Brookfield, Mo., fights the economic decline of small towns head on

The Kansas City Star

With an hour left to go serving lunch, Miss Mary’s Marketplace ran out of fruity chicken salad.

That was Tuesday, opening day for the new business.

Great news in this north-central Missouri town that a few years back saw a factory shut down and a theater fall down. People here learned something back then.

“If we didn’t do something, we were going to lose it all,” said Becky Cleveland, economic development director of Brookfield, located smack dab between Hannibal and St. Joseph on U.S. 36.

Not “all” as in ghost town. But lose vibrancy, lose its appeal to new businesses looking to open doors and young people looking to raise families — the same as what has happened to so many towns in rural America.

So what did people here do to try to save Brookfield? Well, obviously, they began to give graduating seniors at Brookfield High School steel rural mailboxes with their names on them — to let them know this place is home.

And they gave up on J.C. Penney coming back to town and opening a store on Main Street like in the old days. But they did get Miss Mary’s Marketplace.

“People here want me to make it,” said owner Robyn Armstrong, who sells everything from clothing to casseroles. “They ask what can they do to help.”

What has happened here is a resurgence effort — led mostly, for whatever reason, by the town’s women — that has brought phone calls from all over, including Michigan State University.

They stopped fretting about what they needed and went all in on what they had. They’ve tried to get small businesses to open and young people to return, and seen some of both.

They’ve even seen the mysterious reappearance of long-ago pilfered cannonballs, which will play into matters Friday, when Brookfield dedicates its Twin Parks Walk of Heroes, a granite salute to the town’s generations of service men and women.

Volunteers from teenagers to older residents pitched in to spruce up an old downtown that dates to the mid-1800s. Amazing what someone can do to storefront windows with a staple gun and curtains made from white bedsheets bought at a Kansas City thrift store, regardless of the trash heap behind.

And somewhere along the way, these boosters saw a Brookfield Gazette newspaper story dated May 12, 1912, about the dedication of a statue of a Civil War soldier:

Brookfield has a monument of which our people may well be proud, and in one hundred years from now, unless removed by the hand of man, it will be standing where it stands now, as artistic and as complete as it is today.

Gulp. A hundred years from 1912, huh?

Someone had made off with that soldier’s gun long ago. He was weathered, his face barely recognizable as human. Someone even stole his cannonballs. Think that didn’t make for jokes around town?

“It was like a voice speaking to us from a hundred years ago,” Cleveland said.

U.S. 36 from St. Joseph to Hannibal, Mo., is fondly called The Way of American Genius because at times J.C. Penney, John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, Walt Disney, Omar Bradley and Mark Twain lived along the route.

And in the summer of 1928, a Chillicothe bakery saved itself from bankruptcy with the innovation of sliced bread.

In stagecoach days, it was called the Hound Dog Trail.

Brookfield, which claims its annual Great Pershing Balloon Derby to be the oldest hot air balloon rally in the country, is proud of its place in history.

So when the old DeGraw Theatre, which opened in 1905, began to crumble and the Dura Automotive factory shut down, folks sensed a wake-up call.

“Our buildings were falling down, and we were losing jobs,” Cleveland said one day last week on her office. “We had to do something. And we knew our destiny was not in the hands of government, and we knew nobody was going to come along and write us a big check.

“We had to save this town ourselves.”

They held meetings. A group of architecture students from Drury University in Springfield helped with ideas. The town started a Leadership Academy, which attracted volunteers ages 15 to 85.

“We had to have all hands on deck,” Cleveland said.

Nancie Saccaro, who works two jobs and also helps care for two young grandsons, shows up when volunteers are needed.

“Nobody loves this town like we do,” she said.

Cleveland provided the expertise.

“I know trends and demographics as well as anyone, and I know you can’t be something you are not,” she said. “A lot of towns fall into that trap. We have to be ‘asset based’ — using what we have.

“We had to stop chasing smokestacks because those small-town factories have gone to Mexico, and they’re not coming back.”

Brookfield started a Business and Community Development Center and a Main Connection organization to focus on revitalization of the old downtown. The groups began to work with the school’s alumni association.

That’s where the mailbox idea came from.

“You give a senior a car and luggage for graduation — what are they going to do?” Cleveland asked. “They’re going to leave. And that’s fine. But we want them to come back later.”

Audra Wilburn was part of the first mailbox class in 2007.

“We’d always heard you had to leave because there was nothing for us here and, finally, somebody was saying that it was OK to come back,” said Wilburn, 25. “I wanted to come back. This is my town.”

So she went to college at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and is now back in Brookfield working as a pharmacist and buying a house.

“It’s still an uphill fight,” Cleveland said. “We still have more leaving than staying and more dying than being born.

“But I’ll say this: I’m president of the Missouri Economic Development Council because I’m from Brookfield. People know what’s going on here.”

Nancie Saccaro showed off her handiwork one day last week.

The storefront window on Main Street was filled with photos of military veterans, such as Gerald Elson, a Marine during World War II and later an insurance agent in town.

The curtain behind the artwork? A thrift store sheet, bought with the $25 Saccaro budgeted for the window.

Behind the curtain? Junk and disarray.

“Part of the ceiling is falling down, too,” said Saccaro, who also painted the metal awning.

Other downtown windows were tidied up the same way. Absentee owners don’t always care about their buildings, locals say.

Up in the park, city workers Michael McLaury and Chris Roberts wrapped up work on the first phase of a $500,000 makeover of Twin Parks, which includes new sidewalks, curbs, lighting and playground equipment, paid for with donations and installed with volunteer labor.

Both are 30, graduated together and plan to stay in Brookfield.

“My son can ride his bike around town and play in the park and I don’t go crazy worrying about him,” McLaury said.

A bricklayer laid the granite bricks for the Walk of Heroes, featuring bricks engraved with names of military veterans. Almost 550 of the 700 spots have been sold at $100 each, not a bad percentage in a town of 4,400 or so.

The dedication is part of a festival this weekend put on by the Brookfield Downtown Main Connection. Other events include the Back Road Cruizers Parade, a marathon and half-marathon relay, a 5K walk, car show, treasure auction and a Downtown Brew Review.

That Civil War soldier? Looking able and ready for action after an $18,000 makeover, including a new hand-carved marble rifle.

When word of the heroes project got out, one of his missing cannonballs showed up at City Hall and another at the economic development office.


To reach Donald Bradley, call 816-234-4182 or send email to dbradley@kcstar.com.

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