Jamesport finds the right balance for success
The antique trade in town complements the surrounding Amish community – both groups benefit from each other
by Leigh Elmore
Two worlds exist side by side in Jamesport, MO, where the Amish and the "English" benefit from each other's presence. (photos by Leigh Elmore)
They have a saying in Jamesport, MO. "Step back in time, but watch out where your step." It's pretty apt when considering that this small town of 525 residents has managed to do what few rural communities have done – reinvent itself after its traditional economy disappeared along with the railroads that built them.
Jamesport today is one of the most popular and successful centers for the antiques and vintage trade in the state, pulling in thousands of day-trippers and many bus tour groups throughout the spring, summer and fall seasons. That is the "step back in time" part.
A horse and buggy ply Broadway.
The other part has to do with the "exhaust" deposited on the town's streets by the dozens of horses that navigate them daily, pulling individuals and families in all manner of buggies, carts and drays belonging to members of the large Amish community that entirely surrounds the town.
You won't hear any complaints from the townsfolk and merchants, though. In fact the horse droppings are simply part of the charm of this rural community.
If Jamesport is considered one of Missouri's most active antique centers, it is just
as famous for having the largest Amish community in the state, with about 200
families living on prosperous, meticulously maintained farms.
Each community benefits from the other in a true symbiotic relationship. Public curiosity about the Amish lifestyle draws tourists, who in turn, patronize the antique shops of the "English" (as the Amish refer to those not of their faith). And tourists who come for the antiques are predisposed to shop at the numerous Amish businesses outside of town. In addition to several large and easily spotted Amish businesses, many Amish farms have small hand-painted signs indicating items for sale such as produce, dairy products, quilts etc. Don't be shy; dollars speak eloquently here.
Which came first?
Gary Ellis and his late wife, Carol, were the pioneers of the Jamesport antiques and vintage trade with their shop Warren House Antiques. He's pictured here with Annie the terrier and Beau, a neighbor's dog. Ellis created all the sculptures.
The Amish began arriving in the Jamesport area in the mid-1950s, just as the town's fortunes began to subside and it took a few more years for the antiques businesses to begin cropping up.
"When you speak of the origins of the antiques trade and the beginnings of the town as a tourist destination, then you are going to hear the names of Gary and Carol Ellis crop up," said Denise Felderman, proprietor of Jamesport Mercantile, a large antique and vintage shop located at 204 S. Broadway in Jamesport's 'antique district.'
"The Ellises opened the first antique shop here and they probably owned just about every building downtown at one time or another," she said.
Gary Ellis remains one of the community's most colorful characters. Recently, widowed, Ellis lives at the end of a country lane outside Jamesport in a house he built himself, which is surrounded by and filled with his own sculptural creations. He has a wry outlook and sense of humor that quickly disarms any big city visitor.
Born in nearby Milburn, Ellis paid $75 for his first building in town in the mid-1970s. "We were greedy and just wanted to make a living," he joked of his and his wife's enterprise. It soon grew to be Warren Antiques, which is still in business downtown, owned now by Ellis's grandson.
"Gary is one of those rare people who is able to make a living by doing whatever it is that they want to do," Felderman said.
"I've always been a collector, ever since I was a young boy," Ellis said. "My pockets would be so full of marbles and other things that they'd pull my pants down."
Marbles are certainly main ingredients in many of his sculptures that populate his property. "That eventually led to a love of antiques," he said. Along the way he became an expert stone carver as well, and will accept the label of "folk artist" although he makes no distinction between what he creates and "fine art."
"Folk art is not just crazy little gadgets," he said, indicating that his creations are works of art "where you know the artist individually."
But the Ellises planted the seeds of the antique trade with Warren Antiques, operated by his wife, Carol, for most of its history. "When we first started, Carol and I were the only thing going in Jamesport," he said. Ellis would travel to Kansas City and hit the garage sales. There was nothing like that in Jamesport at the time. "The first time I held a garage sale here someone showed up to buy the garage."
Denise Felderman, owner of Jamesport Mercantile, sought a safer life in Jamesport.
From there, the Ellises started on the show circuit when it was still a relatively cheap way of antiquing. "Because the cost of doing shows got too high we decided to do our business in Jamesport," Ellis said. "It seems like when we first started, the only people who bought antiques were little old ladies who wanted pretty dishes. That all changed in the late 1970s when Country Living magazine started showing how you could use antiques to decorate your house. We started selling a lot after that," he said.
Out of that seed grew dozens of antiques shops over the years, several operated by the Ellises simultaneously. Little by little other shops opened up. Some have come and gone, but the tradition of doing business in Jamesport is now seemingly self-sustaining.
Ellis and others banded together to promote themselves regionally and stage a craft festival. "The Amish also contributed money for advertising and we held our first festival at the school house gym. Each shop in town made space for several vendors and we took turns buying advertising," Ellis said. Out of that grew the Jamestown Community Association, which in cooperation with the Jamesport Chamber of Commerce, today stages 11 festivals, auctions and events throughout the year, drawing hundreds of people to town for those weekends.
Auctions have become big attractions especially the All Antique Auction held the third Saturday in January and the Jamesport Amish Community Quilt Auction held on the second Saturday in October.
These days there are 14 antique and collectibles enterprises in town, six furniture stores in the area, 12 grocery and variety stores, a half dozen restaurants, six inns or bed and breakfasts and an RV campground as well as various service companies including the largest harness supply and carriage dealer in the Midwest.
"I do get a great sense of satisfaction. I'm real proud of what Jamesport has become. Most of the little towns around here are nuthin' anymore," he said.
Donald Dowell loves to crack-wise from his rocker in This & That Antiques.
As far as the antique trade goes, Ellis feels like he's seen it all and weathered the many trends and fads that have characterized it over the last 40 years. He's a bit wistful about it all. "Selling antiques now is really hard. Younger people aren't drawn to it. You have to find a home for real antiques," he said. "You have to show them respect."
His attitude has gotten traction. Even relative newcomers to Jamesport appreciate its old-time feel and want to preserve what's been created.
Take Irene Jones who with her husband, Lynn, opened the Red Rooster, a 30-dealer antique mall on Broadway in 2012. "We just drove through on a whim and decided that this is where we want to stay," she said.
"We are here for a reason. We wanted a nice quiet place and this is it. The local slogan is 'Step Back in Time,' and the reality of that makes Jamesport different," she said.
She says business is good. "We are a 'want' store, it's not about need." Knowing that every item in the store used to be in someone's home is comforting to Jones. "Everything in here was loved once," she said.
Up at the north end of downtown Donald Dowell won't let a visitor out of his shop until he elicits a smile. He's quick on the quips. "I've got a little of this and a little of that and a whole lot of nothing," he said. "If BS were gold I'd be a millionaire." Nevertheless, he's content to deal in a lot of cast iron kitchen implements.
Dowell claims to have gotten into the business by accident. "They had this auction here and I guess I got confused in the bidding. When it was all over I asked what it was that I bought. It turned out to be this building," he said. "So here I are. I'm having fun really."
Despite the vast lifestyle differences between the "English" townsfolk and the Amish farmers, making a profit in business is the common denominator. Several Amish stores and businesses are quite popular with visiting tourists.
Weekly produce auctions draw grocery wholesalers to Jamesport
to purchase fresh vegetables and fruit grown on Amish farms
Joe Burkholder grew up in the Jamesport Amish community and is the proprietor with his wife, Ada, of four businesses under one roof called Shearwood Crossing. He manages a handmade furniture shop, quilt and fabric store, Christian bookstore and craft shop.
"There's been a business on this site ever since it was the little town of Shearwood on the railroad line," Burkholder said. "We're just carrying on the tradition."
He's juggling a lot, dealing with more than 40 different furniture makers, all Amish, most from outstate Amish communities. Without the use of the computer communication is, shall we say more traditional. Nevertheless, business is good using word of mouth advertising to spread the word.
There is a beautiful array of colorful quilts for sale. "All are hand-quilted and many are consigned by local ladies," Burkholder said. With the store he says he can make three people really happy on the same day with a single sale, "The buyer who wants it, the craftsman who made it and me, who sold it."
This hand-made quilt displayed at City Hall will be raffled off during the annual Jamesport Amish Community Quilt Auction on Oct. 10.
Over at Jamesport Harness Supply, owner Elmer L. Beechy is a very busy man, selling locally where there's a constant need, and dealing in carriages all over the country. He may be the last guy in the United States doing big business in buggy whips since the advent of the automobile.
Much of his business, Beechy says, is acting as a broker selling carriages. Most of the tourist carriage ride businesses in the country including the one operating on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City have obtained vehicles through Beechy. Horse trader? Elmer Beechy is your man. He's an expert on all breeds and buys and sells "a few," he said.
Advertising is all word of mouth, but word has obviously gotten out. And he lives by a simple business code: "If something ain't right, we make it right. We want happy, repeat customers," he said.
And that's a code everybody ought to follow, Amish or English.
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at email@example.com
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