keeps on rolling
of historic community come
to save a town from ruin
|The business district of tiny Blackwater, Mo., is just one block
long but it's full of activity, thanks to the efforts of dedicated
community leaders and volunteers.
The streets of Blackwater
seem quiet as a late spring cold front settles over the central Missouri
town of 199. But small, telltale signs reveal a community hard at work
to ensure its own survival.
slip in and out of the post office while shopkeepers open for business.
Bonnie Rapp is at her post as clerk at city hall. Mayor Bobby Danner
scurries along the brick sidewalks lining Main Street to check on a
A visitor watching
these subtle activities might not realize it, but Blackwater is alive
with the bustle of community involvement.
just a little-bitty town, but there’s a lot going on,” says
Bobby, Blackwater’s mayor since 1992.
Mayor Bobby Danner and City Clerk Bonnie Rapp walk along brick
sidewalks in downtown Blackwater. Revitalizing the downtown area
was a major step in Blackwater’s
Over the past decade,
Blackwater has become a destination for tourists in central Missouri.
Each weekend from spring through fall, visitors hunt for antiques in
shops and take in the sights, which include a restored one-room schoolhouse
and a museum dedicated to the history of rural telephone service. In
2002, upscale dining and lodging came to Blackwater with the opening
of the Iron Horse Hotel and Restaurant. Future plans include a new
city park and a replica 1880s railroad depot.
The picture wasn’t
always this bright, though.
Established in 1887,
Blackwater once catered to travelers who arrived as trains stopped
at the foot of Main Street. A century later, the trains no longer stopped
and few travelers ventured the three miles from Interstate 70 into
By the late 1980s,
Blackwater’s main industry, a rock quarry,
had closed. The downtown shops, once home to the largest antiques
wholesaler in the state, were locked and in disrepair.
about to fall down around our ears,” says Bonnie, the town’s
clerk since 1983. “There was just nothing here.”
the time, Bobby Danner was fresh out of nearby Boonville High
School. When his parents bought a hotel in New Orleans, Bobby began
a life of wanderlust, dividing his time between Black-water and travels
around the world. His journeys, he says, gave him a greater appreciation
for home, but during visits to Blackwater he was increasingly struck
by the deterioration of the town.
“I came back
to Blackwater and the downtown was really a mess,” he
says. “I would drive around the other way because it
would just look like a ghetto.”
a local contractor, repairs trim to a door in a downtown Blackwater
residence once owned by playwright Jay Turley.
problems were not limited to downtown. In the 1980s, Blackwater installed
a new sewer system. Initially touted as innovative technology,
the system never worked properly and constant repairs nearly
flushed the city coffers down the drain.
to do something. He ran for mayor at the age of 26 and convinced
his family to invest in Blackwater.
While the Danners
bought vacant storefronts and began to rehabilitate them, Bobby enlisted
other residents in a three-pronged crusade to resurrect Blackwater.
The city began to improve infrastructure, and community organizations
launched beautification and development projects. Meanwhile, private
citizens began to upgrade their own properties.
With no industry
and little sales tax base, tiny Blackwater didn’t have
the means to do much. But the community found a way.
Blackwater received federal grants to replace its failed sewer system
and connect to the county water supply, ending decades of rusty water.
Other grants and tax incentives supported street paving and renovation
projects at homes and businesses.
The city joined forces
with the newly formed Blackwater Preservation Society to purchase bricks
to replace crumbling concrete sidewalks, while volunteers supplied
labor. To fund new 1880s style streetlights, the city clerk wrote
former residents and asked for donations. “They were $750 a piece,” Bonnie
says. “We wanted six. We got 16.”
flagship attraction in Blackwater is the newly restored Iron
Horse Hotel and Restaurant.
would take more than streetlights to brighten
neighborhoods, though. Many yards were littered
with debris. One resident raised pigs under his
To force reluctant
homeowners to join in Blackwater’s renaissance, the
city established zoning ordinances, something
practically unheard of in a town Blackwater’s size. “The
zoning was a huge fight. It barely passed,” Bobby
the measure allowed Blackwater to create an atmosphere that could
entice visitors. Raising the standards for
appearance and home maintenance quickly began
to bear fruit. As people cleaned up their properties,
a new spirit of community developed.
that had almost quit even having meetings came to life again,” Bonnie
recalls. “It began with the garden
club. The Lion’s Club began having
blood drives. The 4-H was more active.
It seemed like everybody just put in more
energy to the organization that they belonged
Groups and individuals
stepped forward to participate in community renewal
in many ways. Whether it’s the
memorial or community gardens and planter
boxes downtown, each improvement began
with someone’s idea
and others pitching in to bring it to
one of four Danner siblings active in the Blackwater area, prepares
a room for guests at the Iron Horse Hotel. The Danner family, let
by Blackwater Mayor Bobby Danner, was instrumental in the success
of the town's renaissance.
“It is purely
a community effort,” says Mark Danner, one
of four Danner siblings active in the
area. “Bobby provided a spark
to get the flame going, and then you
had a bunch of people to keep fanning
One group central
to the town’s revival was the
West End Theater. Founded by Blackwater
native and one-time Hollywood script
writer Jay Turley, the community
theater attracts busloads of visitors.
Turley died two years ago, but his
theater lives on. Proceeds from ticket
sales and meals served to playgoers
help fund community development projects.
While theater performances,
community fairs and festivals attract visitors
to Blackwater, the biggest draw of late
has been the Iron Horse. The restoration
of the town’s old City Hotel was more than 10 years in the making but
the result is impressive. The 10-room
hotel welcomes guests from Easter through New Year’s. Alongside the hotel,
the Iron Horse Restaurant is open Fridays and Saturdays (plus Wednesday nights
during play season at nearby Arrow Rock’s
Lyceum Theatre) and seats up to
antique operator's switchboard is one of numerous artifacts on
display at Blackwater's Museum of Independent Telephone Pioneers.
Not every little
town is blessed with upscale dining and lodging to
attract visitors, but Bobby says
any town can take steps to better
always something that can be done,” he
town can put in gardens. Any
town can upgrade its sidewalks. There’s always
something a town can do to
A wall full of community
betterment awards in Blackwater’s city hall is
testament to what can be
accomplished with a little vision and a lot of hard work. Once near
ruin, this tiny mid-Missouri town has reversed its fortune.
to the efforts of its leaders, organizations and volunteers,
Blackwater is a better place
to live and do business. It’s also a town with lots to
offer visitors and even
more to teach other towns seeking to improve.
“For our size town, I
think it’s been wildly successful,” Bobby
says. “From what
it was 10 years ago — when
buildings were falling
in and people were ashamed
to say they were from Blackwater — it’s
a whole different town.”
For more information, call (660)
846-4411. For information about the Iron Horse, visit www.ironhorsehotel.com,
or call (660) 846-3001 (hotel) or (660) 846-2011 (restaurant).