Friday, July 17, 2009

Reflections of a Road Trip: What I like about Missouri

On my recent travels, I spent the better part of 2 1/2 days in south-central and southwestern Missouri. I had not been in the state since a hurried visit to my aunt and cousins in St. Louis at age 14. So, I had little prejudice about Missouri, one way or the other. I think we Texans can often exhibit a Texo-centric view of things, particularly when it comes to other states. An acquaintance of mine--a stock-broker--encouraged me to outline my itinerary to his co-worker, also a college-educated broker. Upon doing so, he replied, "all blue-states, huh?" Well, yes, I guess you could put it that way. I let it pass and spared him my editorial comment on the relative merits of red-state vs. blue state (a near useless distinction, anyway.)

My paternal grandmother's paternal side settled in Missouri in the early 1840s, and my branch of the family peeled-off to Texas immediately preceding the Civil War. So, even in my genealogical musings, Missouri fits into the narrative as hardly more than a way-station to Texas. While in the state, I did visit the rural graveyard and found the marker for my 3rd-great-grandmother who died in 1855. When I am in cemeteries, I often wonder about the lives of the departed. She grew up in Litchfield County, CT where her people had lived for 150 years. After marriage, she and her husband and their ever-expanding family pushed on to Ohio by 1815, to Indiana by 1825, and as a widow to Missouri by 1845. Before her death, I wonder what she made of this, her last home in these rolling hills of central Missouri?

Two of her children pushed on to Texas in 1859. As a whole, the family was Republican, Unionist and Campbellite--only 1 of which would serve the family well in the Texas of 1861. I suppose the westering impulse had become ingrained in them, but I do wonder why they made the move. For I was to discover that this part of Missouri was both productive and not at all unpleasant in appearance. The countryside I visited was quite pretty, with rolling hills and a good mixture of forest and farm land--not beautiful in the classical sense, but in its own way, much better. The farmsteads themselves completed the picture, neat and modest--perhaps not the large farm complexes one associates the Midwest, but not at all characterized by the creeping trashiness that has taken root in much of rural America. There seemed a certain sameness to the houses in this corner of America--not that there was no diversity or character, but rather there did not seem to be the great disparity between rich and poor that one often finds in my part of the country. What this tells me is that, in some ways, society is better ordered in Missouri than in my home state.

I started not to post this picture of the yard sign I passed on a Missouri back road, as it could be something a cheap shot, an all-too-easy opportunity to poke fun at certain elements of American society. Clearly, these folks have an agenda. "Christianity" can be a useful word when used sparingly, but it is NOT that in which we believe, or at least not that in which we should believe. Perhaps that is our problem--the substitution of belief in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as cited in the Nicene Creed with an all-encompassing systematic abstraction labeled "Christianity." Nor have I ever been one to wrap myself in the American flag, so to speak, and have no doubt that my views on American exceptionalism would damn me in the eyes of the owners of this sign. I have no idea what it means to "think American," but I am afraid I would not like it if I did. I could agree with the last item, unless of course it was lumped together with other items to project some ideological agenda, as is the case here. And while I take issue with each and every item, I have to admit that there is a certain plain-spoken straight-forwardness about the sign which I have to respect. I think Missouri is that kind of place, and I can certainly deal with that.

And Missouri offers up surprises along the way, for those who have eyes to see. East of Ash Grove I passed this incredible octagonal stone barn, like none I have seen before. I was not the only one stopped by the roadside for a better view. I had to chuckle a bit at the faded civic boosterism of the "Ash Grove: Home of the Ash Tree" sign. Of course this is certainly better than that of Gainesville, Missouri (located much too close to the Arkansas border, apparently) which proclaims: "Welcome to Gainesville, Home of Hootin' and Hollerin'."

Ash Grove is struggling, it appears, with its most logical future as a bedroom community for nearby Springfield. I passed through this growing city twice and stopped once. I do not have a feel for the place yet, and it would be unfair to judge. At first glance, all appeared to be shopping centers and commercial strips and mega-churches along the highways, such as the intriguingly named "Truth Church." I never found the center of the city, though there is undoubtedly one somewhere. My time was limited, so I did not linger long here. It is hard to say exactly where the South ends, but one senses that by Springfield, you have crossed over that line. Anyway, I think Springfield deserves a second look one day.

In the countryside, Missionary Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ and pentecostal churches predominate. So, you can imagine my surprise, in a particularly remote stretch of back road, when I stumbled across St. Francis Church. They billed themselves as Anglican, and "traditional Episcopal." Now what you expect in this neck of the woods. More power to them, I say.

Before leaving Missouri for points north, I had to find the grave of my cousin Mary Jane Barbee, who died in January 1884 in Ash Grove. She was related on my paternal grandmother's maternal side, the first cousin of my great-great-grandmother (though it is doubtful they ever met, considering the different worlds in which they lived.) She came of age in Jackson, Mississippi, at a time when her uncle was in the governor's mansion and her father and another uncle in the legislature. Her father, my remote uncle, was an attorney and politician, who prospered mightily in land speculation stretching from Alabama to Texas. He was most well-known, however, as an early preacher and writer for the Christian Church (note: until the late 1800s, the term Christian Church was most often used to designate the current denominations of Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ and independent Christian Churches.) His oldest daughter was educated by tutors, spoke French and was an accomplished pianist. In 1853, she married Dr. Barbee, an up-an-coming young minister in the Christian Church. He had been a medical doctor in Cincinnati, only to abandon his practice for the ministry after being converted from Presbyterianism to the Christian Church by none other than Alexander Campbell himself. Up until 1862, he pastored the Linden Street Christian Church (now Lindenwood) in Memphis. When the city fell, the Barbees decamped to her parent's farm in northern Mississippi.

The family was pretty well busted up by the war, and in its aftermath, Dr. Barbee worked as a college president, first in two institutions in Kentucky, then one in Kansas City (which he called "the ugliest city in America") and finally a new college in Ash Grove, Missouri. At each location, Mary Jane was his ever-constant and invaluable assistant, both in administration and teaching. Wherever they lived, she conducted music classes for the students and townspeople alike. Soon after arriving in Ash Grove, she succumbed to tuberculosis, and her grave became the first in the new city cemetery.

Dr. Barbee remained in demand for preaching engagements, and he traveled extensively. He seemed frustrated with the reception he received in San Antonio, Texas. Barbee was shocked by the perceived looseness of society there, where the Germans "counted beads, said 'Ave Maria' and drank lager beer." As a preacher of the Christian Church/Church of Christ persuasion, used to moving with church circles in the upper South, he was unequipped to deal with the free-spirited nature of San Antonio. Dr. Barbee died at a church convention 8 years after his wife.

By this time, the sons had located in Kansas City, where they pursued careers in insurance and journalism. A daughter, Allie, had located in San Antonio, to continue her father's work there. She was a noted church worker, in the very best sense of the word. Allie contributed articles and poetry to the various church publications of the day, and devoted her time to working in the orphanages and benevolent institutions in the city. And in her last years, she was alone, as her husband--a failed businessman given to drink and gambling--had committed suicide. Allie succumbed to tuberculosis at an even earlier age than her mother.

Only one of Allie's children married and had children, and about ten years ago I had occasion to correspond with the grandchildren of this son. He had been a successful sugar broker fairly early in life, and his family moved in the affluent country-club set. Pictures of this family shared with me seem to all revolve around golf course or pool settings, or those featuring evening gowns and cocktail glasses. The family was not large, just barely hanging-on you might say. They were unknowing and indifferent, it seemed, to anything before their grandfather established himself in the San Antonio moneyed set. Religious considerations did not really seem to enter the equation at all, much less any knowledge of the particular faith in which 3 generations of their immediate ancestors had devoted their lives. This particular faith, I might add, was once important to me as well, as it sifted down by fits and starts through 5 generations from Mary Jane's cousin to myself.

I found the later chapters in that family's saga to be all rather sad. Prosperous they were indeed, in the finest tradition of American success stories. Perhaps things would have been different had they all settled-in around Ash Grove. As it is, Mary Jane's monument stands starkly alone, devoid of any other family. I think faith can be nurtured and maintained in places like Ash Grove. I found that to be the case the Sunday I worshipped there--not in the restorationist Christian Church downtown, the church of Mary Jane's family (and once of this distant cousin), but rather in the little Orthodox temple on the outskirts of town.


Ian Climacus said...

Again, a most wonderfully written travelogue, but more than that, an adventure into your family's history: thank you for sharing. I a in awe of the level of history and knowledge you have not only of your family but of the places and events. I feel as though I journeyed with you.

One question if I may: you wrote that your paternal grandmother's family was "Republican, Unionist and Campbellite"; the first is clear; the second I am guessing is related to Trade Unions [but to me that doesn't gel with Republican: but that may be an Oz distinction]; and I have no idea on the third [but I feel I've asked before: bad memory sorry]. Can you explain? Thanks.

John said...


In the lead up to the Civil War, Missouri was split in sympathy, with some wanting to go with the Confederacy and some determined to stay in the Union, hence "Unionist." In the very early years of the 19th century, a restorationist religious movement was very popular on the frontier, with their most well-known spokesman being Alexander Campbell. The present-day denominations of the Disciples of Christ, Churches of Christ and Christian Churches are the heirs of that movement. "Campbellite" is slang for the movement, and was once used somewhat pejoratively particularly against the Churches of Christ.

Ian Climacus said...

Ah...many thanks.

David Bryan said...

And how was Fr. Moses?

Excellent travelogue. Thanks.

John said...

Fr. Moses was doing quite well, I thought. The previous day had been the ocassion of their annual music festival--in which he plays a major part, I believe--and I think everyone was still tired from that. I enjoyed visiting with him--my first time.

jccvi said...

Mention Missouri in my presence (other anecdote triggering topics include, cultural fusion, regional cuisince, Bass Pro, and fried chicken), and I'm sure to bring up this story:

John said...

jccvi--I had no idea....chinese cashew chicken, Springfield style. Thanks for the story.

The Scylding said...

Travelling in rural SK between Rosthern and Wakaw over the weekend, I could at times see the spires of two different Ukranian Orthodox Churches at the same time. The countryside is full of them - all well kept, but maybe not so well attended anymore...

rich said...

I drove past that 8 sided barn last week during a trip out to that region with my Mother to explore her roots