Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine
Blackwater
keeps on rolling

Residents of historic community come
together to save a town from ruin

by Bob McEowen

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.

Downtown, people 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 construction project.

A visitor watching these subtle activities might not realize it, but Blackwater is alive with the bustle of community involvement.

“It’s just a little-bitty town, but there’s a lot going on,” says Bobby, Blackwater’s mayor since 1992.

Blackwater 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 renaissance.

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 the town’s 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 town.

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.

“It was about to fall down around our ears,” says Bonnie, the town’s clerk since 1983. “There was just nothing here.”

At 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.”

Harold Morton, a local contractor, repairs trim to a door in a downtown Blackwater residence once owned by playwright Jay Turley.

The town’s 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.

Bobby decided 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.”

The flagship attraction in Blackwater is the newly restored Iron Horse Hotel and Restaurant.

It would take more than streetlights to brighten Blackwater’s neighborhoods, though. Many yards were littered with debris. One resident raised pigs under his house.

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 says.

Although controversial, 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.

“Organizations 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 to.”

Groups and individuals stepped forward to participate in community renewal in many ways. Whether it’s the veteran’s memorial or community gardens and planter boxes downtown, each improvement began with someone’s idea and others pitching in to bring it to fruition.

Sherri Cornine, 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 that flame.”

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 120 guests.

An 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 itself.

“There’s always something that can be done,” he says. “Any town can put in gardens. Any town can upgrade its sidewalks. There’s always something a town can do to improve.”

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.

Thanks 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).

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