David Kelley and Missouri’s Bootheel

David Kelley 06-11-2016

I met David Kelley in Altenburg at the Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum about the time he was helping found the Starzinger Family Research Library  in memory of his long-time friend, Margaret Starzinger Wills, whose family was from the area.

I became better acquainted with him when we kept running into each other at  Jackson’s Cape Girardeau County History Center, where he was creating memorials to the Talley side of his family.

How would you like to document The Bootheel?

It might have been Director Carla Jordan’s nudging that got him to broach the idea of having me document The Bootheel. I was intrigued, but not sure it was the right project for me.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kelley died of COVID, so he’ll never see the project through (and, to be honest, I’m not sure I will, either, for a number of reasons).

David E. Kelly, Sr.  1930 – 2020

David Kelley at his home in Steele 11-01-2014
David E. Kelley, Sr. was born on September 13, 1930 in Steele, MO to Pleasant Lafette (Jack) Kelley and Winnie Talley Kelley. He passed away on November 12, 2020 in Mt. Home, AR at the age of 90.
 
He lived in Steele until 2016, when he retired and moved to Mt. Home, AR.
 
David was a lifelong member of the Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Steele. He was a veteran who served his country as a member of the U.S. Air Force. He had been employed as a teacher, farmer, and insurance agent. He was also a 32nd Degree Mason and a Shriner.
 
He was united in marriage to Barbara Lennox Kelley on November 23, 1955. She and his parents preceded him in death.
 
He is survived by two sons: David E. Kelley, Jr., and his wife, Donna, of Mt. Home, AR; Mark L. Kelley, and his wife, Lynn, of Van Buren, AR; five grandsons: Jared, Josh, Jonathan, Sean, and Dalton; four great grandchildren: Kayra, Kendall, Beau, and Noah.

What’s The Bootheel?

I guess it’s as much a state of mind as it is a geographical entity.

A Wikipedia entry defines it this way:

The Missouri Bootheel is the southeasternmost part of the state of Missouri, extending south of 36°30′ north latitude, so called because its shape in relation to the rest of the state resembles the heel of a boot.

Strictly speaking, it is composed of Dunklin, New Madrid, and Pemiscot counties.

However, the term is locally used to refer to the entire southeastern lowlands of Missouri located within the Mississippi Embayment, which includes parts of Butler, Mississippi, Ripley, Scott, Stoddard and extreme southern portions of Cape Girardeau and Bollinger counties.

It starts at the Benton Hills for me

I consider The Bootheel to begin at about MM 82.8 southbound on I-55 just north of Benton. That’s where you leave rolling hills, and gravity takes you down to the flatlands that will carry you all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, more or less.

Mr. Kelley and I drove about 1,200 miles just surveying most of the counties listed above. During that overview, I learned much from his monologues, but shot less than two dozen photos.

I had trouble wrapping my head around the region. It was the very definition of FLAT, with few places to  gain any perspective. On top of that, many of the towns and villages had either disappeared or were in major disrepair.

I’m fond of shooting dying places like coal towns in SE Ohio or Cairo, Ill., but there was a dearth of places where I could feel the vibes of those who had passed through.

Pemiscot County

I can’t figure out how to show what I shot, so I’m going to post a series of random galleries, followed by links to blog posts I’ve done that might or might not put some of the images in context.

Here’s a selection of photos from Pemiscot county. Click on any image to make it larger, then use your arrow keys to move around. Escape will take you out.

Pemiscot county was where Mr. Kelley and his family raised cotton for many years, and it was the place we talked about the most.

He said that when mechanical cotton harvesters came into common use in the 1960s, the county lost about 85% of its population. When the more skilled workers fled to places like St. Louis, Chicago and Memphis, and the lesser-skilled migrated to the smaller regional towns, the stores dried up for lack of customers. When the stores folded, so did the banks and other businesses.

I felt like I had let Mr. Kelley down because I couldn’t paint a portrait of the area like we both had hoped. It wasn’t until I started looking through all the blog posts I’ve done about the region that I realized that I had been working on this for a long time, even before I met him.

Pemiscot County links

Mississippi County

Dad built roads in Mississippi County, and I’m pretty sure we had our trailer parked in Caruthersville or Portageville at some point.

When I was about 10 years old, he took me to where they were getting gravel delivered by railroad hopper cars. He let me crawl under the cars with a hammer to cause the gravel to fall out onto a conveyor belt that loaded it on trucks.

He told me to stay under the rail car while a bulldozer pushed the next one up into position. “Just keep low and keep your arms and legs between the rails.” Can you imagine what OSHA would say about that today?

Mississippi County links.

Missouri – Arkansas State Line

I was curious to see if the arch was still there. We not only saw the arch, but we had a great lunch at the Dixie Pig in Blytheville. I’m pretty sure that the last time I was in Blytheville before that was in the mid-70s, when I wanted to rent a truck to carry a load of Dutchtown lumber to Florida to build a shed in the back yard.

Renting it one-way from Cape was going to cost a mint, but I found out that Arkansas had a surplus of trucks, and they wouldn’t hit me with a surcharge. The only thing was that I had to be careful of the mileage allowed, and renting in Arkansas, loading in Missouri, and driving to Florida meant I had to find the most direct route possible.

I ended up going on some backroads not normally travelled by tourists. When I gassed up at one tiny station, the kid who serviced me asked, “How much do they pay you to drive that-there truck?”

It was obvious that he had never seen a rental truck or understood the concept of one.

Here is an interesting historical nugget about the Arch area: The area around the arch became known as “Little Chicago” because of the type of activity that went on there. A long-time resident of nearby Yarbo, Arkansas, once said of the arch, “It was a good place to go while the wife and kids were in church.”

Curator Jessica meets the Hwy 61 Arch

Dunklin County

Once I established that I wasn’t some kind of pervert taking pictures of kids (apparently that had happened not long before), I got a friendly welcome from the folks at the Malden High School’s football game. The mosquitoes gave me a great welcome, too.

I also shot a reunion of people who had been stationed at the Malden Airport during World War II, but I never got around writing about it.

Malden’s Green Wave – High School Football at its best

Scott County

I never considered Scott City to be the Bootheel, but the southern parts of it, which include the north edge of Sikeston, qualify.

Scott County links

New Madrid County

I spent a lot of time in the New Madrid area trying to track down people I photographed being baptized in the Mississippi River in 1967. Unfortunately, the exodus from the area after mechanical harvesters arrived caused a lot of them to leave.

I’m going to put the Baptism gallery at the end of the post because it contains so many images.

Lights in the night

Cotton fields look like Christmas decorations.

East Side Cemetery

A day in New Madrid with Jennifer Schwent

1965 Sikeston rodeo with Jim Nabors

More 1965 Sikeston rodeo and Jim Nabors

Old men playing checkers in Matthews

Hornersville in Dunklin County

This was one of the few small towns I was able to find much to document. I was amused to find that my parked car’s dashcam captured me wandering around the street like I was a loose ball in a pinball game.

That drove Mr. Kelley crazy. He couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t just get out of the car, snap a picture, then head out to the next destination.

That impatience eventually brought an end to our collaboration. I left him in the car while I went to chat with an old man at a mostly-abandoned cotton gin. He was a little reluctant to be photographed, but just about the time I had won him over, Mr. Kelley started honking the horn to tell me I was wasting too much time.

After that, I became a solo explorer.

Stoddard County

Most of my time in Stoddard County was spent in Advance, but because we had extended family and friends in the area, I grew up sitting on a lot of front porches hearing and overhearing tall tales about the taming of ‘Swampeast’ Missouri.

Stoddard County links

 

City of Advance in Stoddard County

My mother and grandparents came from Advance. Dad’s construction company once had an office in the Prather Building, along with Welch’s Liquor Store. For awhile, we lived in our trailer parked in my grandparents’ driveway.

Because of that, I have lots of random stories and photos of the town, including some of its mysteries that are still unsolved to this day.

Advance links

New Madrid Mississippi River Baptism

This was one of the last things I shot before transferring to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, as a junior in 1967.

Most of the photos I had taken, up until I shot the Smelterville photos and the Baptism, were fairly pedestrian traditional newspaper photos. These two projects were the first time that my “style” started to show up.

I’ve always considered them to be my Missouri “final exam.”

I had hoped to do a Smelterville-type project where I tracked down the people in the photos, but the out-migration brought about by the change in farming methods and markets scattered most of the subjects out of the area.

I WAS able to find Bishop Benjamin Armour, one of the preachers in the river, in 2013.

Stumped at Big Oak Tree State Park

Warriorette Shari’s friend Barb Goza Chambers flew in from California to see her Mother, Betty Goza, in January. They always like to go on a ramble when she hits town.

Betty in Walmart last year

Betty Goza 12-19-2019

I don’t pay much attention to people in stores, so I was surprised when Betty waylaid me in the Jackson Walmart last December. If I had been looking up, I’d have recognized that big smile anywhere.,

They decided they wanted to see the Big Oak Tree State Park, in Mississippi county. I’m pretty sure the soles of my shoes melted the last time I was there because the earth’s crust was still cooling.

I shudder when I think of big trees

Jackson’s Hanging Tree in 2010

The Missourian printed a picture of a big tree and wondered if it had set a state record.

Well, before long, we were flooded with people who claimed THEIR tree was a record-breaker, too. Guess who got to drive all over hell’s half-acre taking tree pictures and picking ticks off his young body. The only solace I could take while scratching chigger bites was that each tree was worth five bucks and mileage.

The only thing worse than trees was when the paper made the mistake of running a photo of a couple guys holding up a big snake in front of the newspaper’s front doors. Not long after that, we were given a “No more snake pictures” edict because the huge reptiles were freaking out passersby and the advertising staff.

Note: this wasn’t one of the the big trees. This is the Hanging Tree behind the Cape County Courthouse. The county cut the tree down on a Sunday in 2016 without giving any notice.

Back to the park to look for big trees

What’s left of former co-champion tree

Barb and I decided to head out on a boardwalk to hunt for the promised big trees. We should have read the display at the head of the walk before we took off.

The sign would have told us that five of the 12 champion trees were like this specimen of the former 17’7″ Quercus macrocarpa that fell in 2009.

The day was a bit chilly for the jacket I grabbed, so we didn’t do the full walk. On the plus side, we didn’t encounter any mosquitoes.

The best part of the trip

Google Map showing the park and Mississippi River

The best part of the trip was the journey back to what passed as civilization (New Madrid). We took some small roads that let us parallel the Mississippi River where we could see the chutes, islands and oxbows it makes.

New Madrid was a welcome sight because all that meandering left my van breathing fumes, something I didn’t share with my passengers.

Truck Stops and CB Radio

Bertrand truck stop 12-03-2015I was headed toward Charleston on I-57 working on my Bootheel project when I spotted this abandoned truck stop at the Bertrand exit. As always, you can click on the photos to make them larger.

I’ve always had a soft spot for truck stops, going back to the old CB radio days when you’d while away hundreds of miles giving and receiving Smokey reports and sharing road stories. Eventually, somebody would say they were going to stop for fuel, food or facilities, and all of us with time to spare would peel off to put faces with handles.

“Hey, Sweet Thang, got your ears on?”

Bertrand truck stop 12-03-2015Long before Facebook came along, you’d develop rolling friendships with the men and women who fought sleep and boredom by reaching for their microphones. In the dark of the night, somewhere in the Carolinas, I’d been chewing the fat with my front door, an 18-wheeler whose name I’ve long since forgotten, when he said, “Watch out for that four-wheeler. He’s weaving all over the road. Don’t know if he’s drunk or sleepy. Whoa! It ain’t a ‘he,’ it’s a couple girls. ‘Hey, sweet thang, you got your ears on?'”

He quickly established that it was a couple of college girls coming back from break and they were, indeed sleepy, and they had their ears on.

“Sweet thang, pull that vehicle over on the shoulder. I’m going to drive for awhile before you kill yourself or somebody else. I’d let my partner do it, but he’s young and horny, and I’m a grandfather.”

Sure enough, the car pulled over, the driver hopped in, and we went back to rolling for another hour or so until we all wheeled into a truck stop for a cup of 100-weight and a slab of pie.

“Beware of rattlesnakes”

Bertrand truck stop 12-03-2015I thought I had told this story before, but I couldn’t find it in the archives. In 1990, we took the Great Family Vacation Out West. We were driving though the part of Texas where the rest areas had warnings, “Beware of Rattlesnakes,” and signs saying, “Next Services – 120 Miles.” We fought the nighttime boredom by talking to Crazy Eights, the 18-wheeler in front of us, and having the Sons Matt and Adam count the deer eyes shining back at us along the sides of the road (they spotted more than 200 – deer, not eyes).

Finally, Wife Lila said, “I’ve had it. Stop at the next place that has lights.”

I spotted the only break in the darkness, a small motel that had seen much better days (assuming it had EVER had better days), said our goodbyes to Crazy Eights, and let my headlights sweep the motel. Wife Lila said, “Don’t even slow down, Keep on going.”

“Them boys ever been in a big truck?”

Bertrand truck stop 12-03-2015About two miles up the road, Crazy Eights was idling on the shoulder. “I knew you’d be coming along shortly. Have them boys ever been in a big truck?”

After we allowed as how there had been a gap in their education, he offered to let him ride with him.

Wife Lila hesitated, but I argued that this might be the high point of their vacation, and that one of two things would happen: (a) when we got to civilization, he’d give ’em back, or (b) he wouldn’t. At that point in the trip, either would work for me.

I miss the old truck stops

Bertrand truck stop 12-03-2015In the old days, the legend was that you could find a good place to eat by seeing how many trucks were parked around it. That wasn’t necessarily true; they might be there because there was plenty of parking for the big rigs; the fuel could be cheaper than up the road, the waitresses could be friendly and pretty, or the food could actually be good, plentiful and cheap.

Nowadays, alas, you are just as likely to see a national chain restaurant like Popeye’s, McDonalds, or the like serving up the same old food you can get anywhere. (I loved the strawberry pie at the 76 truck stop at Wildwood.)

I bet even Mavis at the Old Home Filler Up and Keep On Truckin’ Cafe is riding a rocking chair in an old folks home.

Road Warriorette Reactions

NN north of Bertrand 12-03-2015All of my road warriorettes display different reactions to my driving. Foodie Jan is prone to scream “We’re all going to die!!!!” at the least provocation. She’s also the one most likely to question my food and lodging choices.

Curator Jessica is so young she still thinks she’s immortal, so she takes my driving quietly.

You haven’t heard much about Warriorette Anne lately because she abandoned me for Texas. She kept quiet even when she had good reason to scream. It was on that occasion that Mother, the original Warriorette, said she didn’t scream because she was biting down too hard on a pillow to keep from doing it.

(You can click on the photos to make them larger.)

Now that I think of it

Suspension pipeline from Grand Tower IL 07-17-2011I only knew of one time when Mother expressed any kind of shock.

I was trying to get a good photo of the world’s longest suspension pipeline that links Wittenberg, Mo., with Grand Tower, Ill. I had been there about an hour earlier and got some nice pictures, but after heading north along the river and not finding a good angle, I decided to race the sun back for this shot. I made it with about five minutes to spare. When I went airborne over the top of a levee, Mother yelled, “Whoa!

I knew there was a road on the other side of the levee, but she, evidently, didn’t.

At the time, I wrote, “She never yells, ‘Whoa!’ She yells, ‘Gun it!’ She must be getting old.”

Getting to the point of the picture

NN north of Bertrand 12-03-2015Getting back to the original subject of the tree photo at the top of the page: Warriorette Shari, my old high school girlfriend (briefly, by her choice), and I were hammer down on NN north of where I took the silo picture when I smoked the brakes and did a sliding U-turn. Shari didn’t say a word, even when I pulled off on the side of the road and jumped out.

I had spotted a farm pond that was perfectly smooth and picking up the reflection of trees backlit by the setting sun. It captured the feel of The Bootheel for me: the endless flat ground, the green crops, the trees and buildings way off in the distance.

When I crawled back in the car, I tried to explain my philosophy of “Shoot It When You See It” because I was losing the reflections of the trees in the three or four minutes it took me to get turned around and start making exposures.

This old tree standing sentinel in the field has the same feel as the pond photo, but I like the reflections better in the first shot.

I almost always use a circular polarizing filter on my lens to protect it, reduce reflections and make skies more dramatic. Depending on the angle of the light, sometimes it doesn’t work at all or, like here, it causes part of the sky to be a different shade, which bothers me.

Copyright © Ken Steinhoff. All rights reserved.