The Ozark-prairie border economy is dependent on agriculture. As with much of rural America, the decline of family farms has left under-utilized retail spaces. Country stores in hamlets and crossroads have been affected the most. Transactions are still made around courthouse squares. With paint and plastic signs, the nineteenth-century buildings in Osceola are open for business. The art moderne movie house across the square isn’t a victim of hard times on the farm—single screen theatres are obsolete everywhere. Perhaps the grandest structure of the region is the Opry House at Greenfield. Drama, Comedy, and Opera are not only boldly stamped on the ornate cornice, plays are still performed by local thespians on the 128-year old upstairs stage.
Towns strung along the Burlington Northern Railroad—Golden City, Lockwood, and Greenfield—have their fair share of empty commercial buildings but also some glimmer of life. Bustled they haven’t for years, but one can get a tank of gas and a good plate lunch. Some of their architectural heritage has been kept up, like the 1903 Block Building on Lockwood’s Main Street which is now a furniture store.
Before the War Between the States, Osceola thrived as the head of steamboat navigation on the Osage River. In 1861 radical Kansas Senator/Union General James Henry Lane and his Red Leg army looted and torched the county seat of St. Clair County, displacing 2,500 citizens. Railroads reached Osceola in the 1880s and it grew back to half its pre-war size. Today the railroads are gone, Highway 13 bypasses it and Truman Lake proved to be of small economic benefit. Many of the commercial buildings around the courthouse square are vacant, but well maintained, awaiting a return of prosperity from a yet unknown windfall. The 2000 population was 835.
Brick and mortar, wood and tin casualties of market wars and change are everywhere in America. Wounded buildings conspicuously accumulate in rural settings where there is no urban renewal or subsidized gentrification. No, Crystal, these old walls don’t talk. They do reflect light in such a way that an expressive photograph can be taken. Some of these images are, I believe, worth looking at more than once. Some of these places I’ve returned to two, three, four times hoping for inspiration and a Turner-watercolor sky.
For gallery of Leland Payton’s photographs of trade centers, click on any image.