Osage CountyPhoto By Seth Garcia
Explore 11 Towns, 4 Rivers, 3 B&Bs, and 3 Restaurants
People tell stories. Stories require names. Names are useful. Useful sits in eastern Osage County, just south of Freedom, which is also useful.
Two Useful antique stores define this town of five or so people, with even more antiques in the Useful Cemetery.
Enamored with this name and other curious monikers within honking distance, I turned my car loose on Osage County. Among towns with 1,354 people, Linn may be America's longest, skinniest.
The town towers on a ridge, parted neatly along its crown by Highway 50. For years I've marveled at the linear layout of the community, although in recent years, development seems to be spilling down the mountainside.
I stopped in town to pick up a copy of the world's best-named newspaper, the Unterrified Democrat. For a lark, I spit-pasted the newspaper's banner to my bumper and drove through this land bordered by two great American rivers, skewered by a third.
Heading east, we turned north onto Route A into Lenk, Germany's, little sister, a town called Loose Creek. I wondered if the creek is still loose, all these years after European settlers hung that wayward name on it. The road traced a series of ridges with spectacular views cascading down deep valleys to port and starboard.
As Route A descends toward the Osage River near its confluence with the muddy Missouri, the road bends sharply right. My car went straight and descended the steep entrance into Bonnots Mill. We crept slowly down to avoid losing a grip on the road and smacking into a church at the bottom of the hill. It's that steep.
Bonnots Mill unfolded before us, a town unspoiled by change. The name of the town suggests there's a gristmill. Well, yes, though the town was named for a sawmill that fashioned wooden ties for a voracious new railroad plowing along the riverbank. That was back in the 1850s.
I stopped for a meal at Johnny Mac's, a delightful wooden bar and grill and museum with a bazillion relics hanging on the walls and rafters. Fish traps. Surfboards. Kayaks. I had lunch sitting next to a full suit of armor, which, thankfully, didn't try to steal any of my fries. The ground shook as a train rumbled past, a dart throw's distance from the restaurant's picture window.
The unavoidable truth about Bonnot's Mill is that if you walk anywhere, it's uphill. Felix Bonnot had that in mind when in 1852 he established the first plat in this protected hollow that opens into the Osage River valley.
The plats are French in nature, which is to say they're long, narrow lots to allow for outbuildings behind the main house.
Uphill from Johnny Mac's, toward St. Louis of France Catholic Church, original outbuildings peek from behind the Dauphine Hotel. Three of the outbuildings are functional outhouses for the adventurous.
The Dauphine, built in 1840 before the sawmill came to town, is a unique bed-and-breakfast, established in 1875, where guests can choose from a handful of rooms, all with indoor plumbing. And so far as I know, one of the only bed-and breakfasts in Missouri that cooks breakfast to order.
Atop the hill, get on your tiptoes to see the confluence of the Osage and Missouri rivers. In the other direction, you can see the Missouri State Capitol ten miles away.
I rejoined Route A and continued along ridges and beautiful vistas to Frankenstein and a lovely stucco church with an equally unique name, Our Lady Help of Christians. I passed the Kremer farm, a small operation that sells direct to Chipotle Mexican Grill.
The farmer and the restaurant chain share a commitment to raising animals in a humane environment. Yes, the hogs still become burrito filling, but while they breathe, they live a lot more like hogs. Down the road, we hit a driving thunderstorm.
I stopped in Chamois, dried my car, and then peeked around the Old School on the Hill bed-and-breakfast. Along the Missouri River is a sign saying “Future home of the Chamois Ferry.”
Around the bend from Morrison, on Route J, the Fredericksburg Ferry is doing a booming business. My car and I rode the ferry's deck across the Gasconade River, a trip that takes every bit of a minute or so. The skipper deftly fielded a boatload of questions. “What happens during a flood? Why doesn't the highway department build a bridge? How many cars do you ferry on a Saturday?” “I have no idea,” he ended my questions.
Even with 231,418 miles on its odometer, my Sunfire sprinted like a thoroughbred up the short, steep incline from the ferry to the River's Edge Restaurant, a treat of an eatery that is the official address for “the middle of nowhere.”
I ate a catfish that could have swam through this very restaurant during the last flood. Completing my loop of northern Osage County, I came back to Highway 50, where I had to make a decision. Should I go east toward Mt. Sterling and the Schaeperkoetter General Store? Schaeperkoetter's is a vestige of the pastthat sells everything from cake mixes to crescent wrenches, according to testimony from my cousins Gabee and Bill, who live on the Gasconade during weekends. The jaunt east would take me to the old dairy farm turned Wenwood Winery and the Dutch Mill at Drake.
But I kept my focus on Osage County and cut through Rich Fountain to the aorta of my travels, Highway 63. I've driven that road so much I can shut my eyes and count the number of dotted yellow lines in every passing lane from here to Thayer.
Among towns with 320 residents, Westphalia is Missouri's longest and skinniest. The town is on a ridge, parted neatly along its crown by a remnant of the very first Highway 63. For years, I bypassed the linear layout of this old community, driving instead along new Highway 63 past ball fields and convenience stores. But if you take the old road, on the northern edge of the Maries River and drive up the steep hill to the ridge, the town unfolds like a 3-D movie.
The buildings reflect the solidness of the German settlers who built them. Near the town's epicenter is the Westphalia Inn, a tribute to family-style dining, featuring fried chicken and country ham. Like generations of Westphalians, I took Route 133 to get to the Osage River.
Just past tiny Folk is one of our state's more obscure natural history museums. It's called Painted Rock Conservation Area, named for a centuries-old painting on a bluff overlooking the Osage River, the area's first highway. A mile-and-a-half trail delivered me to a pair of dramatic bluff-top panoramas of the Osage Valley. The painted rock itself is not accessible. Our ancient predecessors had the foresight to hide them from our highways, lest they look like billboards.
I returned to Highway 63 and crossed the Osage at the confluence of the Maries and Osage rivers, the so called Mari-Osa Delta, watched over by America's most remote bowling alley and an old mansion at the top of the hill called Huber's Ferry B&B.
As I crossed the bridge, I thought about stopping at Soda Popp's worm ranch. Soda is a longtime friend and the best schoolteacher in Missouri, according to both my daughters. Today Soda raises worms, a thriving business in the rich bottomland of the Osage.
As an unterrified democrat who followed an asphalt thread through names like Useful, Loose Creek, Chamois, Frankenstein, Freedom, and Folk, I found the towns to be every bit as entertaining as their names.