Thursday marked our wedding anniversary, and we really felt the need to do something fun. We haven’t gone away overnight together since a short visit to Joanna’s parents last winter, and have been feeling increasingly burned out toward the end of this difficult year.
We also needed to make a run to Smithville, MO (north of Kansas City) to pick up our order of new blueberry plants, and decided it would make sense to combine these two goals into one. The original plan was to spend the night in Kansas City proper and enjoy the city’s food & parks to relax in a completely different environment. However, with a few days to go we decided that the city would still not be relaxing enough, as well as inevitably being expensive. So we made some last-minute changes to the itinerary and followed our favorite mode of travel; poking around backroads in rural Missouri to explore Conservation Areas, State Parks, small towns, and all the interesting things you find off highways. It ended up being one of the best trips we’ve ever taken together; everything went right and we found a lot of really amazing places and things. Here’s what we did:
Heading northwest from the farm, we passed through Fayette & Glasgow before heading north into the core pecan-growing regions around Brunswick. We’d hoped to find some pecan stands open, but there was little activity and judging from the various groves we passed, most pecans are still on the trees. The river bottoms around Brunswick are beautiful, with scattered pecan groves dotting the rich fields active with farmers happily harvesting corn & soy in this mercifully dry weather. We explored some quiet back roads, and found a series of pecan trees overhanging the road and just starting to drop nuts:
And so we were able to gather a nice collection of fresh, raw Missouri pecans without trespassing or stealing. Here they are in their native state, showing the outer husk that opens to release the nuts, which are still encased in their inner shell. We cracked a few and found them delicious, and will use the rest for a special meal later.
Next we headed further north for a trio of related natural areas: Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Fountain Grove Conservation Area, and Pershing State Park. The first two are managed primarily for migratory bird habitat, and we were hoping to catch some early fall migration populations (we’ve been seeing migratory songbirds passing through the farm, as well as wood ducks). We didn’t see much in the way of waterfowl, but saw a couple good raptors. We’re fairly certain we saw a Golden Eagle riding thermals over Swan Lake, and that’s a rare sighting for the refuge. It was a large bird with slightly upturned wing tips and two-toned coloration on the back. We also saw several Northern Harriers during the course of the day, including one that we followed for about half a mile as it flew and hovered over a bottomland field. The weather was gorgeous and it was simply thrilling to explore these areas on a perfect sunny fall day.
Next up, Pershing State Park exceeded our expectations. It preserves a rare northern Missouri landscape, an un-channelized river bottom with associated wet bottomland forests and the largest (and only?) significant remaining tract of native wet prairie, over 800 acres. We followed a well-constructed boardwalk through the wetlands and out to the prairie edge, which doesn’t photograph well but was lovely with a light fall breeze blowing across to the horizon.
We drooled over the 6+ mile hiking trail that follows Locust Creek down to connect with Fountain Grove CA, allowing longer backpacking trips into the Conservation Area (another time) and enjoyed scouting a nice mixed flock of birds in the woods on the way back.
Next up was Locust Creek Covered Bridge State Park, the longest of four remaining covered bridges in Missouri, built in 1868. As a history & transportation buff, I can’t get enough of exploring 19th century technology and customs, so had a great time exploring this well-preserved site. Especially interesting was investigating the Howe Truss construction, with which I’m familiar from illustrations of period railroad bridges but had never seen up close before (or used in a covered bridge). It’s quite different from Union Covered Bridge in northeast Missouri, built with a Burr Arch truss (I’m possibly the only one reading this who cares, though).
Throughout both days, we indulged in our second-favorite observational pastime after bird-watching: train-watching. North-central Missouri is home to a number of busy and diverse rail lines, including the seriously busy BNSF mainline from Chicago to Kansas City, a parallel secondary line, another busy Norfolk Southern route from Moberly west, a Union Pacific line, and the somewhat busy Kansas City Southern line through Marshall and Glasgow. So we did our best to parallel and stop along these routes, eating lunches and snacks where we could sit and wait for trains, and in general had very good luck, such as this freight we caught up with west of Sumner, MO.
By late in the day, it was time to stop exploring and head west toward Smithville, where our next big treat awaited, dinner at the famous Justus Drugstore restaurant, a premier example of farm-table done right. We truck-camped in the town’s basic campground, paying $12 for the privilege of rolling out a few foam pads and sleeping bags in the back of the truck, thus saving the rest of the money we’d have blown on an urban hotel for use at Justus. We spent 2.5 hours enjoying possibly the best meal we’ve ever eaten out, savoring every bite and talking to several of the staff about our farm and farm-table in general. More about this meal sometime if I get around to it. Around 10pm, we crawled into the truck and spent a warm & comfortable night sleeping off the food, wine, and thrill of a fantastic day off.
It didn’t frost Thursday morning, but was nicely chilly when we cracked the truck cap open. A relaxing breakfast of homemade coffee cake, hot tea, and an Uprise Bakery cinnamon roll got us started, after which we drove the short few miles to Waters Blueberry Farm and picked up a load of young blueberry plants to add to our growing orchard area (there are four already established). That accomplished, we headed for our other major destination of the trip, Watkins Woolen Mill State Park.
Now this place…this blew us away. I’d found it online doing research on 19th century Missouri mills, and had had it on my to-do list for some time. It’s a homestead and farm established in the early 1800s, grown to a prominent diversified farm & industry, including sawmill, woolen mill, grocery store, and all-around self-sufficient. The buildings and history have been remarkably preserved, including the 3-story woolen mill with a spectacular collection of original equipment inside. The grounds are immaculately preserved, the visitor’s center is excellent, and the staff seem to take very seriously their mission of preserving and interpreting the entire site as an example of a real 19th century self-sufficient yet prosperous farm. You might imagine our interest, as both history buffs and the rare modern Americans who do many of the same things this family did in 1860. Here’s the mill and mule pasture:
And here are the house & heirloom gardens.
I could spend all day raving about this place, but will stop. This should be a required visit for every Missourian interested in their rural/agricultural history, and for anyone remotely interested in such things. Really a fantastic experience, with a tour guide for the mill who had clearly done his homework and held a large store of useful knowledge (I’ve been on far more NPS or MO State Park tours where the guide knows little more than what they read in the brochure, if that). The associated park, with campground & long hiking trails, beckons us back for the many days it would take to do this place true justice. Make a point to go there.