It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood


It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

– Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

Past Prologue

I don’t usually reblog things, but on this occasion, I thought it appropriate.

In the next few days, the Durst Family farm will be officially recognized as one of Missouri’s Century Farms, i.e. farms that have been in a particular family for 100+ years. The Dursts purchased their original acreage in 1909, and have been in possession of the farm for 104 years.

Here is the farm as I remember it from my childhood. Today only two of these structures remain: the white barn to the left and the farmhouse in the center foreground.


I Do My First Book Signing (And People Actually Show Up…)

I thought I’d share a few photos from the book signing events in Butler following the release of my book, Around Butler. We started with an hour at Southside Cafe, did an hour from 11:30 to 12:30 at the county courthouse on the Butler square, and finished up from 5:00 to 6:00 at the Inn Cafe/Majestic Cellars in the old Pennell Hotel building.


Lucille Lindsay, a long-time family friend, provided some of my best images, and was kind enough to share her memories of her father, Earl Erickson, and his adventures on one of Bates County’s century farms and in the service during WWII.

The photos themselves are courtesy of my mom, Pam Woods, who came with me to Missouri for the signing (which I thought was appropriate, since it is through her family that I’m connected to the area). She came with a digital camera and strict instructions from my dad, apparently, to take a picture every time anyone came within ten feet of me. To those family members and friends who may, at some future date, be subjected to the slide show: my sincerest apologies…


Sheila was in school with my mother back in the day, or so everyone says. Mom’s been trying to place her ever since.

My great-great-grandfather, Balthasar (pronounced Bal-THAY-zer) Durst came over from Alsace in 1854, and arrived in Bates County sometime in the late 1850s. This is quite significant because, due to the eviction of the county’s citizens during the Civil War and the systematic destruction by fire of what they left behind, there aren’t many families accounted for today in  Bates County who were there before the war. In an ironic twist, I did not discover this connection until after the book went to print, having missed it completely during eight months of exhaustive research. As they say, if it had been a snake…


My left side salutes you…

Honorable mention to the one important person who didn’t end up in a photograph: my college roommate Cal Ingram. He was kind enough to drive all the way up from Springfield to attend the signing at the courthouse. How, my friend, you escaped my mother’s trigger-happy eye, I will never know. Ninja skills, I suppose. Or perhaps it was the curse of the Rasta-demon, plaguing you still…


With co-author Brian Phillips at the Inn Cafe. He tried valiantly not to end up in any of Mom’s shots. And failed.


This lovely woman’s claim to fame is a distant relation to Il Duce himself, Mr. Benito Mussolini. I suppose it’s true what they say: you can’t choose your family…


As the day progresses, my signature begins more and more to resemble the results of a minor brain seizure. To all those seeking to forge my John Hancock: grab a pen and stick your finger into an electric socket…

Believe me, I do not indulge in false modesty when I say how genuinely surprised I was that anyone actually came to these events (and that those who did showed no signs of concealing torches or pitchforks about their persons). Let me leave you with this thought: We all have dreams, and in many cases we assume that’s all they will ever be. But I have sat on the other side of that rainbow, and it is real. And if I can do it, so can you.

Good night, and good luck…

Around Butler (Release Date: March 4, 2013)

To all those who followed my adventures in local history over the last year or so, thank you so much. The journey is over, and the finish line is fast approaching. My new book, Around Butler, will be available to purchase on March 4, 2013.


By Vance Woods and Brian Phillips. Images Of America. Arcadia Publishing. $21.99.

Meet the Electric City! From cattle to coal mines, border ruffians to businessmen, and rockets to railroad schemes, the air around Butler, Missouri, has crackled with energy since the settlement’s establishment in 1856. Ravaged by Bushwhackers and Jayhawkers and consumed in 1863 by the flames of General Order No. 11, the settlement rose from the ashes in the late 1860s and 1870s to become a hub of culture and commerce at the western edge of the “Show Me State.” In 1881, the capital of Bates County went electric, becoming one of the first municipalities west of the Mississippi to generate its own power, outstripping Thomas Edison’s Pearl Street Station in Manhattan by almost a year. A quiet little community with a loud and vibrant history, Butler is the quintessential example of the American small-town experience.

If you find it difficult to leave the back road behind; if you love nothing more than an excellent piece of homemade pie to go with your homespun tales; if you believe, deep inside, that there’s a wide-eyed, small-town kid inside us all–take a trip through the story of Butler with me. Then, if you are touched as much as I have been, perhaps even take a trip through the streets of Butler, and meet the people who call it home. Go to South Side Cafe and ask Randy about his pint-sized ghosts; check out the Suzie-Qs (curly fries, for those who don’t know) at The Flaming Lantern; take a walk around the brick-cobbled square; and stop by Sam’s for one of the best burgers in the world today. Finally, pop your head in at the Bates County Museum and ask Peggy about a man named Eddie and his amazing collection of Butler stuff. You will not regret it.

Time Keeps Tickin’ Away

A very brief note on 12/12/12:

This is the last time in my lifetime that I will get a triple-date day, and for whatever reason it makes me feel my mortality on a heightened level. I also, oddly, feel privileged (for once) to be a cataloger of books, since this means that, during the course of the day I will get to write that date approximately 100 times. I don’t know why, but that just feels like a treat to me…

Anyway, on a date that presents all but the youngest of us with something of a milestone, a point beyond which we must go, but from which we cannot return, I have but one piece of sage(?) advice: LIVE THE HELL OUT OF IT!


Eddie Herrman, 1935-2012

Some of you may be aware of the book project I spent the last year traveling back and forth across the Midwest to complete. Today, though, I’d like to take you behind the scenes and introduce you to one of the people without whose earlier work I would not have been able to finish my own. Sadly, he is no longer with us, but his influence is evident (I hope) in almost every page of my work, and I thank him for it.

Here is a write-up from the Bates County news blog:

Community mourns loss of local historian

Local historian Eddie Herrman, formerly of Butler, passed away Saturday morning October 20th in Springfield, Mo.
Funeral services will be Tuesday at 2pm at the Schowengerdt Funeral Chapel in Butler with inurnment at the Oak Hill Cemetery with Military Honors. Visitation will be from 1 – 2 pm Tuesday immediately prior to services at the Chapel. Our community and the entire Bates County area has lost a true friend. Eddie Herrman, who spent his life here among us until he and Shirley moved to Springfield, to be near their son, has passed on to his reward.

Eddie worked at the Butler radio station KMAM/KMOE-FM for a period of time in the early years of his career. He later moved into insurance and spent the rest of his time in that business field. But he’ll be best remembered among us for his excellent work…a labor of love…giving us historical news about our part of Missouri and Kansas. His weekly article in the News Express was a feature that drew many readers every week. Eddie loved this area, and we were fortunate to be able to see past and present the work he put into living here.

The whole reason I originally embarked upon this journey was to gain a greater and more nuanced understanding and appreciation of my family’s ancestral home, the roots from which I eventually sprang. In the process, I have been able to peel away the cobwebs of time and faded memory and discover a heritage of surprising vitality and interest. In large part, that discovery was facilitated by the materials and stories collected by Eddie over several decades of activity, and which have recently been donated to the Bates County Museum. From 1985 to January 2012, bits and pieces from these materials appeared weekly in the Butler News X-Press as part of Eddie’s “Historical Happenings” series (a sort of “on this day in history” affair). Most anyone in Butler would tell you there is no greater authority on the town’s past than he. One person remarked, as we were debating the accuracy of a certain historical fact, that “if Eddie said it, then it’s right.”

I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but I feel that as I sat and sorted through his pride and joy–photos, newspaper articles, flyers, and more–I made contact somehow with a kindred spirit, another of those who believe at their core that small things are often worth preserving, and more often thoughtlessly discarded by those who don’t really understand their meaning. Eddie loved his town and his neighbors, their story was his story, and he spent his life in the telling.

So, if you are ever passing through Bates County, have a few moments to spare, and wonder what the place is all about and what kind of people live there, take the main Butler exit and follow the signs to the Bates County Museum. Once inside, make a simple request: “Tell me about Eddie Herrman.” And all will be made clear.

Thanks, Eddie. Rest in peace.

Research Trip, Day 2

I tend to be something of a pessimist when it comes to complicated plans and seat-pant-pilot endeavors (even though the latter describes well most of what I do). Take, for example, my four-day trip to Greeley, Colorado, to interview a Presbyterian priest for my Master’s thesis–you know, the trip where I took my little mini-recorder and forgot to press record. A whole day’s worth of conversation down the tubes, since of course, having relied upon the gadget, I failed to write anything down. Lesson learned; still a snafu. So, when I got up on Thursday morning (day two of my trip), I had no idea what to expect (or do) and every conviction that it would all go horribly, terribly wrong. Would I once again–metaphorically–forget to press record?

Imagine my surprise when, at the end of the day, I looked back on a series of (mostly) successful efforts to forward my project. Outside of a somewhat irritating encounter with a grouchy old man at the Chamber of Commerce, all went well and productively.

My first order of business took me to the Butler Chamber of Commerce (and, no, not to the old grouchy guy…yet). The first time I was there, I went in search of the aerial photograph of the “Butler–Shine On” event I mentioned in an earlier post. I’m hoping for this to be the centerpiece of the book. It was, after all, the image that set me on this path to begin with: the perfect shot of community in action. If we could arrive at a place where more people could come together for more efforts such as this (however ridiculous outsiders might believe them to be), we’d be heading somewhere useful–instead of rolling down the highway like an isolated snowball headed for a virtual hell…

Having achieved my first goal (and in nice, large format), I decided to re-familiarize myself with the Bates County courthouse (finally complete after what seems two or three decades of renovation) and Butler’s square. Here are the results:

From the east.

The old BC National clock.

From the northeast.

From the north.

Honoring the first engagement of African-American Union troops of the Civil War, at Island Mound, Oct. 29, 1862.

Where City Hall used to be (no, not in the water tower--in the little building beside it...)

From the northwest.

West side of the square.

Southside Cafe

From the south.

Gazebo view.

Random presidents. Not really sure about that one...

Next came lunch with Brian Phillips, executive director of the group that runs the Poplar Heights Living History Farm and the Family History Center, who has graciously consented to act as co-author (not being strictly a local, the Arcadia policies require that I find a co-author who is). Lunch at the Flaming Lantern ( It’s been a while since I ate there, and it has really never been one of my favorite places, but I have to say that it wasn’t at all bad. They’ve added a sports bar to the place since Tammy and I left town (which for Butler is tantamount to the repeal of Prohibition). One thing that must be said for them: Get the Suzy-Qs. The rest of you might know these as curly fries. By any name, they are quite simply spectacular. Seriously, if you’re ever headed up or down Highway 71 (or I-49, as they’re getting ready to call it), give ’em a try. East side of the highway, north side of the road (across from the abomination that is the new Wal-Mart).

After lunch came the second visit to the Chamber to drop off a copy of the Arcadia proposal. Enter grouchy old man. Exit Vance, quickly. ‘Nuff said.

Then it was off to the Bates County Museum, but on the way a quick stop at the Stop Light Market (two words, not one). Another place to stop if you’re ever in Butler, especially if you like odd handmade foodstuffs. The market is run by a Mennonite family from the Rich Hill area, and carries everything from cornmeal to gum drops. I picked up a small bag of honey-roasted soybeans (not a fan favorite) and another small bag of okra chips (which are absolutely fantastic). Bigger bag next time…

The Bates County Museum, from which I hope to obtain some of my older images, used to be located on the southeast fringe of the square. Now, it it housed in what was once the Poor Home (what Dickens might refer to as the “work’us,” and Butlerites lovingly refer to as the “nut house”), on the outskirts of town to the west. ( It is a lovely two-story, red brick structure dedicated to the history of Bates County from its beginnings in 1841, through the Civil War and Order No. 11, up to the present. During my visit, I became a card-carrying (sans card) member of the Bates County Historical Society, and met the sitting president of the Cass County Civil War Round Table. Goes to show, you never know what’ll happen in the course of a day.

Next stop: Oak Hill Cemetery, home of the world’s smallest tombstone (according to the Ripley’s folks). It belongs to Linnie Crouch, presumed infant, called by some a boy, by others a girl. No one knows. Some Internet death certificate research over my father-in-law’s shoulder (man KNOWS his stuff) indicates that Linnie’s parents MAY have been Daniel Crouch and Belle Miller, but beyond that (which is far from certain), and a story which credits his father with the carving of the headstone, all that remains is a small, stone Bible with little Linnie’s name on it. A mystery, dated April 25, 1898…

Smallest tombstone in the world.

To cap off a long day of hand-shaking and amateur photography, two final stops. First, a nice panoramic view of Passaic, a town numbering 40 in 2009 (and according to some counts, 2 in 2011), between Butler and the family farm. Here’re the pictures. Pretty much what you see is what you get: an intersection…

After braving the overpass...

And this one, just because I thought it was cool.

And, finally, a quick jaunt out to the Island Mound battlefield, some 11 miles southwest of town. There’s a grand opening coming this October, to mark the 150th anniversary of the engagement, and one assumes more will be added to the aspiring state park, but for the moment it is pretty much a pasture with a sign stuck in it:

Island Mound on a gray day...

 On October 29, 1862, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers took on a larger Confederate force in the first Union action of the Civil War carried out by a unit composed solely of African American soldiers. Multiple perspectives confuse the issue a bit (with some Confederate reports suggesting the total annihilation of the Kansas Volunteers), but the consensus of late is that the day went ultimately to the smaller, Union regiment. I’m still in the middle of learning about this battle myself, so I won’t throw out too much (possibly misleading) detail just yet, but if you’re interested, here’s a web site for you:


Here endeth my first day of research and relationship-building. At the moment, things are stalled as I await news of the project’s reception by the national offices of Arcadia Publishing. I’m told that news may arrive by the end of the week, and I’m about as nervous as it is possible to be. I realize that for some this experience of mine may not seem too terribly important, but to me it is the next step toward achieving a goal I set for myself in junior high (if not earlier). It is destiny, and it is calling. For those of you with children, think about those nine months leading up to the birth, and you’ll know roughly how I feel right now. Not to put too fine a point on things, the future seems pregnant with possibilities that quite recently seemed beyond the realm. So, cross your fingers with me if you care to, and we’ll see what happens…

Will It Float?

When last we left our intrepid wanderer, he had managed to corner himself in a ridiculously tight deadline. Would he escape? Would he ever be seen again? More importantly, why did he pick today to send Robin for coffee and donuts? Stupid Batman…

Well, the deadline has come and gone, and all (so far) is well. Full proposal submitted, hopefully a confirmation from the Bates County Museum soon to follow. And then, sit back and wait for the shoe to drop. In the meantime, socks it is…


So, back to my travels…

If you’re interested, a link to my route on my way north:,+TX&daddr=Denton,+TX+to:Whitesboro,+TX+to:Ada,+OK+to:Henryetta,+OK+to:Caney,+KS+to:Yates+Center,+KS+to:Kincaid,+KS+to:Mound+City,+KS+to:LaCygne,+KS+to:Amsterdam,+MO&hl=en&sll=37.020098,-95.899658&sspn=3.784605,8.453979&geocode=FVC-4AEd8sQ0-ik_9VsoZIZPhjEkbyIiFltTVg%3BFXnR-gEd9N01-inRsYjAoExMhjEb-xRIy3REcg%3BFZqNAQIdPFE5-ilj6PTYS_BMhjEJqJLvayE6RQ%3BFQOeEgIdN848-ilNOl9lfmqzhzHGcchQ0Ju-tQ%3BFdLEHAIdiW5H-ilbfjEwFzi0hzHmIELcrWl9-Q%3BFQXANAId5iRI-iklUt6zAGW3hzFmQL9mLAhnnA%3BFTsFQgIdujlL-ikbjfmwLQC5hzGdHkqDreX0DA%3BFWQeRQIdThJU-ilHkACUnJu4hzGAqwg1LY0NBw%3BFVcDRgIde0JZ-imtonWLT2nHhzGg50yGt2VMRg%3BFcUsSQIdfA5a-ilv6ryQqUfHhzFRw4CNgfdt7A%3BFa4rSQIdPq9c-inJdFAWHDvHhzGtIu_0_IOaDA&mra=ls&t=m&z=7


There’s something about old farmhouses that warms my heart. Solid and square, two-story boxes with a door and windows, the only asymmetry the result of the ubiquitous front porch jutting from the house’s facade, roofed, double-pillared, inviting guests to sit and take a load off, perhaps to sip some cool beverage or other while chatting and watching the sun sink below the horizon on a fresh, spring day, or the burnished leaves drift lazily to the ground with the crisp autumn breeze. Through the screen door, left open for hospitality’s sake, the aroma of dinner in preparation and the concomitant kitchen chatter may float into awareness, bearing with them the ghosts of thousands of foregone meals and conversations that go hand in hand with a well-storied home. These houses promise secrets of small proportions, but of tremendous import to one seeking the remnants of the past as expressed in the everyday lives of the present. Do I romanticize? Definitely. Doesn’t mean it’s not true…


Someone asked me: What do you do to pass the time when you’re in the car for that long? My answer: That’s why cars have windows (of course, besides the whole matter of “not running into things”). Who needs music or books on tape when one has all the lyrics, all the plot- and storylines, one needs rolled up in the towns, homes, and people flashing past outside. There is more art in a single hand-painted store window, more drama–comedy, tragedy, farce, romance–in the tilt of a weathervane or the sag of a barn roof, than is found in hundreds of pages of novel-writing and hours of minutes of recording time (or rather, those pages and minutes could not exist, and would not make sense, without that spinning rooster or that roofline).


Anyone who says there is nothing interesting or attractive about Kansas has either spent too much or too little time there. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and lack of the same fosters ignorance. The thing about Kansas is that it is unpredictable. Many times I’ve been headed down a long, flat stretch of highway, convinced that’s all I will see, when a sudden cleft in the ground has plunged me several yards down, through a briefly winding maze, into a surprise ravine or valley, just enough difference to pleasantly punctuate the journey. Or, to my infinite delight, I will happen upon some random piece of fascinating architecture, a church steeple or an old windmill peeking through a canopy of trees in the middle of an otherwise bare landscape. The trick is to let the landscape happen to you, instead of forcing your own preferences upon it. Only then can beauty be appreciated for what it is, and not overshadowed by what we think it should be…


This just in…

Initial pitch has gone well. Museum endorsement is in. On with the show…

Research Trip, Day 1

One fine day, in the middle of the night, a certain Vance departed Waco at 5:00 AM, headed to Missouri in search of information on the history of Butler (along with a co-author and some 180 photographs worth publishing). Thirteen hours later, he reached his destination, having–as per the back road philosophy expressed in an earlier post–spent the day lost in small rural Oklahoma and Kansas towns, and had a lovely “stuffed burger” at the Midway Cafe in Bartlesville, OK. (Stuffed, by the way, meaning a patty with mushrooms and onions mixed in–nothing terribly special, just a good, down-home, greasy hamburger.)


It occurs to me that I may have offended some of my twittering friends with my latest post, and if so, I sincerely apologize. Still, as a matter of personal choice, I refuse to participate. As I made my way north yesterday, I was reminded of one of the reasons for this choice.

I turned off of I-35 on Texas 380, at Denton, right around 7:00 AM, and began to thread my way through the various small towns on 377 as it heads for the Oklahoma line. Of course, as usual my mind was half a day ahead of me, dwelling on the things I would be doing once I reached Butler. To interstate drivers, this would not be too much of a problem, since that sort of driving is almost more an exercise in not falling asleep than anything else. However, having forgotten where I was and what I was doing, I was jolted into renewed awareness by a flashing yellow light: school zone. I was driving through the beginning of a school day, and doing so dangerously fast.

Before I reached the Texas-Oklahoma line, I passed through about ten of these school zones. As each one came and went, I thought about my surprise at the first one. I concluded that I had become so used to going around small communities rather than through them–which is the norm with high-speed, four-lane travel–that I had in my mind dissociated the act of driving from the process of social interaction. In the days of Route 66, travel was about communication: people traveled for the experience of traveling, not just to get where they were going. Perhaps a better way to say it is that, wherever people were is where they were going. Now, the goal seems to be getting from start to finish with a minimum of hindrance, which requires a minimum of contact. Put DVD players in cars, and suddenly lack of contact becomes lack of awareness. Why look out the window at whatever natural scenery may present itself when we can stare fixedly at a fake image on a plastic screen instead?

The school zones jolted me out of my interstate-induced stupor and forced me once again to recognize the lives going on around me as I moseyed down the highway. Which brings me back around to the whole Twitter thing. Sometimes we’re fooled into thinking we’re doing something when in reality we’re doing nothing at all, in the name of doing something. Are we truly travelling if we don’t ever see the places through which we blindly speed? By the same token, are we really communicating when we encounter people by way of a telephone display instead of looking them in the eyes? So much of communication rests on the give and take of physical closeness–what I say and do is mediated through what you say and do, my reactions based on your reactions, on establishing an emotional connection rather than a digital one.


And now, I’m told that Wednesday is the preferred deadline for my finished proposal, so ta-ta for now. More when I’m finished (hopefully).

Wish me luck…

Putting My Money in My Mouth (and Trying Not To Swallow)

Okay–first order of business. To my good friend Cal, who has demanded entertainment, this monkey dance’s for you!

Moving on…

So, recently I called on my fellow professional and amateur historians (anyone with a past, really, will do) to step up and help bring our attention back to the truly formative actions being taken by the so-called little people, or as Queen says, “behind the curtains in the pantomime,” on the theory that these are the things that really make the world turn, the small things individually which cumulatively give history its meaning, and without which it has none. In so doing, I feel I have finally found a calling worth hearing, and a job worth doing. Future generations–whether they know it or not–are counting on us to deliver to them some sense of community and collective memory, before it’s obliterated by a sandstorm of tweets and twits. No offense to those who engage in the Twitter, but consider this: the first page alone of A Tale of Two Cities would have taken about six months to transmit by current communications standards. The more we boil our lives down to barely minimum quips and not-so-quotable quotes, the less substantive our cultural expression will become and the harder it will be to find true feeling under the megabyte mountain of glib gobbledygook (say that five times fast!). I want my nieces and nephews to be able to express themselves and understand others without having to yank out a Smart(?)phone and become a road hazard to everyone around just to get it out.

But I digress…as always. The point of this is to say that today (or rather, tomorrow) I embark on an attempt to put my money where my mouth is. I’m off to Butler, hopefully to succeed in plugging my little corner of the dike. In short, I’m off to write a book (or die trying). Or not. Anyway, as I begin the task of researching, writing, and getting complete strangers to trust another complete stranger to NOT destroy their treasured family photos (I’m reminded of my brief career as a knife salesman in St. Louis–Good morning, ma’am. You don’t know me and I don’t know you, but I have a bag full of weapons here, and I’d love to come inside and show them to you…)–as I begin this process, I need someone who will keep me accountable. And so, tag, you’re it!

Probably this is not an adventure that will produce much excitement in the doing (although hopefully it will once it’s done), but I feel the need to let somebody know what I’ve done so that I make sure I’m doing something. So, from time to time I will post an update on my humble bloggy-thingy here, and you may feel free to ignore it completely. One of those things that’s really for my benefit, but–if you hear nothing for a bit and would like to tell me to get my a-double-dollar-signs in gear, it would be appreciated. In other words, I hereby extend an invitation to all and everyone to irritate the crap out of me, without fear of repercussions. And who doesn’t like that idea? I know Tammy does, in any case…

See you next time, then, on Mr. Woods Goes to Butler. Don’t touch that dial. Or do. Whatever…