public domainPhoto credit: Lonnie Whitaker

Home Again

Author Thomas Wolfe claimed you can’t go home again, and singer-songwriter Steve Earle crooning “Hometown Blues” wishes he had never returned home, because none of his old friends hung around there anymore. Well, that wasn’t my experience retuning to Willow Springs on Memorial Weekend for the alumni reunion and a book-signing event for my second novel.  
Our town has changed since the 1960s, when Willow was still larger than Licking and Mountain View, and had more than a half-dozen grocery stores, three clothing stores, two drugstores with pharmacists, three hardware stores, four automobile dealerships (Ford, Pontiac, Chrysler, and Chevrolet), three medical doctors, one dentist, a chiropractor, three taverns, a theater that showed movies, and no lawyers.
But each time I cruise into town, in my mind’s eye, I can still see the buildings as they used to be and fondly remember people who populated them, such as butchers Phil Kilpatric (Wilbanks and later G&W) and Claude Bolerjack (Masoner’s and later the Farmers’ Exchange); Pharmacists Frank Protiva (Peoples Drugs) and Tommy Ferguson (Ferguson Drugs); and when Ferguson Drugs comes to mind, I always remember Sadie Ruth Ferguson, and the made-from-scratch limeade she conjured up from simple syrup and fresh limes. 
My weekend trip included a jaunt to Montier on Friday to visit the cemetery and decorate family graves. Montier, named after a Frisco Railway official, was originally located a mile south of present U.S. Highway 60 in Shannon County, halfway between Mountain View and Birch Tree. Historically, it was a whistle-stop on the Current River Branch of Frisco Railroad. 
With growth of the automobile, the town moved north of the cemetery to what is now old Highway 60. This was the Montier of the 1950s that I remember. It had a post office, a two-room school, two general stores (one owned by the parents of Willow residents Jo Anne Taylor and Janie Webb), and two churches, a Methodist and a Church of God of Prophesy. Other than a small scattering of houses, only the Longnecker store building and the two churches remain, and the Methodist Church has been converted to a residence. 
I have visited the Montier Cemetery numerous times and contributed to the caretaking fund managed by two generations of the Chowning family, but I never took flowers. This time it seemed appropriate, and I was moved beyond my expectations.
My maternal grandparents, Riley and Beulah Casey, are buried next to my great grandparents, Bill and Dema Casey. My great grandparents died before I was born, but stories I heard about them flashed in my mind as I placed the flowers on their sites. 
According to family lore, Great Grandpa Bill, a former sheriff in Shannon County, arrested an outlaw from a notorious criminal gang in the 1930s, but the newspaper credit went to another law enforcement officer. Seeing the name Dema engraved in the headstone, I recalled discovering in the genealogy section of a library in Dallas, Texas, that she was actually named Susan Lodema. With that information, I deduced how my mother’s sister Lodema got her name. 
A weathered, flat gravestone lies next to Bill and Dema that bears the name Lillian I. Casey, my grandfather’s youngest sister, and his favorite. Born in 1904, she died in her early 20s. I’ve only seen one photo of her, as a teenager, and it depicted a pretty girl full of life and playful. 
My grandparents claimed she married a ne’er-do-well who took her to Oklahoma where she mysteriously died. An insurance policy may have been a motive. The husband, whose name is lost to history, arranged to return Lillian by train to Montier for burial. My grandfather waited at the Montier depot, with revenge on his mind. Her coffin arrived, but the husband had gotten off at an earlier stop and hightailed it out of the area. 
The tragedy could have been compounded if the two men had met. My grandfather, a strapping blacksmith who worked on the Frisco section gang, might have been my great grandfather’s next arrest. A sadness came over me as I reflected on the story, and I placed a single lily on Lillian’s grave.
My maternal great, great grandfather, Riley H. McClellan, a Civil War veteran, is also buried there. As a child, I heard stories about some relative who had escaped from the Confederate prison at Andersonville, Georgia, but I never knew who it was. Several years ago, I read in “The History of Shannon County,” published in 1986, that Riley H. McClellan had been imprisoned in Andersonville. I also learned he had three wives (at separate times) and thirteen children. It is a good thing that he escaped, or I wouldn’t be writing this. I left a flower for him, too.
The escape story, as it was told to me, was he and another man charged past the “deadline,” and Confederate guards started shooting. As they were running, Grandpa McClellan tripped and fell just before a bullet flew over his head. The guard yelled, “I got one of them.” Grandpa jumped to his feet and yelled back at the guard, “You’re a [expletive] liar.” 
The cemetery is well-maintained and looks much the same as ever. However, nothing else in Montier looks the same. Not from 60 years ago, and certainly, not from 100 years ago when Montier was a thriving whistle-stop on the Frisco line.
Late in the afternoon, I made it back to Willow and ventured out to my brother and sister-in-law’s house. After their three German shepherds decided I wasn’t a bandit, Sandy treated Jack and me to a delicious dinner of red beans and rice and strawberry shortcake. 
Saturday kicked off, thanks to John Bailey, with the book signing at Bailey’s Chevrolet. Without a doubt, it was my most fun book event ever, beginning with the early arrival and clarion call of Wendell Bailey, “I’m here to buy books.” Jane Bailey arrived shortly thereafter and generously bought books to donate to the Willow Springs Library and the elementary school. 
I felt genuinely honored by the folks who showed up. In particular, Amanda Mendez, the owner and publisher of the Howell County News, took time off from her maternity leave to drop by with new baby Joseph. And Debra Duddridge, whom I met via telephone a couple years ago when I was arranging a catering event, sent her husband James to Willow to get a book.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention classmates who came: Donna Spence Romans, Carol Hale Aldridge, Joe Corn (with wife Janie), and Buddy Stuart (with brothers, Charles and Mike). Friends from other classes included, Joan Hagener Ott, Alice Brook West, Beverly Hill Gray, Steve Losh, Billie Frye Thurman, and John Foster. After the crowd dwindled, I had an enjoyable time talking “shop” with writer Jill Bailey.
The alumni barbeque Saturday night marked an excellent recovery from the pandemic, and provided a marvelous opportunity to talk with more friends and meet a few new ones. Kudos to Tom and Phyllis White and volunteers for their hard work.
For me the weekend closed in the lobby of the Comfort Inn Saturday night with Barbara Sherrill Pig, Dee Collins Corn, Roberta Haase Donnell, and Charlie Hord laughing like teenagers, as we remembered the way we were.

Howell County News

110 W. Main St.,
Willow Springs, MO 65793

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