ARROW ROCK, Mo.—Driving into Arrow Rock is like entering an intriguing time warp. Elegant Greek revival and Georgian homes, vestiges of the days when the state was part of the Old South, are set on wide, tree-shaded lawns along the few streets in this mid-Missouri town. Humble log buildings, put up well over a century ago by pioneers, dwell peacefully among the grander structures. The Old Tavern, which played host to hundreds of travelers headed west along the Santa Fe, Oregon and California Trails, as well as the nearby antique courthouse, gun shop, blacksmith shop and schoolhouse all have been restored to their early 19th Century appearance.
There are no stoplights in town, no service stations, no fast-food restaurants and most definitely no shopping malls, we were told on a recent visit by Mary Ann Turley, whose husband, Harold, "was a Bingham -- frontier artist George Caleb Bingham, his ancestor, lived in Arrow Rock," she said. Turley is one of the 70 year-round residents of this antique town. She, like others in the quaint community, don 19th Century clothes and introduce visitors to their town as it appeared years ago, when it was a center of political power and high society. The people who lived here "were certainly not hillbillies," she says.
Turley, who leads tours, many of them school groups, plays the role of Aunt Nanny -- Nanny Toole, an "outgoing woman beloved by children" -- who came here in 1831 after her marriage to John P. Sites. On a recent occasion Turley, standing in the doorway of the Sites home, coffee cup in hand, awaited a group of 3rd graders from a nearby town. Next door, she pointed out, is Sites Gun Shop, also restored, that was built in 1850 and served the community into the 20th Century.
Three Missouri governors came from Arrow Rock -- Meredith Marmaduke and his son John Sappington Marmaduke and Claiborne Fox Jackson, governor of the state when Missouri tried to secede from the Union just before the Civil War. Dr. John Sappington also lived here -- he came up with a way to mass market quinine pills for treating malaria, a scourge of the frontier.
Arrow Rock was propelled into prominence when it became the head of the Santa Fe Trail. In 1821, St. Louis trader William Becknell, moving a step ahead of the law, had established what would become an enormously lucrative trade with Mexico. Within short order a rawboned frontier town, home to 1,000 wagon train outfitters, blacksmiths, innkeepers and newspapermen, sprang up on the south bank of the Missouri River.
Today it's hard to imagine the town "bustling." The streets are so quiet, in fact, that a pair of local dogs, Sundance and Blackie (who seemed to arrive just ahead of us at every stop we made, yet serenely ignored the frenzied barking of our three dogs from the motor home only feet away) relaxed without fear where elsewhere they would have been quickly run over.
Visitors to town today can watch frontier-attired townspeople demonstrate rug and lace making, candle dipping, weaving, quilting, blacksmithing and other life skills from the days when Arrow Rock was young.
Long before the town came into being, early 18th Century French explorers traveling up the Missouri were the first white men to see the "arrow rock." They saw local Indians gathering flint from the high limestone river bluffs for spear tips, knives and bird points (often called arrowheads), and named the site Pierre a Fleche -- in English, Arrow Rock.
In 1804, after the land had become part of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase, and Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery came past on their famous expedition, Clark noted in his journal that the "arrow rock" bluffs would make a "handsome spot for a town."
In 1811 a ferry was set up across the Missouri -- charging 12 cents for a passenger, double that if he was riding a horse -- and traders could more easily continue traveling west. The following year, a trading post was opened to serve local Indians. But once traders traveling the Santa Fe Trail began departing from here (the trail originally began across the river at Franklin, now long since washed away by the Big Muddy) and steamboats reached the town, Arrow Rock began to flourish.
The town was platted in 1829 as New Philadelphia, but the name stuck for only four years. Then residents legally changed the name back to the descriptive one it had been given more than a century earlier.
Arrow Rock served for one year as county seat of Saline County, so named for the saline springs where the sons of Daniel Boone and others established salt works (and thus the area was dubbed "Boone's Lick Country"). In 1839 the county seat was moved to Marshall, a dozen miles west.
Forty years after Arrow Rock's founding, the town's power and prestige came to an end. The Civil War freed the labor force -- slaves who had toiled in the fields tending tobacco and hemp crops -- and the town's Southern sympathies resulted in its being bypassed after the war by the railroad and all major highways. No bridges were built here. Arrow Rock was a town suspended in its antebellum state. Twice it was devastated by fire, and by the turn of the century, it had been reduced to a backwater village of decaying buildings.
But the town had residents with vision who understood the importance of preserving their history. Restoration began in 1913, when the Daughters of the American Revolution took an interest in The Old Tavern, now the centerpiece of town but at the time so dilapidated it was slated to be torn down. In 1923, the state bought the old building, and two years later, after extensive renovation, it looked like it had in 1834 and was again serving family-style meals as it did to travelers on the Santa Fe Trail.
Townspeople hoped to continue restoration by buying other original buildings, but money wasn't available at the time, says Turley, whose husband's family had donated land for the town a century earlier. The Depression and then World War II put a halt to restoration, but "by the late 1950s we knew something major had to be done. If our town disappeared, our history would go with it."
She and others formed Friends of Arrow Rock, a group with now more than 1,000 members from all over the country. They held an auction in 1960 and, with the $1,960 in proceeds, bought the Old Courthouse. The tiny building, logs covered with walnut clapboard, was restored to its prime and now is open to visitors.
For 17 years auctions were held to raise money for restoration, and a succession of buildings bear the results, among these the IOOF Lodge Hall, built in 1868 and rented to the Saline County Herald, the town's first newspaper. Now the building houses the Pioneer Press Museum, where Cordell Tindall, a reporter and editor for the Missouri Ruralist for 40 years, demonstrates early presses to visitors.
One of Friends of Arrow Rock's best efforts was the creation of the Lyceum. In 1961, two local couples bought the then-vacant Baptist Church and decided it was the perfect place to start a repertory company. The Lyceum, now one of the town's main attractions, has earned a national reputation for quality productions and auditions nationally. Attendance now averages 35,000 a year.
To mark its 40th year, the Lyceum has scheduled its longest season to date, running from June 2 through Oct. 22. Patrons were asked to vote for the shows they've enjoyed most over the years, and the favorites are being performed this season. Among them: "Fiddler on the Roof," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," "Cabaret," "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Performances take place Wednesday through Saturday evenings, with matinees Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. (For information and reservations, call the box office at 660-837-3311.)