Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Chapter 2 – History & Hospitality

Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!

Previous: Chapter 1 – And, They’re Off!

As we left Cahokia, I called Laura from the Pulaski County Tourism Bureau to let her know we’d be a little late. She was at the store picking up a balloon so she could mark the turn we needed to take to find our accommodations for the night. “Just look for SpongeBob,” she said.

I hung up the phone and grinned. Laura had set up a whirlwind itinerary for us. Up until that call I knew two things: it would be 1) busy and 2) organized.

After that call, I knew it would also be fun. Anybody who uses SpongeBob to mark a signpost is OK with me.

Our “pineapple under the sea” was Blue Jay Farm, a secluded retreat in the Ozark foothills. We found the bobbing cartoon character and followed a winding road to a stone arch. The stones were each of arbitrary size and heavy weight, glued together by thick mortar.

The sturdy columns and impressive keystone were an almost imposing sight, until we saw we could skirt right around the behemoth – although it was more fun to drive through the narrow passageway. The No Trespassing sign on the open gate seemed more of a suggestion than a dire warning. It was a shrug that said “come on in – just be nice about it.”

We drove through the arch and crossed a narrow bridge to a seven-acre spring-fed lake rimmed with golden-hued trees. As we slowed to a stop, a confusion of guinea fowl investigated Mae’s back bumper before trailing off to the shoreline.

Without even stepping foot into our cabin we could tell that one night in this bucolic setting would not be enough.

Laura greeted us warmly and introduced us to Doug, our host and one of the owners, and she headed out for the evening. Since 2000 Blue Jay Farm has been run by Doug and his siblings.

His sister Sue and her husband Bob are the primary caretakers, but she was out of town when we were there, so Doug introduced us to the property. He was in town from San Diego – which was, coincidentally, our destination.

We walked through the cabins and then hopped on a cantankerous 4-wheeler called Wilma (as in Flintstone) and Doug entertained us with stories and secrets.

This tour was not on our itinerary. Laura knew we had a marathon ahead of us, so the original plan was to relax for a little bit on the deck, have dinner in nearby Dixon, and settle in early to be rested for the busy day, and month, ahead.

When we got back to the cabin after our spin around the lake with Doug, I had to laugh. One of my steadfast rules for road trips is to be flexible because something will change. Sometimes that’s a bad thing, but other times you take an impromptu tour of a family-owned property with a member of the family, and it’s more than you could have hoped for.

Tour complete, we headed out for some Doug-recommended fried pickles at Homeplate Bar & Grill.

We took the winding road back to SpongeBob and turned left towards Dixon, a tiny one-square-mile town that’s been around since 1869. On that Friday night, Homeplate Bar & Grill was the only place open besides the prom dress sale at the bank and the Amish meeting at the community center.

The brightly lit diner was busy, filled with families after a school soccer game. It was pretty obvious we were the only ones there who wouldn’t know anybody else’s name.

I have to confess: we almost didn’t enter because in the corner by the front window a family was smoking. We didn’t realize that you could smoke in restaurants in Missouri. A headache began to form. We looked at the menu and considered just getting it to go, but what we wanted was fried, which meant it would be guaranteed mush by the time we made it back to the cabin.

We stayed. And it was totally worth any headache, because these were the BEST FRIED PICKLES EVER. They were crispy, with just a bare amount of grease, served with “magical sauce” that was a little bit of sorcery in a plastic Solo cup.

Then there was the obviously-hand-formed bacon cheddar ranch burger served on Texas toast with homemade ranch dressing, and the fresh pork tenderloin breaded by owner Heather herself. Her son delivered the pickles; she delivered the sandwiches. If you wanted a beer, cans were two bucks; draft just two-fifty.

None of this was in the least bit good for us, and we ate every. single. bite.

Would you like to read Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1 without ads? It’s available on Kindle and Paperback. (Paperback books purchased through the link below will be autographed.)

We found our way back to Blue Jay Farm and collapsed into our comfortable bed by 9 p.m.  The retreat dates back to the 1920’s when brothers Frank and Paul Wielandy purchased the 360-acre property. Frank had found it when he was on a scouting mission in his role as Governor Stark’s Game & Fish Commissioner, and he became so enamored with the farm that the brothers bought it in 1923.

The Wielandys were a big deal in St. Louis. In addition to Frank’s conservation work, they were co-owners of the Blackwell-Wielandy Book & Stationery Company, well known for its Blue Jay writing tablet, pens and pencils, and crayons. They often invited guests to experience the peaceful setting and see for themselves the wonder of conservation.

Preserving the history and the natural beauty that drew the Wielandys in the first place is important to the Goodmans. They purchased the retreat from the Wielandys in the 1950s and it’s been in the family ever since. One of the most touching entries in the guestbook was by Stephen Wielandy about his visit to Blue Jay with his father, who had stayed there often when his father, Stephen’s grandfather, owned the place.

Day Two began early. It was still pitch-black outside, and roosters were crowing as I made a pot of coffee and began reading the guest book. Those entries from previous guests at Blue Jay Farm, detailing the peace and comfort of their various experiences in the rustic First Cabin, made my desire to stay even stronger (and I really wanted to play with the goats), but we had a full morning of exploration.

That feeling – that desire to stay longer – was to be a constant refrain for the next month.

Goat at Blue Jay Farm
Goat at Blue Jay Farm

We packed up and said goodbye to the goats and guinea fowl and headed out, swinging over to Route 66 and a turn through Devil’s Elbow. This minute community is named for a sharp bend in the Big Piney that gave loggers fits, not only because of the angle, but also because there was a huge boulder that created a literal logjam. As we crossed the original 1923 truss bridge in the shadow of 200-foot bluffs, we could see why this stretch is considered one of the most beautiful sections of the Ozarks.

We then followed a newer alignment of the Mother Road, noting the 40s era curbed concrete, and made our way to the Route 66 Diner.

Located conveniently off of I-44 in St. Robert, the diner is retro personified, with neon signs, the requisite jukebox and pictures of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe, black and white tile on the floor, red leather banquettes, and chrome and red leather bar stools.

As any good diner should, they’ve also got lick-your-plate-clean chicken fried steak and corned beef hash and fluffy biscuits and beautiful over-medium fried eggs. I took one bite of my steak and said to Jim “what is with the food here?!” and then dug back in and barely refrained from licking the plate, but only because it would be unseemly, and more importantly, Jim would have taken a picture and then everybody would see me with egg on my face.

Why did everything taste so good? Maybe it’s because we were on a road trip, and everything’s better on a road trip. While that may be part of it, I think the food we had was just that tasty, and we had that experience everywhere we went.

I attribute that to the locals. By putting our dining choices in their hands, we were steered to their favorites and rewarded with mouthwatering meals from Missouri to California and back.

Route 66 Diner in Pulaski County Missouri

Our next three hours in Pulaski County were dedicated to its rich history. One of the aspects I love about travel is standing where the events that shaped our present occurred. Understanding the past helps us learn and grow, whether it’s from mistakes or successes. By hearing tales of those who came before, we can see the path to today, and a destination comes to life.

We met Laura at Laughlin Park on the banks of Roubidoux (pronounced Roo-bee-doo) Creek in Waynesville. A renowned spot for trout fishing, the park is also known for cave scuba diving.

The crystal-clear Roubidoux Spring flows out from under the bluffs at a rate of 37 million gallons per day, and the cave itself has been explored as deep as two miles. The cave goes deeper, but more exploration is limited by technology.

Laughlin Park is more than a spot for recreation. It’s also a place of remembrance. In the late 1830s, Cherokee camped on the banks of Roubidoux Springs during their removal to Oklahoma. It’s estimated that 1,000 people struggled through the winter at this wayside stop on the Trail of Tears.

The tale of the Cherokee suffering and survival is told in a series of Wayside Exhibits, unveiled in 2015. The stories are enhanced by paintings depicting the experience. As we stood there on a chilled and cloudy day, we imagined the encampment across the creek, wisps of smoke rising from cooking fires.

Trail of Tears Wayside Exhibit at the Roubidoux River
Trail of Tears Wayside Exhibit

We followed the trail underneath a five-arch concrete spandrel bridge. Like the crossing in Devil’s Elbow, it was built in 1923. Originally a replacement of a removable bridge that connected Highway 14, three years later the road was designated as Route 66.

When you walk under the bridge, if the water is low enough, you can see some of the wood pilings they used during construction. Imagine that – seeing the temporary tools of construction from nearly a century before. The bridge was expanded in 1939, but as it ages there’s concern that it may not be around much longer.

As interested as Pulaski County is in preserving its history, though, I’d be surprised if they let the bridge be replaced without a fight.

5-arch concrete spandrel bridge
5-arch concrete spandrel bridge

Our next two stops were perfect examples of the importance this county places on preserving its past.

Our first visit was to the 1903 Courthouse Museum. It was undergoing renovation and repair after it suffered from rain damage, but Denise Seevers of the Pulaski County Historical Society and Museum graciously opened its doors.

As we ascended the original staircase with its spindle balustrade, we could feel the gravity of what was decided within the second-floor courtroom. I could almost picture the jury sitting in the straight-backed wooden chairs under the heavy oak rafters.

Outside the courtroom, the museum featured exhibits that depict everyday life from the 1800s, a Trail of Tears room, an old schoolroom, and a military room, plus many more. It’s a vast collection that illustrates what makes Waynesville and Pulaski County unique, including the bullet-shattered glass from the bank that had been across the street.

Books at the 1903 Courthouse Museum in Pulaski County
Books at the 1903 Courthouse Museum in Pulaski County

Around the corner from the Courthouse Museum, the Old Stagecoach Stop is the oldest building in Pulaski County, but it almost didn’t make it. Jan and Jeanie, dressed in period costume, welcomed us and told many of the stories that had accumulated since it was first built in the 1850s. Over the years it was variously a stagecoach stop (although it was never called that), a post office, a Civil War hospital for the Union Army, a hotel, a home, and a boarding house.

By the mid-1960s, however, it was such a wreck that it stood empty, a target for vandals and Mother Nature. The city condemned the building in 1982, but two local couples bought the place and formed the Old Stagecoach Stop Foundation. Now it offers doorways to the past, as they like to say: every doorway opens to a different era.

We had hoped to explore downtown Waynesville on foot and possibly do some shopping in the unique boutiques, but we had to resume our journey. We fueled up at Roadhouse Bar & Grill with some juicy and crispy hot wings and a meat-filled pizza, and they sent us on our way with a pork tenderloin for the road.

(I promise we did eat some healthy food on this trip…)

There’s so much more to this area that we didn’t get to experience: Fort Leonard Wood and its Mahaffey Museum Complex, canoeing on the Gasconade and Big Piney Rivers, driving the full 33 miles of Route 66, exploring the Frisco Museum, and dining at their many ethnic restaurants.

But the road, she was a-calling.

Would you like to read Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1 without ads? It’s available on Kindle and Paperback. (Paperback books purchased through the link below will be autographed.)

This excerpt was previously published with modifications at History and Hospitality in Pulaski County Missouri.