Steeped in history, lexington views a bright future
This Missouri River town boasts attractions most communities would envy and is building arts programs to bolster its strengths
by Leigh Elmore
People who love antiques and history long have gravitated to Lexington, MO for exactly those things. The town traces its beginnings to the very beginnings of Missouri statehood 1822, one year after Missouri was made a state. It thrived as a waypoint on the early Santa Fe Trail, then as a steamboat landing and it has become synonymous with the Civil War in Missouri as the site of two major battles. A cannonball lodged in a Doric column of the Lafayette County Courthouse is a testament to that time and sort of a trademark for Lexington’s tourist trade ever since.
With its cultural and agricultural roots running deep in the loess topsoil of its Missouri River bluff location, it wasn’t long before Lexington became noted for its antebellum charm, which has encouraged a thriving antiques trade. In addition, the rich farmland surrounding has produced several apple and peach orchards and now vineyards, which also draw seasonal visitors from throughout the Midwest and beyond.“People come from long distances from all directions,” said Dan Cambridge, who serves as Lexington’s tourism director. “The state historic site hosted 30,000 visitors last year, and we probably bring in 60,000 to 80,000 visitors to the town annually all told. Of course many of them are from Kansas City.”
Dan Cambridge, left, and Mark Porth promote Lexington's attractiveness to artists. (photo by Leigh Elmore)
Using art as a draw
They come for the antiques; they come for the history; they come for the apples and wine. And now, Lexington leaders hope, they’ll be coming for the arts too. Last year Lexington was selected by the University of Missouri Extension as the pilot project to boost community economic development by promoting the arts.? The project has made the resources of MU’s Art Department and MU Extension available to the Lexington community over a two-year period. Through the project MU students and faculty, along with MU Extension staff, are working with Lexington residents on projects designed to enhance the quality of life and stimulate economic growth.
“Research shows that the arts are a way to revitalize a rural community,” said Mark Porth, the MU Extension community arts specialist who is leading the project. “Promoting the arts get people working together and can be an economic driver.”
Porth said the arts dovetail with Lexington’s traditional draws of history and antiques. The town has four complete historic districts and the arts committee is currently developing walking and driving tours of each of them. Funding has been committed to develop maps and audio for walking and driving tours of each district:
- Highland Avenue, which was the Santa Fe Trail
- Downtown, which retains its pre-Civil War look
- The battlefield and Wentworth Military Academy
- The antebellum home areas
“We should have the first tour ready to go by the ‘Apples, Arts and Antiques’ community fair, Oct. 5-6,” Porth said. Eventually there will be an app you can load on your Smartphone to guide your way though Lexington’s historic streets.
“There’s a lot of interest and energy surrounding the the arts already. That’s one of the great things about this community,” Porth said. He’s also actively working on ways to attract artists to Lexington as full- or part-time residents. “We’re surveying all kinds of available properties that artists could conceivably use as studios.”
Living historic lifestyles
But any town needs a committed citizenry to keep it going. Like most small rural towns in America, Lexington has experienced its ups and downs as the crux of its economy as evolved over the years. Fortunately, Lexington’s traditional draws for travelers also draw new residents, especially to the large stock of antebellum homes that line its streets people like Brant and Michelle Neer.
Michelle and Brant Neer
The Neers were attracted to Lexington from Lenexa precisely for the opportunity to live in a home that boasted a long history. “There are more than 100 antebellum houses in Lexington. We came to Lexington from the Kansas City area in order to buy an old home,” Michelle Neer said. That was 10 years ago and today the Neers operate Welcome Home Realty, so they are very familiar with Lexington’s housing stock.
“People are drawn to Lexington because of the quality of life and its cultural attractions,” Michelle said. “Plus it’s just a really fun place to live.”
Brant Neer said, “Retirees find that they can realize a dream here in Lexington and many are attracted because of the historic homes that become available. For example, one couple from Colorado had lived in 23 cities around the country. They set up criteria for the town where they wanted to retire. They looked at Charleston and Savannah. Yet, they decided that Lexington was the place for them. They’ve been here 21 years now.”
One such couple is Harold and Maggie Bonamoni who chose Lexington as their home following Harold’s retirement from the Army at Ft. Riley, KS. “We live in a house built in the early 1840s. We wanted to get the feel of that era,” Maggie Bonamoni said. “This community is amazing,” said the resident of 10 years. “We were never considered ‘outsiders’ and I’m not leaving.”
Maggie is a noted fiber artist and the author of seven books on the subject. She operates the Purple Turnip Shop & Studio, where she purveys primitive antiques, which also furnish her home, and where she sells her applique art works and conducts fiber art classes.
Another couple that fell in love with Lexington is Steve and Nancy Wallace, who operate Blackthorn Trading Co., a high-end antique furniture shop on Main Street. Originally from New Jersey, the couple had been living in Parkville, when they read an article about Lexington in the Kansas City Star. “It was really a revelation for us,” Steve Wallace said. “We began looking around and the Neers drew our attention to a two-story storefront downtown. We’ve been here eight years now and we live in an apartment above our store. I’ve been in and around the antiques business for many years and this has been an amazing experience. We are a bit of a destination, but we have a lot of repeat customers,” he said. “People’s tastes in antiques are changing, but I think that they will always gravitate to our upper end merchandise.”
One can’t help but notice the hand-carved two-tier walnut table, created by Missouri wood carver Nathan Ed Galloway. Carved from a walnut log, it is heavily decorated with leaves and clusters of grapes inlayed with mother of pearl and veneer. It’s a one-of-a-kind piece from a craftsman whose pieces are very rare. Just the sight of it draws customers through the front door.
“One of the great things about this community is that all the antique dealers help each other out by talking each other up,” Wallace said.
Another of those dealers is Georgia Brown who owns and operates The Velvet Pumpkin a shop purveying primitive antiques and decorative accents. She’s hedged her bets with Gigi’s an adjacent clothing shop. She’s been in Lexington a long time and in business for 19 years. “I specialize in helping people accent their traditional home with antiques,” she said. “My husband was the president of Wentworth and I was an artist. I opened the shop by popular demand,” she said with a characteristic twinkle in her eye.
“I draw a variety of customers, a lot of Kansas City people, the locals of course, plus people who live in the smaller towns around here,” Brown said. “The business is changing. I still do well, but the most memorable effects have occurred in the last seven years,” she said, noting that the economic slowdown has affected all businesses. “I have a range of merchandise including clothing, accessories and antiques. It’s the furniture that I like, but younger people like the stuff from the 1940s and ’50s.”
A few storefronts down Main Street, Sue McGraw operates the Missouri River Trading Co. in an 1830s-era brick building. “I’ve been here 13 years,” she said. She has an eclectic line featuring primitives and small items, lots of garden items on the lower level of the shop.
Attorney Jennifer Teichman Kerr runs her general law practice from a Main Street storefront, appropriately furnished in 19th century decor. With a Ph.D. in history, she wouldn’t think of living anywhere else. She serves as president of the Lexington Historical Association, which operates a local history museum downtown. She gives public presentations, such as her upcoming talk on “Bad Girls of Lexington” that is the women who aided and abetted the Confederates during the Civil War. She presented a program on “Murders on Main Street” in April. “This was a dangerous place way back then,” Kerr said. “Luckily in Lexington all civic groups have appetites for history so I get a lot of community support.”With an enthusiastic core of citizens committed to keeping Lexington strong, with a housing base that attracts cultured residents and attractions to bring visitors to town, Lexington will be building its history far into the future.
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at email@example.com