Mississippi River Dispatch

Ringing in the New Year from Oquawka to Clarksville

Joel Bleifuss January 20, 2023

I spent the four days leading up to New Year’s Eve driving down a 160-mile stretch of the Mississippi River, from Oquawka, Illinois, to Clarksville, Missouri.

This is not the free flowing Mississippi River Jim and Huck rafted in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Over the past 157 years, Old Man River—70-million-years old and counting—has changed drastically.

In 1866, engineers began taming the flow of the river through dredging, channeling and submerging troublesome rapids with dams, the first of which was built in 1913.

In some places, the dams submerged existing towns. In other places former fields stretch for miles dotted with muskrat homes. At the dams, where there is open water in the winter, bald eagles and other raptors congregate to feed on fish and wintering waterfowl. Today, for 664 miles, from Minneapolis to Alton, Illinois,  north of St. Louis, the Mississippi is not so much a river as a navigable channel through a series of 26 man-made lakes created by locks and dams—a “stairway of water,” is what the Army Corps of Engineers calls it.

As the river has altered its course over the centuries, so too have the communities straddling the banks of the Mississippi seen their fortunes ebb and flow, shaped by the decisions of policy makers hundreds of miles away in Washington, D.C..

In the villages and towns along the way, I spoke with folks about the challenges confronting their towns and what their hopes were for the New Year.

People talked about the lack of economic opportunity, and the loss of local business and industry. Since the passage of NAFTA in 1993, this stretch of the Upper Mississippi lost much of its manufacturing base to plant closings, and suddenly jobless workers and their families packed up their belongings and headed for greener pastures. Over the last 30 years, many of the river towns I visited on my December trip experienced steep declines in population.

Also at the top of the list of public concerns is the methamphetamine epidemic. Meth, among the most addictive substances known to medicine, destroys the user both physically and mentally.

Yet, no one I spoke to expressed interest in living anywhere else other than in their town along the Mississippi. They wished that more young people felt the same way, though they understand why they don’t. Everyone emphasized that people in their community take care of and watch out for each other, a spirit of mutual aid especially evident when the Mississippi floods, as it does without fail.

The Henderson County Courthouse in Oquawka, Illinois, was built in 1842. It is the second oldest courthouse in continuous use in Illinois. (Joel Bleifuss)

Day 1: Oquawka

I began my river trip in Oquawka, Illinois.

This village of 1,181 is the county seat of Henderson County, population 6,387. The county is 95% white European American. In 2008, people here voted 58% for Barack Obama and 40% for John McCain. Twelve years later, it went 32% Joe Biden and 65% Donald Trump—a 25-point shift.

Like many towns in rural America, Oquawka has seen better days. Sidewalks that once lined residential streets are grown over, barely visible. The 19th century storefronts on Schuyler Street sit abandoned. Between 2000 and 2020, Oquawka lost 26% of its population.

But Oquawka has its boosters, like Chief Deputy County Clerk Jessie Scipio. She works in the Henderson County Court House.

“We’re the only Oquawka in the world,” says Scipio. The name comes from the Sauk and Meskwaki word oquawkiek, which means “yellow banks.”

Oquawka is a close-knit community, Scipio says, where people watch out for their neighbor’s welfare and come together to support each other in times of need, particularly during flooding.

“When word of flooding comes,” she says, “we start planning meetings, people start filling sandbags, levees get closed or shored up, pumps are checked to be ready to go and everyone is generally on standby. And if a levee does break or overflow, people help each other out with clean up.”

She was a child during the 1993 floods. “We went to the high school and made brown bag lunches for volunteers and flood victims,” she says. “We set up cots in the gym for people that were displaced.”

The community also rallies to support “people affected by major illness or injury or house fires,” she says. “I have helped with several [fundraising] events and attended many. I have seen where a farmer will become ill or injured or pass away, and local farmers and families come together to harvest or plant their crops for them. It is very moving to see a long line of large farm equipment headed down the road to their aid.”

Scipio grew up here and counts herself lucky to have a secure job, and, better yet, one in the same town where her daughter attends elementary school.

There is no major crime in town, she says, just small stuff and drugs, particularly methamphetamine. “It’s so sad.” You can tell who in the community is hooked on meth “by looking at them,” says Scipio, “at how they move and act and have let themselves go.”

Nationally, during 2011 through 2018, deaths from meth increased five-fold, with Native men dying the most, 26 deaths per 100,000, followed by white men, 13 deaths per 100,000, and Hispanic, Black and Asian men with 7, 6 and 4 deaths per 100,000 respectively.

Scipio supports stricter enforcement and greater public investment in mental health. “People with drug charges get off pretty easy these days, so why would they care about getting caught?” she says. “Nationwide we have a dire need to make mental health more of a priority and make it easier for people to seek and receive treatment. I feel like if mental health is improved, it would drastically reduce drug abuse.”

Oquawka could have turned into a very different town. In the mid-1800s Oquawka nearly became the site of a railroad line, a Presbyterian college, and a national literary magazine, Stylus, that was to have been edited by Edgar Allen Poe. But all fell through: voters rejected the railroad (which crossed Burlington, Iowa, instead); the Presbyterians, worried about Oquawka’s moral character, it being a river town, established what is now Monmouth College 20 miles east; and Poe died of rabies at age 40, leaving his 21-year-old publisher Edwin Patterson of Oquawka bereft of an editor.

On July 17, 1972, Norma Jean, in town with the circus, was killed by a lightening bolt. (Joel Bleifuss)

Today, Oquawka is most famous as the final resting place of Norma Jean. Not Marilyn Monroe, but a circus elephant with the Clark and Walters Circus who was struck by lightning on July 17, 1972. Her handler, a man known as Possum Red, had tied her to a tree with a metal chain prior to a summer thunderstorm. The elephant-less circus went out of business the following year.

With the permission of the state of Illinois, Norma Jean, all 6,500 pounds of her, was buried where she perished, next to the Oquawka municipal swimming pool. Today her final resting place has become a memorial shrine.

Oquawkans marked the 50th anniversary of Norma Jean’s passing last July 17 with a special circus-themed, day-long memorial event, featuring peanuts and snow cones.

Down the street from D.C.’s Tap on Schuylar Street in downtown Oquawka. (Joel Bleifuss)

At DC’s Tap, one of a handful of businesses left on Schuylar Street, the town’s main street, Christopher Bothwell, 31, says, “Biggest thing around here is the tractor pulls at the Indian park.” He also likes hunting coyotes.

According to Outdoor News, coyote hunts are an organized sport in 45 states. The largest hunt in the nation, the Mosquito Creek Sportsmen’s contest in Clearfield County, Penn., attracts thousands of registered hunters.

These days, in Illinois, organized coyote hunts have become a flashpoint in the culture wars. On Aug. 15, 2022, Project Coyote and The Rewilding Institute petitioned the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) to prohibit coyote hunting contests through agency rule-making, which has been done by five other states. 

Bothwell says he uses an electronic “distressed rabbit” call to entice the canids into rifle range. Once he shot a coyote from off his front porch. (Read Barn Raiser’s solution to nuisance coyotes here.)

He tells me he works as a custodian at West Central, the local middle school in a nearby town.

His hope for the New Year: “Better pay. I don’t make worth s**t at my job.”

“You have to drive a distance to get a job,” says Bothwell. The last factory in town, which made buttons from the shells of the Mississippi’s freshwater clams, closed in the 1920s. These days, as in past decades, most Oquawkans commute to work across the river to the Iowa towns of Fort Madison and  Burlington, or drive 60 miles upriver to the Quad Cities (Rock Island and Moline in Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa.) But in the post-NAFTA world, many of the factories are now gone, and with them the living wage jobs on which one could raise a family.

Day 2: Dallas City, Nauvoo and Keokuk

I’m sitting in The Clinic, a bar and grill 28 miles down the river from Oquawka in Dallas City, Illinois, a river town of 805 people. It’s a sunny and warm December 29.

On the flood plain, The Clinic’s first floor sits on a cinder-block foundation five feet above the gravel road. The bar’s back deck looks out on a railroad crossing, where a signal clangs intermittently as trains roll by.

On the lunch menu today is beef & noodles over mashed potatoes, canned corn on the side, and a dessert of canned-peach cobbler that someone forgot to put in the oven.

The Clinic, on the corner of a gravel road and the railroad crossing in Dallas City, Illinois, is the last bar standing. The main dish on today’s menu, noodles on mashed potatoes. (Joel Bleifuss)

Like Oquawka, Dallas City—along with my appetite—has seen better days. Between 2000 and 2020, the village lost 24% of its population.

At the bar, my fellow lunch patrons are Kevin Brewer, 61, and Nancy Oetken, 63. I ask the couple, “What do you hope for in the New Year?”

Without hesitation, Oetken replies, “I hope that no more things close down. A lot of old towns don’t have anything left.”

Brewer is a Navy vet who has lived in Dallas City since he was in the sixth grade. “Dallas City is kind of dying off. Younger people are moving away,” he says. “My sons all moved away.”

Dallas City High School was once the pride of the town. (Joel Bleifuss)

In 2001, Dallas City lost the local high school, a grand four-story stone building that looked like a castle. The school relocated to a more modern facility in nearby town, and the building has been abandoned to decay, a monument to a prosperous past.

Brewer ticks off other losses.

“There used to be six churches and we are down to four. We used to have a supper club. We had seven bars at one time.” Only The Clinic remains.

“There used to be two grocery stores, now there’s one. And they say there used to be seven.”

Oetken interrupts, “That was before your time.”

National chains like Walmart and Home Depot, with their economies of scale and low prices, have decimated the small businesses that were the life blood of rural and small town, draining wealth from the community. In the case of Walmart, the people of rural America help fill the bank accounts (estimated at $240 billion) of the seven Walton family members who control the company, which is the world’s largest private employer with 2.3 million workers. An entry level Walmart hostess who has two children makes $19,000 —which is $4,860 dollars below the poverty line for a single parent with two children. To get by, she will have rely on aid from the state—i.e. taxpayer support.

“When things close, people move out,” says Oetken. “The Dollar General saved us.”

Dollar General is the largest retail chain in America with 18,190 stores. Dollar Tree is not far behind with more than 16,293 outlets. In rural and urban food deserts, dollar stores are where people buy groceries. Garrick Brown, retail industry analyst for Cushman & Wakefield, told Bloomberg in 2017: “Essentially what the dollar stores are betting on in a large way is that we are going to have a permanent underclass in America.” These stores, he said, “see a need and are aggressively racing to meet that need for low-cost goods in places that are food deserts.”

A 2021 research paper published in Applied Geography “found evidence that once a dollar store enters a food desert, that area is more likely to remain without access to a supermarket.” Yet the study’s authors admit, another way to view it is that “dollar stores could be filling a gap in food access in places where no other food retailer will enter.”

That explains why people like Oetken see them as a lifeline. After all, something (a local Dollar General) is better than nothing (a 22-mile-drive across the river to the Walmart in Burlington, Iowa, for a quart of milk).

Dallas City has “good people, great people,” says Brewer.

Kevin and Nancy have no regrets about living in Dallas City.

Big city lights don’t beckon.

“I’m an old time country girl,” says Oetken. “Keep me in a little town and I am fine. Burlington, Iowa, [population 23,982] is as big as I want to go.”

Brewer is not too sure about that. “In Burlington, you have the Chicago drug connection,” he says, explaining that the Burlington bridge is one of the places where drugs cross the Mississippi en route to and from Chicago. “They call Burlington, Little Chicago.”

Again and again, I hear from folks that they could not imagine living in Chicago. The day before, in Oquawka, the sheriff’s deputy guarding the Henderson County Courthouse, told me, “You can’t walk down Michigan Avenue [in Chicago] without smelling pot and having your wallet and phone stolen.” And Christopher, the middle school custodian, said. “I won’t even drive to Chicago. Too much violence and too many gangs. It’s the most dangerous city in Illinois.” He went there once in high school to visit “the museum.”

It’s an image of urban America that was fostered by a television news industry that has learned that crime sells, and one that is exploited by scaremongers in the Republican Party and on Fox News to tar Democrats as soft on crime who want to defund the police and endanger us all. As Robert Kraig wrote on these pages, in the 2020 Wisconsin midterms, the GOP successfully demonized U.S. Senate candidate Mandela Barnes with an “onslaught of fear mongering and racially coded crime ads that make the infamous Willie Horton campaign look tame.”

Downriver 23 miles from Dallas City, is Nauvoo, Illinois. The town was established in 1839, by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. By 1844, it had about 12,000 inhabitants, about as many as Chicago. Today it is home to 950.

Prophet Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, built a tomb for himself in Nauvoo, Illinois, which has been unearthed under Zion’s Mercantile, a Nauvoo gift shop, at least that’s what Brian Christiansen the owner of the gift shop and museum thinks. (Joel Bleifuss)

This tidy little town prospers by marketing itself as a Mecca for the Mormon faithful. The time and temperature clock on the front of the State Bank of Nauvoo reads 68 degrees. According to the National Weather Service, records highs were recorded across the region. That explains the people on the street without jackets over their white shirts.

Climate change is making itself felt on the Upper Mississippi, as extreme weather events affect the flow of the river. In October 2022, the Mississippi set a record low for water level, disrupting supply chains as 2,000 barges carrying product like coal and corn backed up on the river waiting for enough water to get through the locks. And with predictions that the Mississippi River Basin, which covers 1.245 million square miles in 31 states and two Canadian provinces, will experience wetter and warmer weather, more intense flooding is the offing.

Day 3: Keokuk, Canton and Hannibal

My next stop is Keokuk, 10 miles downriver from Nauvoo, in the southeast corner of Iowa. The area’s first European American resident was Dr. Samuel C. Muir, an army surgeon who had been stationed at Fort Edwards, on the Illinois side of the river. In 1820, the U.S. Army prohibited its soldiers from having Native wives, so Muir left the Army and moved with his wife to Indian Territory and what is now Keokuk, named after a famous Sauk leader Keokuk (1770-1848). Muir was an exception. For example, in 1932, Second Lieutenant Seth Eastman, famous for his paintings of Native people, abandoned his Native wife and infant daughter when reassigned to a new post.

Chief Keokuk, a Sauk, sided with the United States against the British in the War of 1812 and against Chief Black Hawk, another Sauk leader, in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Keokuk, Iowa, was named in his honor. In 1845, Keokuk and his band were forced out of Iowa to Kansas through the Indian Removal Act. (Missouri History Museum)

Keokuk was once a prosperous town, with a long row of mansions built during the first 30 years of the 20th century stretching along the bluffs overlooking Lake Cooper. That is what this portion of the Mississippi has been called since 1913, when Hugh Lincoln Cooper finished construction of the first dam and lock across the river, now known as Dam #19. With 240 miles of shoreline, Lake Cooper is the largest in the Mississippi chain of lakes.

Keokuk was home to 9,900 people in 2020—39% fewer than in the town’s 1960 heyday, and 13% fewer than 2010. The last time the population was that small was sometime in the 1860s. “NAFTA hit us hard,” said one local historian, who preferred not to be named. “It was a catastrophe.” The agreement removed trade barriers between Canada, Mexico and the United States, allowing corporations to move their factories to Mexico where they could make more money by paying workers less. NAFTA was championed by President Bill Clinton, and it passed Congress in 1993 with the support of a majority of GOP lawmakers and a minority of corporate Democrats.

In 2008, Obama carried Keokuk by 57% to McCain’s 43%. In 2020, Trump received 74% to Biden’s 26%, a 31-point swing to the GOP.

It’s suppertime and The Cellar, a bar and grill on the river downstream from the dam, has several tables full of customers, but the cook for the grill failed to show up.

Tonya, the bar manager, who asked that I not use her last name, is exasperated with what she considers the prevailing work ethic. “Covid changed a lot of things,” she says. “Most people don’t seem like they want to work anymore. Don’t people have goals and dreams? We all know how they come about—through hard work.”

“Unfortunately, things aren’t like they were 30 years ago,” says Tonya, 53.

“Keokuk has lost a lot of factories,” she says, “It’s sad to see these communities going down when people are struggling to stay open, but what do you do?” The Keokuk hospital closed in October 2022, and with it went the helicopter landing pad, a second blow.

Like others I spoke with, she talks about how the community comes together to support those in need. “If people are down and they need help, people will pull together as much as possible.”

She, too, talks about meth. “The meth problem is everywhere. It’s sad to see what it does to people.”

Of all meth addicts (treated and untreated), only 5% percent are able to kick the drug for more than three years. For the 95% of those hooked for life—36% of whom will become psychotic—their addiction is a premature death sentence.

From Keokuk, to Hannibal, Missouri, 53 miles downriver, passing through the town of Canton, Missouri, home to what was the longest continuously operating ferry on the Mississippi. After 161 years in operation, the ferry made its last trip in 2014.

According to its Face Book page, the Flower Mill and Trading Post in Canton sells AK47s and for your post-apocalypse, back-yard bunker, canned food with a 25-year shelf life. (Joel Bleifuss)

Day Four: New Year’s Eve, Hannibal and Clarksville

The subject of meth comes again in Hannibal, population 17,067.

It’s Saturday morning and Main Street in downtown Hannibal is hopping, buzzing with talk of a murder earlier that morning.

In the early morning hours of New Year’s Eve, Justin Sims, a 32-year-old white man, shot and killed Anthony “Meat” Migel Miller, a 24-year-old Black man, during a fight in Rookie’s Sports Bar. Sims was charged with second-degree murder.

Justin Sims was charged with second degree murder in the December 31, 2022 shooting death of Anthony “Meat” Migel Miller. (Hannibal Police Department)

Faye Dant, 73, a civil rights activist and Hannibal resident, questions the leniency of the second degree murder charge that was brought against Sims, who himself was shot in a fight in May 2020. Dant tells me that she thinks Sims is a “meth head,” judging by his appearance in the police photo. “Drugs is obviously a big problem, and meth is the leader,” she says. “There are billboards throughout the town that talk about meth and how you should avoid it.”

At Java Jive, the local coffee shop that occupies two storefronts, almost every table is occupied. In the middle of the seating area is a large table, around which sit a group of men, middle-aged and older. Unusually for my trip, not all were white.

“Meth is the big thing that I see as being an issue,” says a white man who works in the criminal justice system and asked to remain anonymous. “With a large percentage of the people in the criminal system, meth is somehow involved when they show up in court. A lot of the serious crime from my vantage point is meth-related.”

The number of kids being removed from their home is growing, he says, in part due to parents’ addiction to meth. Between 2010 and 2021 the number of children under the custody of the state of Missouri increased 37%, to 20,247.

Around this table in Java Jive, talk about social issues is normal.

“Here, this is the liberal table,” says Dick Motley, 87,  a white man who describes himself as a political independent. He gestures to a big table, now empty, in the back of the cafe, “Back there, the conservatives sit together. Sometimes I will sit with the conservatives for an hour and then I will come over here. It’s very divided.”

“Before Donald Trump we used to all sit here together. Those days are gone,” says Motley. “Even in my own family, my daughter-in-law is a strong Trump supporter, so we never discuss politics at family gatherings.”

Motley became a linotype operator upon graduation from high school, with the promise that he would have a job forever. Lucky for him that he also worked his way through college, and, when linotype went the way of the buggy whip, he got a management job at the printing company.

Now retired, he lives in a house on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, with his wife, the second female State Farm Insurance agent in Missouri. Together they have visited 44 countries, and he tells me he is currently reading The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953 by Jeffrey Frank.

Sitting next to Motley, is Bill Morrison, 86, one of two Black men who are regulars at the liberal table. (Faye Dant’s husband, Joel Dant, is the other.) He says he is reading The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli.

I ask Morrison what it was like growing up Black in Hannibal. “Not great, not as bad as growing up in Mississippi,” he says. “But this is a redneck town.” In 2020, voters in Marion County, of which Hannibal is the county seat, supported Donald Trump over Joe Biden, 74% to 24%, and Republicans hold almost all the elected offices.

Marion County is part of a historic region of Missouri known as Little Dixie, the northernmost outpost of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Little Dixie is comprised of 13 slave-holding counties along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. (I was born and raised in the heart of Little Dixie, 67 miles southwest of Hannibal, in Callaway County.) Before the Civil War, Marion County’s population was about 23% enslaved people. Today, the county’s Black population is at 4%.

Morrison was born in Hannibal, but his parents shipped him off to Jackson, Michigan, for high school to live with his uncle, knowing that he would get a better education there than at the local all-Black school. He went to college, lived in Chicago and eventually made his way back to home.

In 1980, he and his wife bought a house in an-all white neighborhood of Hannibal. One day, while he was on a ladder out front trimming a juniper, a man in a suit with a briefcase walked down the sidewalk and up his porch steps. He rang the doorbell without even looking at him. When nobody answered, the man turned and asked him where Mr. Morrison was. “You see,” says Morrison. “I wasn’t supposed to be there. And if I was, I had to be working.”

Last October, Hannibal was roiled by a racist incident. Kelsey Whitley, the principal of the Hannibal elementary school with the highest percentage of Black students, posted on Snapchat a photo of a baby doll in blackface hanging by a noose. The hanging black-face baby was one of the decorations at a Halloween party hosted by her sister and attended by an assistant superintendent of the school board. 

“Can somebody tell me what’s wrong with this picture??? This was posted on my kids’ school principal’s Snapchat Page!!!!!!” asked a parent of children who attend Eugene Field Elementary School in Hannibal, Missouri. Civil rights activists Faye Dant went on face book to organize a public response: “Please attend if you want to see justice served and stand for an end to racial harassment!” (Screenshots)

A mother of children at the school posted a screenshot of Whitley’s Snapchat on Facebook, and Faye Dant began to organize a community response. About 50 people showed up at the December school board meeting in protest. In the end, the board put the principal on probation.

Dant says she attended her first civil rights protest in 1963 in Peoria, Illinois, with her aunties when she was 12. The NAACP had organized the protest against unfair hiring practices at Cilco, the local utility company.

Dant left Hannibal to go to college in 1971, returning to live in her hometown 11 years ago. “I came back a very different person than when I left,” she says, “And I noticed that the community hadn’t had a lot of growth in terms of recognizing social justice issues and responding.”

Jim’s Journey: Huck Finn Freedom Center was established by Hannibal civil rights activist Faye Dant, who says she has gotten a lot of questions about Mark Twain’s use of the n-word. “If you take that word out, it changes the narrative,” she says. “Next thing you know we will be talking that slavery didn’t happen here.”(Faye Dant)

So Dant founded Jim’s Journey: Huck Finn Freedom Center, a museum that opened its doors in 2013 in a building provided by the City of Hannibal. Jim, the escaped slave hero of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was based on Daniel Quarles, a slave on Twain’s uncle’s farm in Florida, Missouri. Quarles moved to Hannibal after emancipation.

The museum is full of local artifacts donated by townspeople, including a 1925 “Colored Directory” produced by the town’s Black newspaper that contains a list of the town’s 72 black cooks. Dant says when she got a job as a waitress at Lum’s, a small restaurant chain, in 1969, she made Hannibal history as the first Black to work in “the front of the house.”

The Jim’s Journey museum confronts the controversy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn head on. Faye writes on the museum website:

Twain made Jim a central character in the novel. However, Twain also extensively referred to Blacks as ‘n*****s,’ a derogatory term that can be personally offensive, especially in our racially mixed classrooms where it is taught today. We might deride Twain for his insensitivity, but we must also realize that he could not accurately tell the stories of his childhood in Hannibal while opting for any other less offensive word. To do so would be to deny the horrors of his times as well as the truth of black-white relations at this moment in time. [Asterisks added.]

Dant says she has gotten a lot of questions about the n-word. “If you take that word out, it changes the narrative, and next thing you know we will be talking that slavery didn’t happen here,” she says. “That’s what they said in Hannibal for many years, because we didn’t have plantations. But we had a big slave leasing system and it was a big money maker for Hannibal. I am asking Hannibal to reckon with that past and fix that history.”

The last stop on my trip is Clarksville, Missouri, 33 miles downriver from Hannibal. Clarksville is home to 372 people, according to the 2020 Census. In the last 20 years the village has lost 24% of its population.

Cathy Schutte is the bartender at Cherry’s Bar and Grill. “I like to call myself a thirst therapist,” she says.

Heavy flooding in 1993, 2008, and 2019 has taken its toll. I tell her that folks up in Hannibal said they doubted Clarksville would ever recover. She seemed affronted.

Back in 2019, she says, they stacked 4 million sandbags to protect the downtown—“they” being townspeople and “ladies from the Vandalia prison.” One of her customers questioned her figures. “Look it up,” says Schutte. I did, and didn’t find mention of 4 million sand bags, but I did find a reference to 200 tons of sandbags and 3,000 tons of gravel. She concedes that while the downtown was saved, in parts of town the 2019 flood “destroyed a lot of property.” But, she says, “We are recovering.”

Clarksville, Missouri, a village on the National Register of Historic Places, before the flood of 2019. (Paul Sableman)

I ask her if she thinks the town can survive climate change, which is predicted to cause increased flooding.

“Yes we will!” she says. “This town of 372 people, we are going to be getting a  flood wall.”

Last year, Clarksville learned that it will receive $11.7 million in federal and state grants to build a flood wall to protect downtown Clarksville, which today sits empty.

Mayor Jo Anne Smiley worked hard to secure the grant. She told the Hannibal Courier Post, “My hope is that as people look at it, they will see that this is an answer to a huge problem, and that this community—this choice jewel of Pike County—can come back and can thrive again without fear of being inundated by the waters of the Mississippi River.” Clarksville, she said, “could be the magnet it once was.”

“We aren’t going anywhere,” Schutte says. “There is too much integrity in this town.”

The people who I met along the river love their communities, brim with good will for their neighbors and have no desire to live anywhere else. At the same time there remains an uncertainty about the future and the possibility of change. That’s not surprising. For too long, the stories of villages like Oquawka and Clarksville have been ignored by a mainstream media that prefers to excise the crumbling areas of rural America from the national narrative as places of concern.

In 1892, Ida B. Wells, the muckraking journalist who exposed the horrors of lynching, wrote, “The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.”

And knowing and acting are best done together. Back in Hannibal, I had asked Dant what she hoped for in the New Year.

“I don’t know if we are going to be able to fix anything in this New Near,” she says. “We are taking little baby steps. I can’t ask for the racism in the school system to be fixed. I just hope for more folks to show up at our events and be interested in learning and supporting what we do.”

For Juneteenth 2023 she is planning a program on Missouri’s German abolitionists, immigrants who arrived in America with radical ideas about equality and democracy. One of the centers of German abolitionism was Hermann, Missouri, a town on the south bank of the Missouri river, across from my home county, Callaway.

Abolitionist leaders in Hermann, included Carl Strehly and Eduard Mühl, who in the 1840s published a radical magazine, Licht Freund (Friend of Light), but to no great success. “The country was too young to find time or pleasure in such heavy discussion as Licht Freund offered,” wrote Mühl. So, in 1845, Strehly and Mühl established the German-language newspaper Hermanner Wochenblatt (Herman Weekly) for a general audience. Not only did Hermanner Wochenblatt publish its own stories about the evil of slavery, it translated and reprinted abolitionist articles from the English-language press, and, over 26-weekly issues, Uncle Tom’s Cabin in serial form.

“It is all about educating,” she says. “I developed this program so we could learn more about the abolitionist movement and those involved. We didn’t do this by ourselves.”

So too, as individuals like Faye Dant in Hannibal, Jessie Scipio in Oquawka, and other folks I talked to along the river, we can get together with our neighbors, channel our dreams and aspirations for a better life into action, and change our corner of the world.

Joel Bleifuss

Joel Bleifuss is Barn Raiser Editor & Publisher and Board President of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is a descendent of German and Scottish farmers who immigrated to the Upper Midwest in the 19th Century to become farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. His grandmother was born in the Scottish Highlands to parents listed in the Census of Great Britain, 1881 as “farm servants” on land owned by the Duke of Fife. Joel himself was born and raised in Fulton, Mo., a small town on the edge of the Ozark Highlands. He got his start in journalism in 1983 as a feature writer and Saturday reporter/photographer for his hometown daily, the Fulton Sun. Bleifuss joined the staff of In These Times magazine in October 1986, stepping down as Editor & Publisher in April 2022, to join his fellow barn raisers in getting Barn Raiser off the ground.

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