Brookfield Works To Survive

Date 2014/6/12 4:22:49 | Topic: News

BROOKFIELD, Mo. (AP) - A few years after a factory shut down and its theater fell down, residents of the small north-central town of Brookfield decided it was time to get to work.
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With an hour left to go serving lunch, Miss Mary’s Marketplace ran out of fruity chicken salad.

That was Tuesday, opening day for the new business.

Great news in this north-central Missouri town that a few years back saw a factory shut down and a theater fall down. People here learned something back then.

“If we didn’t do something, we were going to lose it all,” said Becky Cleveland, economic development director of Brookfield, located smack dab between Hannibal and St. Joseph on U.S. 36.

Not “all” as in ghost town. But lose vibrancy, lose its appeal to new businesses looking to open doors and young people looking to raise families — the same as what has happened to so many towns in rural America.

So what did people here do to try to save Brookfield? Well, obviously, they began to give graduating seniors at Brookfield High School steel rural mailboxes with their names on them — to let them know this place is home.

And they gave up on J.C. Penney coming back to town and opening a store on Main Street like in the old days. But they did get Miss Mary’s Marketplace.

“People here want me to make it,” said owner Robyn Armstrong, who sells everything from clothing to casseroles. “They ask what can they do to help.”

What has happened here is a resurgence effort — led mostly, for whatever reason, by the town’s women — that has brought phone calls from all over, including Michigan State University.

They stopped fretting about what they needed and went all in on what they had. They’ve tried to get small businesses to open and young people to return, and seen some of both.

They’ve even seen the mysterious reappearance of long-ago pilfered cannonballs, which will play into matters Friday, when Brookfield dedicates its Twin Parks Walk of Heroes, a granite salute to the town’s generations of service men and women.

Volunteers from teenagers to older residents pitched in to spruce up an old downtown that dates to the mid-1800s. Amazing what someone can do to storefront windows with a staple gun and curtains made from white bedsheets bought at a Kansas City thrift store, regardless of the trash heap behind.

And somewhere along the way, these boosters saw a Brookfield Gazette newspaper story dated May 12, 1912, about the dedication of a statue of a Civil War soldier:

Brookfield has a monument of which our people may well be proud, and in one hundred years from now, unless removed by the hand of man, it will be standing where it stands now, as artistic and as complete as it is today.

Gulp. A hundred years from 1912, huh?

Someone had made off with that soldier’s gun long ago. He was weathered, his face barely recognizable as human. Someone even stole his cannonballs. Think that didn’t make for jokes around town?

“It was like a voice speaking to us from a hundred years ago,” Cleveland said.

U.S. 36 from St. Joseph to Hannibal, Mo., is fondly called The Way of American Genius because at times J.C. Penney, John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, Walt Disney, Omar Bradley and Mark Twain lived along the route.

And in the summer of 1928, a Chillicothe bakery saved itself from bankruptcy with the innovation of sliced bread.

In stagecoach days, it was called the Hound Dog Trail.

Brookfield, which claims its annual Great Pershing Balloon Derby to be the oldest hot air balloon rally in the country, is proud of its place in history.

So when the old DeGraw Theatre, which opened in 1905, began to crumble and the Dura Automotive factory shut down, folks sensed a wake-up call.

“Our buildings were falling down, and we were losing jobs,” Cleveland said one day last week on her office. “We had to do something. And we knew our destiny was not in the hands of government, and we knew nobody was going to come along and write us a big check.

“We had to save this town ourselves.”

They held meetings. A group of architecture students from Drury University in Springfield helped with ideas. The town started a Leadership Academy, which attracted volunteers ages 15 to 85.

“We had to have all hands on deck,” Cleveland said.

Nancie Saccaro, who works two jobs and also helps care for two young grandsons, shows up when volunteers are needed.

“Nobody loves this town like we do,” she said.

Cleveland provided the expertise.

“I know trends and demographics as well as anyone, and I know you can’t be something you are not,” she said. “A lot of towns fall into that trap. We have to be ‘asset based’ — using what we have.

“We had to stop chasing smokestacks because those small-town factories have gone to Mexico, and they’re not coming back.”




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