On a bitterly cold afternoon early this winter, Patrick Overton was standing outside the historic Federated Church of Arrow Rock, Missouri, greeting people for the town’s annual folk sing-along. As visitors made their way through the afternoon cold to the warm glow of the church, Overton welcomed old friends, introduced himself to new ones, and joked that it was safe for all to enter because he would not be singing.
Overton is a pastor who describes himself as a community cultural developer, and serves as a Missouri Parks Association poet in residence.
“A lot of people think of it as a crossroads,” he said of Arrow Rock. “I have always thought of it as a convergence point. There are people who come here and they stay. And those are the ones that really shape the community.”
Arrow Rock, Missouri, population 56, is a located on the Missouri River. The whole town is a national historic landmark. It was the home of famous Missouri painter George Caleb Bingham, and an important stop at the beginning of the Santa Fe Trail. The Osage Indians inhabited the land going back thousands of years.
Its structures and stories encompass the history of early pioneer trade and discovery as well as more tragic aspects of western expansion, such as displacement, enslavement and Civil War.
“If you come to Arrow Rock you’re certainly not hiding. You are in the midst of a very vibrant cultural community,” said Overton, who was raised on the West Coast but says after seminary in Indiana he chose rural Missouri as a place to pastor and work.
Overton, like other residents and organizers here, say the town is working from its heritage to build that vibrant community for a contemporary world. But, he says, maintaining the balance between heritage and contemporary culture can be tough, especially in a town that looks like a museum.
“The best communities are the ones that find a really nice mix of buildings, of events, of personalities," he said. "This place still draws people to it.”
As if on cue, a steady flow of chatty, mostly older congregants streamed into the church until the small auditorium was packed for the sing-along. Leading the festivities were folk singers Cathy Barton and Dave Para, who accompanied the crowd on traditional instruments such as dulcimers, guitars, and a banjo.
Barton said Arrow Rock is the perfect place for the sing-along she and Para have been performing for 40 years. For them, she said, Arrow Rock isn’t just about experiencing cultural heritage, but passing it along.
“It’s a perfect setting for the kind of music we do,” Barton said. “I mean, folk music is the music of the common people. It’s music where a lot of people have had their hands on it for a lot of years. And what better place than in a town that is preserving old structures and has this very legendary history?”
And for Arrow Rock, passing along its heritage is serious business.
The annual fundraiser for the Friends of Arrow Rock will raise almost $5,000. Maintaining the town's thirteen historic buildings is expensive, said the group's executive director, Sandy Selby.
“We’re taking care of things constantly,” she said.
Visitors flock to Arrow Rock year-round for the spring heritage festival, the autumn night walks, and to see performances at a historic Baptist church that houses the well-known Lyceum Theatre.
But the town’s culture isn’t all quaint.
The visitor’s center museum displays the heritage of the Osage Indians, and a black history museum highlights the experiences of African Americans and enslaved people – which made up a third of the county’s population at the start of the Civil War.
The Federated Church hosts a monthly symposium Overton calls the First Sundays Community Conversation, which is tackling subjects like the history of racism in Missouri.
And Selby described an education component that introduces school kids to the history of voting rights in 19th century Missouri. She says children pull slips of paper that give them a new identity as a 50-year-old black man or a white property owner.
“And unless you’re a property owner and you’re a white male, you can’t vote,” Selby said of the exercise. “So that was a way of helping them understand.”
Selby says when it comes to Arrow Rock’s history and community, it’s important to tell the full story.
“It’s not always terrible stories; it’s not always happy stories,” she said. “These are people who lived and died in Arrow Rock and some of them had meaningful lives, some of them had a lot of hardship. And so we want to tell those stories, and unvarnished truth of them, whatever that truth is.”
Overton says it’s that confluence that deepens Arrow Rock’s culture, starting with the Osage Indians who considered the land sacred.
“We have, over the history of this community, had people who have come and been attracted to the people, attracted to the history, and stayed,” he said. “And in the process of doing that, in layering that legacy on top of each other, we go very deep in terms of who we are as a community.”
Overton also talks about a factor he calls “rural genius”: the influence of a country town and its people on America’s history. He says that influence often goes unrecognized.
“We’ve always been here,” said Overton. “And we’ve always been an essential part of the cultural underpinning of the United States. They just never bothered to see or hear us, and we’ve been here all along.”
Janet Saidi is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @theradiogirl.
This story is part of Artland, a public-radio collaboration reporting on creative efforts that build community in unexpected places throughout the Midwest.