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Rural Missouri Magazine

Caring for Brazeau
Tiny Perry County hamlet refuses to fade away

by Bob McEowen

With just a small post office, a church, an old schoolhouse, a couple of closed storefronts and a few homes, Brazeau seems like yet another "blink and you'll miss it" sort of town. But like most small towns there's a lot more to Brazeau than meets the eye.

"It's a fun-going community. There's a lot of activity and working together and sticking together as a community," says Verna Weisbrod, one of several volunteers who formed the Brazeau Historical Society to keep the town from falling into disrepair.

Volunteers, many of them gathered in this photo, have restored old buildings and kept the community from falling into disrepair.

"I didn't want to live in a place that was going to go whoosh, like that," Weisbrod says, making a gesture like an umpire calling a player out. "We just all formed a little bunch of people and we've been working. We don't want it to fall down. We want it to prosper."

In 1990 the group began fixing up the old buildings in Brazeau — a small hilltop community along Perry County Highway C in southeast Missouri. The effort began with a ramshackle shed that once housed a blacksmith shop but was now nearing collapse.

"We had a little meeting on the school lawn and discussed should we tear the blacksmith shop down or not," Weisbrod recalls. "Well, nobody wanted to tear it down."

Not only did volunteers rebuild the old smithy and decorate it with artifacts of Brazeau's horse-powered agricultural past but they took on other projects as well, including repairs to the town's WPA-built community hall and the restoration of an old home.

Located less than 10 miles from the Mississippi River, Brazeau was settled in 1817 by Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, long before their better-known German-Lutheran neighbors immigrated to nearby Frohna and Altenberg. The people of Brazeau, it's said, helped those Saxon settlers survive their first hard winter in Missouri, much like American Indians aided Pilgrims of lore.

While Brazeau was never a bustling community, it was at least more active in an earlier day. It once boasted a John Deere dealership, a general store and a bank. Katherine Lane remembers when the bank closed in 1953.

"The FDIC came in and stripped the bank out. They took the vault. They took the partition out and left one little shelf on the wall where you signed your checks," says Lane, a former school teacher who owns the bank building.

The group of Brazeau volunteers listening to her story takes turns providing additional details. "Actually, you had one guy who broke the bank," adds Weisbrod.

"He was kiting checks from bank to bank. Brazeau got stuck with the final check, I guess," offers Al Hemman, who once operated the town's general store until it, too, closed some 30 years ago.

"Would you believe I helped carry those checks?" says Dick Luckey, a retired farmer who worked for the man who broke the bank. "They'd send me to the bank with a $3,500 check, either to Altenberg bank or out here. Of course, I didn't know what was going on but I thought it was awful odd."

Verna Weisbrod, Dale Rhyne, Dorothy Weinhold and Kevin Rhyne relive memories while looking at a photo album of restoration projects in Brazeau, a tiny town near the Mississippi River.

In Brazeau past events are recounted as if they happened yesterday. Whether it's two brothers shaking hands on the church steps before heading off to opposing sides of the Civil War, a young boy piloting torpedo bombers in World War II and returning to coach college football in Cape Girardeau or even the arrival of Saxon Lutherans to Perry County, the years are swallowed up by the community's long memory.

Many of these happenings are also preserved in a community museum, housed in the old school. Perhaps it's because not much happens in Brazeau that small events take on monumental proportions.

When the Postal Service threatened to close the local post office, the town rallied. "They were going to have a postal inspector here a certain day to talk to the people," Luckey recalls.

"Everybody in the community turned out to try to save the post office. He supposedly told somebody that he'd never seen so much interest in a town this size."

Support for the town does not come from current residents alone. When the historical society decided to restore the oldest house in town, the 1880 Price/Cody house, the project got a boost from former residents, including one man who donated $10,000. More money was raised by community fairs and tours of the restored buildings.

The small cluster of Perry County communities tucked between the Mississippi River and Highway 61 have long marked the arrival of spring with a scenic tour and town fairs. In recent years, tiny Brazeau has stood out. "Other towns are losing interest and we just keep getting bigger," says Luckey.

A new tradition began last year when Brazeau opened its doors for a Christmas tour. This year's event, scheduled for Dec. 1, promises to be even bigger with homes and other buildings decorated and open for the tour and meals being served at the community center's tea room.

Whether decorating old buildings for Christmas or rebuilding an old blacksmith shop, the residents of Brazeau continue to display a determination to not let their town, and the memories it holds, die.

"For me it was that I lived in Brazeau and it was a quaint little town. It brought about a lot of memories of when I was a child — you know, a long time ago," says Weisbrod who opens the museum for anyone who asks. "It's always important to remember back to the olden days."

"We're proud of our little town," adds Hemman, a Cape Girardeau barber who still cuts hair one day each week in an old barber chair in the corner of Brazeau's former general store. "We want to keep it."

For more information, contact Verna Weisbrod at (573) 824-5898.

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