguished. The courthouse square is neither pretty nor bustling; there are no trees to speak of; empty store fronts alternate with offices for lawyers and bail bondsmen, a small restaurant promising “Chinese Fast Food,” the Webster County Historical Society, and one attractive little grocery store in a far corner. It is far from the tourist stereotype of a Southern courthouse square.

I kept walking, and in another block I was on a tree-lined street. There was one big Victorian house, beautifully renovated and brightly painted, and then lots of small anonymous houses on big lots. I walked around the Webster County Fairgrounds. A damp sign lying in the grass told me that the county fair took place July 14-17; and a few pieces of carnival equipment were still parked on the fairgrounds. That was the only cheerful thing I saw on my walk, and it was really melancholy, for the fair was over for another year. Maybe it was just the heat, but I found the atmosphere of the town oppressive. I walked back to the courthouse square, and then, with some relief, walked back into the green and well-kept grounds of the bed and breakfast.

Today’s drive took me out of the rolling hills of southern Missouri into the flatness of western Oklahoma. I’m staying in Elk City tonight, and after dinner I walked around the center of the town. Downtown Elk City has no old buildings — it was founded in 1901 — and it is fairly flat and treeless. But it is an attractive town, with wide streets and the open feeling of the West. There is a pretty little Carnegie Library, and a couple of century-old brick buildings that are well-maintained. I got the impression of a lively mix of businesses: lawyers and accountants, a department store, several clothing stores, a boutique, a hair salon, the Elk City Cafe, buildings for two newspapers (looking at their buildings, I’d guess that the Elk City Daily News is considered more respectable than the Elk Citian), a large and bland but not unattractive post office, a small pharmacy and a big chain pharmacy, a hospice, a sewing machine and vacuum repair shop, a dollar store and a thrift store, a couple of medical supply stores, and various storefronts that had to do with farming and the oil business. One business had something to do with the oil business (the name was something-or-other oilrigging), and a sign on the door proclaimed, “Please take off work boots before entering office.”

Most everything was closed by the time I got there. It was still very hot, but I kept walking around the downtown, impressed by the sheer variety of the businesses. This was a downtown that had not yet been killed off by the malls; I’ll bet you can buy everything from hardwear to underwear to a ten gallon hat, and sell your oil well to boot. On my way back to the motel, I took some back roads. While there aren’t many trees, the countryside around Elk City is green and rolling, and pleasant to look at. It felt like a place that might be nice to live in.

5 thoughts on “Roadtrip: Missouri and Oklahoma

  1. Dad

    Looking at the map, I guess that you will be following I40 through Albuquerque tomorrow. You might want to take a detour onto Central Ave (the old rte 66) past the University of NM campus. there is an interesting resturant on Central Ave across from the campus at the intersection with Yale. Also, in ABQ I like to go up the tram to the top of Sandia Peak. The view is marvelous. with your time constraints you probably won’t be able to do it.

  2. Jean

    I’m not convinced the malls killed off downtowns in the Midwest (and I’d count Missouri as the Midwest, not the south). Downtowns began to die as the jobs that sustained much of the Midwest began to die — factory jobs, and agricultural jobs. When the jobs went, the people did too. Small downtowns lost their customers, and if your business is small, even a slight drop in sales can spell death. The malls and big box stores were beginning then, and because they were and are larger, they can do two things: buy in bulk and sell cheaper, and, ride out spells of poor sales.

    And even the malls and big box stores now suffer in towns like the one you describe. In Richmond, Indiana, we’ve lost Target, and it’s not coming back. We’ve also seen chain restaurants close (Ruby Tuesday’s for example), chain grocery stores give up and move away (LoBills), and I imagine more will close in the near future.

    Sadly, what happens now in towns like these is the influx of what I can only think to call “carpetbaggers”: sleazy developers, greedy landlords, Rent to Own stores, PayDay Loan stores, and lots and lots of storefront churches promising redemption. Good setting for a really good crime noir novel. Hm. Maybe I’ll write one.

  3. Dad

    PS I remember now. The restuarant is called the Frontier and it is a hangout for UNM graduate students and faculty. It was one of Tony Hillerman’s favorite places.

  4. Dan

    Dad — I didn’t see your comment until too late.

    Jean — I’d guess that the strip malls outside downtown Marshfield did in fact suck the life out of the downtown, since they were fairly busy while the downtown wasn’t. In addition, Marshfield has become a bedroom community of Springfield, so another force acting on it is suburbanization. But what’s true in Marshfield isn’t true everywhere.

    As to whether Missouri belongs in the midwest or the south, I can’t say for sure. The southern part of the state, where I was, geographically might best be understood as a northern extension of the Ozarks. But culturally? — I wasn’t there long enough to know.

  5. Jean

    Dan – a busy strip mall and a dead downtown does not necessarily indicate a causal link. I’m no fan of strip malls either, but I’d bet the causes of the dead downtown are far more complicated.

    I’ll ask a friend of mine, from Missouri, about the Midwest/South cultural designation.

Comments are closed.