Booning Up On History

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I shook my head. How can this happen?

Our crew had spent a delightful morning at Powder Valley Nature Conservation Area, filming displays of fauna and flora, all tucked into steep hills and valleys within a chip shot of the crossroads of two interstate highways in the heart of metro St. Louis. Yet I couldn’t help but notice that even in this urban area, Powder Valley suffered from a serious lack of visitors. We had the run of this beautiful spot.

“Our biggest problem is that nobody knows we’re here,” a guide from the Department of Conservation told us. Oh, school groups come here for field trips. And scout groups. And a few others, here and there.

It’s a shame, I thought to myself, that these congested highways deliver hundreds of thousands of people past Powder Valley every day, but commuters don’t know it’s here. Or they don’t care. Or they don’t have time …

Too bad. This piece of nirvana is a one-stop nature classroom, within minutes of a million urban doorsteps.

The situation reminded me of a favorite quote: “The man who lives at the base of the mountain is the last to climb it.”

Then I realized there’s a spot in Columbia I’ve neglected for 25 years. The Boone County Historical Society Museum is a treasure on several levels. And I’ve known about the museum since the beautiful structure was built. But I never darkened its door until a few weeks ago.

The museum was built in the late 1980s and christened in 1990. Since then, I had motored past this spot 6,138 times in commutes down U.S. 63 to Jefferson City. The museum sits in plain sight, just southwest of the U.S. 63/Route AC interchange. It’s a beautiful complex of buildings, dressed in native wood, a natural fit to the pastoral setting of Nifong Park. But more often than not, a commuter’s eye might be attracted to the roadside’s garish clutter. Until recently, one of the most notable roadside attractions was the old Blue Acres gas station and convenience store, just outside the city limits, where consumers scouring for tax breaks could buy cheaper smokes and booze.

Although the Blue Acres store and the Boone County museum shared little in common, they both were afflicted by the same malady. Although they sat in plain sight, just off the highway, they were painfully hard to reach. Unlike so many other spots along U.S. 63, there was no direct access crossroad from the highway to the store or the museum.

But the times they are a-changing.

The Blue Acres store is gone. The new Gans Road interchange offers easy access to the museum from the south. In a few months, the old museum will sport a new top hat, which is guaranteed to get some much-deserved notice. Boone County Historical Society President Dick Otto explains why: Fundraising is underway to replace the old roof with a bright red metal roof, one that will command attention from the highway.

Otto made that announcement recently to a roomful of museum patrons who had come to hear some great stories. On a tip, I had joined them.

A friend told me about the Saturday Morning Book Talks at the museum, a forum that showcases great books and great writers, including some of Boone County’s best: Walter Bergen, Nina Furstenau, Alex George.

I picked a recent Saturday morning to go hear the story about a race around the world. It was a morning full of pleasant surprises. First surprise was the crowd. I had to park my car, Erifnus Caitnop, in a field about a hundred yards from the museum entrance. I walked past an impressive outbuilding with giant glass windows, housing a boat called Nikawa, which was William “Least Heat” Moon’s ride in the epic River Horse journey. I entered the museum.

I took the last seat among six dozen story lovers who had traveled here from throughout mid-Missouri, braving heavy Mizzou game-day football traffic.

The event is the brainchild of the dynamic duo of Kit and Cathy Salter. I’d never met either of them, but I’ve always considered Cathy’s Notes From Breakfast Creek to be some of the best prose anywhere, a product of her mastery of the language and Kit’s editor’s eye. Cathy and Kit had been approached more than a year ago by museum curator Jenifer Flink to produce a monthly book event.

At first, Cathy seemed reticent. “At the time,” she remembers, “I did not need another project to organize and champion. Life was full, and it was about to get fuller.”

But in this park at Nifong, no stranger to big theatrical productions, Book Talk was a hit.

Cathy explains the format: “Book Talk mornings begin at 9:30 a.m. with incredible handmade pastries and artisan breads baked by Julie Sexten of Flour Girls Bake Shop. Kit keeps the coffee hot and coming. Regulars and new attendees include writers, authors, editors, book groups, writers groups, library lovers and Boone County Historical Society members. At 10 a.m., the guest author talks about his/her writing life and book(s). Books are on sale in the museum gift shop.”

On the morning I went, Cathy read from a book that tells the story of a race around the world, back in 1889, when the feat was a bit more complicated than it is today. Further, the racers were two women, Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bizlund. The book, Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman, is a compelling read.

The book talk kept me on the edge of my seat, so much so that my eyes had little opportunity to examine the Civil War swords and cannon balls, pistols, long coats and crutches that lined the room.

But after Book Talk ended, I toured the museum. I saw looms, sewing machines, paintings, buggies and more, all presented in tasteful displays that rival some of the best local museums in Missouri: the phenomenal Henry County Museum and the world-class museums of St. Joseph.

I passed the Wilson-Wulff Genealogical Library, and it caused me to smile, thinking about Betty Wilson and Helen Wulff, two pillars in the development of this museum.

Back in the Montminy Art Gallery — the 8,000-square-foot showplace named for Columbia’s legendary first family of art, Tracy and Pierre Montminy — I ran into another dynamic duo, featuring two of Columbia’s premier world-class artists. First, I met Paul Jackson, Columbia’s watercolor laureate, who was conducting a painting workshop on that morning. We had a delightful conversation about one of my favorite portraits, his official first lady portrait of Pat Wilson, unique among first lady portraits in its medium, its presentation and its beauty.

Then I saw the second half of the dynamic duo at Montminy: The baby grand piano owned and mastered by John William “Blind” Boone. It’s a blonde bombshell, a magnificent mahogany pianoforte. Its brass nameplate tells the story: “Specially manufactured for Blind Boone. Chickering & Sons, Boston, Mass.” I know there’s an old house on the northwest edge of downtown Columbia that yearns to feel the vibrations from that old piano. Regardless of the old piano’s location, I know what it’s thinking: It’s great to be loved, comforting to be wanted. But I want to be played.

Pianos are like that.

On the way out the door, I toured the grounds of Nifong Park. The Maplewood Barn Theater, rebuilt after a tragic fire of suspicious origins, holds down the western edge. I remember playing there a quarter century ago with a band called the Mudbugs.

Then I circled the original centerpiece to these grounds, the magnificent Maplewood house, built in 1877 by the Slater Lenoir family, and later occupied by Dr. Frank Nifong and his wife, Lavinia Lenoir. An inscription reveals the house’s story on a monument donated by the Woodmen of the World.

Leaving Nifong Park, I marveled at how I had spent half a day wandering through its many delights.

It only took me a quarter-century to break the ice and immerse in this museum, thanks to a Saturday morning event called Book Talk. Now, I just may become a regular.

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