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Monthly Archives: March 2011

Below is the first part of a multi-part series on the Amish presence in rural Missouri and Kansas. Entitled, “Where the Pious Things Are.”

The town of Bowling Green is located less than two hours north of St. Louis, in the vast, empty corn and soybean fields of northern Missouri. Its namesake doesn’t lend the town a sense of individuality. Ohio, Kentucky and Illinois all have towns called Bowling Green. The Missouri version is the smallest, and least identifiable on a map.

A town littered with dilapidated houses and sagging brick buildings once housing locally owned and operated business is showing it’s age. Curious locals or well-led outsiders might eventually stumble onto highway Y, which carries drivers west out of town, and into the back road maze of gravel and paved roads (the blacktop, as the locals refer to it, still accustomed to gravel roads in the outskirts) winding between empty fields and long rows of high elms and oaks following streams through the countryside.

None of the roads outside of city limits have names. City Councils in Bowling Green don’t spend hours naming roads after impressive universities or former presidents. Rather, they are numbered or assigned a letter. Y, H, N (and a personal favorite, PP) transport lost and wandering outsiders to roads like Pike 401, a quarter-mile stretch of straight, flat gravel with two homes attached, distanced from the road by massive, sloping front lawns.

On Y, drivers might notice with some curiosity the yellow, triangle shaped MODOT certified road signs every few miles. The sign cautions drivers, showing a black silhouette of an 18th century style horse-and-buggy with big, black letters spelling, CAUTION. SLOW.

At a distance, an Amish home on highway Y is nearly indistinguishable from the tidy two-story farmhouses used by the ‘English’ (the name given to all non-Amish by the Amish themselves, who refer to their original Dutch heritage). White, handmade curtains with simple lace — always fastened to the left of the window frame leaving an elegant curve — identify the homes of a people rapidly depleting from American memory.

These families are traditional Amish. They use no electricity, and do not have running water. Less than 200 Amish make up the small community surrounding Bowling Green where less than a dozen Amish families have called home for more than a century.

On Sundays, as locals return to their homes after their weekly service (the majority are returning from Catholic mass at the local parish, while a small number of Methodists attend on the Western end of town, and a two-room Baptist church hidden among residential streets houses the dwindling Baptist population) the Amish are hosting their own services. The somber sight of listless horses strapped to buggies gives no hint to the gentle, pious hymns being sung inside.

On a rotating basis, families take turns hosting church for the community in their own homes, inviting dozens of uniform black buggies loaded with entire families and potluck-style dinner arrangements

A fifteen-minute drive from the Mississippi river and a “stones throw” from the childhood home of Mark Twain in Hannibal, nothing about Bowling Green violates any basic Americana small-town tradition. Invisible from the highway, downtown is nothing like the outstretched arm of the town visible from I-70 desperately groping for stop-and-go road-trippers.

A McDonalds and a gas station greet newcomers from the road and the Wal-Mart — a new addition to the town in 2009 — is its most visible landmark. Most pull-over artists won’t make it far past here. A long stretch of virtually empty road, lined only with tractor shops and a veterinary office, separates this highway appendage from the rest of the town.

Bowling Green hosts around 3,000 farmers and good Catholics with mostly Irish, German and English backgrounds and a non-existent minority presence. The epicenter of downtown, a 150-year-old lime and granite courthouse, sits high in the middle of the single block of buildings comprising the downtown area that locals refer to as “the square.”

Though smaller than neighboring cities, Bowling Green is the capital of Pike County, which leans on the northern border of Lincoln county (which has been honorably named the meth capital of the world thanks mostly to wide open spaces and abandoned homes providing the perfect cover for delicate, illegal chemical work and the foul odors they produce) which makes the courthouse the only non-expendable structure in the city.