Towns along US 50 work to preserve history, community
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Before the first section of Interstate 70 opened in November 1956, U.S. 50 provided a route through Missouri from east to west. In the 1930s, it was a main artery through Missouri.
The Works Progress Administration guide to 1930s Missouri laid out 14 driving tours across Missouri based on themes or geographic locations. Driving tour No. 4 followed Missouri’s portion of historic U.S. 50, also known as the “Loneliest Road in America.”
The guide was part of an effort to get “creatives” — writers and artists — involved during the Great Depression while also making a push to document history and culture around the nation.
The 1930s version of U.S. 50 passed through a number of towns in central Missouri on the way from St. Louis to Kansas City, including Union, Schubert, California and Sedalia. A stop in those communities offers a look at their histories and what they mean to residents, the Columbia Missourian reported.
Franklin County, where Union is located, was settled by followers of Daniel Boone. Boone lived in the area, and at least some of his remains were buried there. A wave of German immigrants came to the area in the mid-1800s.
More than a century later, Union native Marc Houseman said much of the area’s history has been erased.
“To see the influences today, you really have to look pretty hard,” Houseman said. “So much of it was pushed aside so long ago that to try to find trace evidence of it or, moreover, to try to revive it is pretty challenging.”
Houseman is the museum director of the Washington Historical Society, about 15 miles north of Union. He said young people are the demographic he sees being most interested in their local history, including the school groups that visit the historical society each year.
“They may not know who (their great-grandparents) were, but you can say, ‘Oh, did you know that your great-great-grandfather worked at the zither factory?’ Then you’ve got them hooked,” he said. “If you can get them in here, some of them really, really embrace history.”
Before Union, Newport was the original Franklin County seat from 1818 until 1826. The town in northern Franklin County was the site of the county’s first courthouse. Newport was renamed to Campbellton in 1854 then to Dundee in 1857. However, because the trek was so far for residents from the southern part of the county, it was decided that a new county seat, near the center of the county, would be created. The job went to Union.
Despite the historical significance of the area, Houseman worried that another location could be turned into parking lots at any time. Washington has 42 properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places that are unrestricted, according to the National Park Service website.
“Just because they’re old doesn’t mean they don’t have a function,” he said. “Sounds kind of like people.”
The Rev. Gerald Scheperle, a Jefferson City resident, was placed at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Schubert after graduating in 1980 from Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He said the transition to Schubert, an unincorporated community, from Fort Wayne wasn’t too difficult.
“I actually knew some of the people — I had grown up with some of the members,” he said.
Scheperle called the church a community center. Although the population of the area is small — Scheperle estimates up to 50 people could be living within the unincorporated community — the average Sunday morning attendance is about a hundred people, he said.
“The church has become more regional than it is community,” he said.
Although some of the church’s members are families who have grown up in Schubert, Scheperle said they make up fewer than 25 percent of the membership.
The church was organized as St. John’s in 1869. At the time, the area was instead known as Taos. Scheperle said that around 1900, the post office moved south to what was known as Harville and took the Taos name with it. The area adopted the name “Schubert” after the Schubert family store, an active mercantile company at the time.
“It functioned as a community that became pretty well-known because more businesses opened up,” Scheperle said.
The homes that make up the Schubert community today are scattered around the countryside, and the unofficial town limit is designated by a large rock cut. U.S. 50 now runs only a few hundred feet from the church. Scheperle said the expansion of the highway to four lanes nearly erased Schubert.
“The Schubert signs disappeared, all of the things that marked it as a community disappeared,” he said. “That’s why it kind of became a forgotten community.”
The old staples of the area are no longer there. The blacksmith shop is gone. The dance hall and taverns have disappeared. Even the Schubert family store has since burned to the ground. But what remains, Scheperle said, is the sense of community and strength in faith.
“We have people from all backgrounds, and it’s kind of the nature of the kingdom of the Lord,” Scheperle said. “He calls them from all directions.”
When you drive eastbound on U.S. 50, you can’t miss the largest — and one of the only — Schubert signs: the one right in front of the church.
A lot has happened in California, Missouri, in the past century, and resident Jack Bowlin has been around for almost all of it. Bowlin, 89, grew up in the area. His grandfather owned a funeral home in town, now Bowlin-Cantriel Funeral Services on Oak Street, where his father once worked as an embalmer. Bowlin himself helped with the business in high school, picking up bodies at night and helping to run the ambulance service.
Over time, Bowlin has become involved with just about everything California has to offer. He recently retired from volunteering as an assistant to the pastor at First Baptist Church. He was also president of the Chamber of Commerce, was on the California Country Club board and served on the California R-1 School District school board for nine years. He is an avid sports fan and attends as many of the California Pintos’ games as possible, no matter the sport.
“I never liked doing nothing,” he said.
Bowlin said the railroad, though not as integral anymore, played a large role in the community’s development. Proctor Park is a community park, complete with a swing set and large pond. Originally, the water from that pond was used to fill train water tanks and power the steam engines. That changed after the steam engine trains changed to diesel around the 1950s.
The Finke Theatre, formerly the Ritz Theater and Finke Opera House, became a staple of the downtown area because of trains passing through, carrying performers on the way between New York City and Los Angeles. Bowlin’s father managed the building when it was the Ritz.
“It was a good time for them to stop overnight and perform and make a few bucks,” he said. “It was a nice middle-of-the-road place to stop.”
The new path of travel to and from California became U.S. 50. Bowlin said residents originally were concerned because “quite often, when a new highway is built that bypasses your town, the town is really hurt bad.” More than several years after the highway was expanded, he said it doesn’t seem to have hurt California.
Bowlin said a solid school system, large church presence and strong community pride keep people coming back to the community of about 4,400.
“There are lots of old people that have been here all their lives,” he said. “But we are drawing a lot of new people, too.”
Sedalia is trying to save as much of its history as possible. Community organization Friends of the Sedalia Trust (FROST) is working to restore and preserve areas of significance, including the old Trust Building.
“We were the ones that decided in about 2015 if we didn’t do something and get a group of Sedalia leaders together, we were gonend up losing this building,” said Meg Liston, member of FROST and administrator for Sedalia Downtown Development. “We just really couldn’t imagine our downtown without this in the landscape.”
The building used to operate as a bank until the Great Depression and two fires knocked it out of operation. It was briefly operated as a bed-and-breakfast before falling into disrepair. When members of FROST got to it, the structure was barely salvageable.
“It was a brick wall, three layers thick, but there were actually sections that you didn’t even need tools — if you wanted a brick as a souvenir, you could just go up and take a brick,” FROST president Aric Snyder said.
LIFE magazine named Sedalia the second-hardest-hit town in the nation during the Great Depression. Snyder’s family experienced those hard times firsthand. Bank presidents begged folks to leave their money in the banks, saying that pulling all funds out would only cause more harm. Snyder’s grandfather agreed and came to the Trust Building to deposit all of the money he had been saving up at home.
“They walked into the building, filled out the deposit slip, turned the cash over to the cashier and received a receipt back,” said Snyder, according to his father who went on the trip to the bank that day. “The cashier then looked at my grandfather and said, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and reached up and pulled the shade down.”
Snyder said they closed the bank.
“They were only waiting for one more significant deposit,” he said.
Despite hardships, Snyder said family has kept him in Sedalia.
“It’s just got such character, you know, when you drive around Sedalia,” he said. “I can’t imagine my life any other place.”
Supervising editors are Mark Hinojosa and Elizabeth Brixey.
Information from: Columbia Missourian, http://www.columbiamissourian.com