Lexington, Missouri, became a destination for Civil War history. Residents think it can be more
Located about 10 miles north of I-70, Lexington's population is roughly the same as it was in the 1860s. The town's biggest tourist attraction is the Battle of Lexington state historic site, but community members want to draw visitors to the rest of town.
When travel was done by rail, trail and river, Lexington was a popular stop. It was even considered one of Missouri’s largest cities prior to the Civil War.
Today, it’s off the beaten path — about 10 miles north of Interstate 70 — yet Lexington remains a self-sufficient town.
There’s a lot that hasn’t changed in Lexington. Its population is roughly the same as it was in the 1860s. According to Missouri State Parks, it had 4,122 people prior to the war, and its grand estates still line many of the streets.
But Lexington has not been stagnant. It has renovated run-down buildings and encouraged specialty shops to open in downtown storefronts. Folks decided Lexington was worth protecting, so they kept it from crumbling amid the changing rural landscape.
Chris Fritsche moved to Lexington seven years ago. But he’d been coming to the historic river town for many years before that and pining for his current position as superintendent at the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site.
“I just fell in love with the town,” said Fritsche, who moved from Jefferson City. “It was so much different than what both me and my wife had previously grown up with. We’ve always lived in bigger towns or communities, and you never felt like your voice mattered very much … And coming here, we found out that everyone has a voice.”
History puts Lexington on the map. The community’s commitment to betterment holds it together and makes Lexington a place worth settling down in or visiting.
Lexington’s rich history
Lexington is home to three museums and roughly a dozen plaques and monuments honoring and describing historic places around town. While some might be content to wander to each and take them in, Lexington offers a series of self-guided audio tours that make for more informed wandering.
In 2013 Lexington won a pilot grant for the Community Arts Program with the University of Missouri and the University of Missouri Extension to create a series of driving/walking audio tours around its four historic districts.
The tours are like listening to a great podcast or tuning into NPR, only with half as much imagining because the visuals and relics of Lexington’s past are right in front of the listener.
Each tour, about an hour in length, details the architecture, historic events and people who shaped Lexington’s past and present. It helps connect the historical vignettes shown around town. For example, the Highland Avenue tour takes listeners past houses where Lexington doctors cared for passengers aboard the steamboat Saluda.
The ill-fated steamboat exploded in 1852 along a bend in the Missouri River as it was leaving Lexington. Most accounts estimated that 75 people were killed by the explosion, many of them Mormon emigrants on their way to Utah. True to the same community spirit found in Lexington today, the town sprang to action in 1852 to rescue and heal injured passengers.
Other historical stops around Lexington include the Madonna of the Trail monument, the Wentworth Military Academy Museum, the Sante Fe Trail, and the courthouse downtown, famous for the cannonball lodged in one of its pillars.
Lexington’s notable and proud history has an unsavory side as well.
According to a history prepared by the University of Central Missouri, Lafayette County, where Lexington is the county seat, had one of the highest populations of enslaved people in the state.
Vestiges of this time in Lexington’s history can still be seen around town as many of the historic houses have additional structures (presumed quarters for enslaved workers) attached or remaining on the property.
Despite its visibility, Gloria Hanrahan, assistant to Lexington’s tourism board, said the town doesn’t talk much about this part of its history. As part of her role with the tourism board, Hanrahan monitors the tourism Facebook page and posts about various events and happenings around town.
She’s had to delete some comments on posts she’s made around celebrating Juneteenth or other posts about slavery-related portions of the town’s past.
“Those of us that come in and say, ‘it’s time to start talking about this,’ we have to be careful,” Hanrahan said, noting that Lexington still has a strong United Daughters of Confederacy chapter. “Lexington’s history got whitewashed, and I don’t think that’s uncommon for small towns.”
Around town, there are other markers of Lexington’s history of slavery, like the Civil War grounds and the cemetery deeded to the “trustees for the colored people of Lexington.”
Even though folks in town might not be willing to talk about this part of their history, visitors to Lexington might find that history a spark to discuss and learn more about the scarred history of the state.
A good place to start might be the Battle of Lexington state historic site, which draws about 60,000 visitors annually. The Civil War battle, as most folks in town will share, “only lasted three days,” yet it still is Lexington’s claim to fame.
The goal now is to get those 60,000 visitors to venture downtown for lunch or to shop around and see more of Lexington and its history.
The epicenter for Lexington involvement is the Community Betterment Association. The group started in the mid-1990s to bring the community’s efforts together. Locals new and old regard the monthly meetings as the best place to go to figure out what’s going on in town.
Soon after moving to Lexington, Fritsche started attending the meetings and getting involved.
Community Betterment, Fritsche explained, is not about one big agenda, but a million little actions accomplished with the support of one another, which add up to major improvements in the community. Simple things, like raising money to repaint the light posts downtown, compound over time.
“You get the like-minded people together who want to see some sort of action take place and that’s what I really like about community betterment,” Fritsche said. “Little things like that add up to big things. And that’s what I like about Lexington, is that you get to be part of that.”
Marsha Corbin is another one of those like-minded people.
A Lexington native and long-time involved community member, Corbin said Lexington’s prosperity has ebbed and flowed like most rural towns throughout the years, but its active community presence has always kept it lively.
“We have a really dedicated group of community people that are willing to help out with special events and do community projects,” Corbin said.
Everyone does their part to help make the town better. The Garden Club and the Women’s Club fill planters along the downtown blocks, which the city then hires high school students to water. The bookstore downtown helps local teachers fill their bookshelves. And almost everyone goes to fried chicken dinners and ice cream socials to support local causes.
“It is lots of different organizations and groups working, but that’s kind of what it takes, because it’s really hard to have just one group do it all,” Corbin said.
Corbin helped write the grant for Lexington’s audio tours. Attentive listeners might catch her and other Lexington folks as voice actors in the tours.
Corbin recently won a grant from the University of Missouri to promote healthy eating and active living in Lexington. So far, the grant has helped increase the number of sidewalks in town, establish a safe route around the schools and start a Rail to Trail route.
A mile of the trail has already been completed and Corbin hopes to win additional applications to complete the proposed 2.9 miles.
“It’s been surprising, the people that I have seen walking on it,” Corbin said, noting that availability of a trail makes folks more likely to get out the door.
The trail is also a draw for people who move to Lexington from larger cities. It’s an example of the amenities that small towns need to offer if they want to attract doctors, lawyers, dentists and other professionals who might be used to larger cities.
“If we’re going to keep Lexington growing and being vibrant … having the same kind of amenities that they’re used to in a metropolitan area, like a walking trail, is a huge draw,” Corbin said.
Despite the consistent work to better Lexington, some folks feel it happens at too slow a pace. They see unfulfilled potential in Lexington and are eager to make it happen.
Keep the ball rolling
Hanrahan calls Lexington a livable community. It’s a small town, but it has just about everything you could need.
“For most of us, it’s a choice to go to Kansas City — it’s not a necessity,” Hanrahan said of local shopping habits.
To those well-versed in rural America, that’s an impressive statement. There are entire counties in Kansas and Missouri without even a single grocery store. Lexington has a full-sized grocery store, hardware stores, a local bookstore, sporting goods and other specialty shops downtown.
Hanrahan wants Lexington to persist as a town that has it all, which is why she tries to encourage others to shop locally. Even if it costs a little more, it’s worth supporting the brick-and-mortar stores in town.
Lexington follows many of the principles of the Main Street program (economic vitality, design, promotion and organization) but without much centralized organization. Community Betterment helps, but the effort is spread across various community organizations.
Hanrahan and Jeff Banhart, executive director of the Lexington Area Chamber of Commerce, are not Lexington natives. They’ve seen how other towns have organized and they think Lexington could do the same.
“We need a more singular vision,” Banhart said. “I think we all want to move forward … The question is, ‘How do we do that without offending people and getting people hurt to the point where people don’t want to participate?’”
They don’t want to change Lexington’s way of life or expand beyond its quaint, rural reputation. Hanrahan and Banhart said they want to help businesses succeed by improving communication, pushing for more consistent hours of operation and bringing history tourists up the hill to Main Street.
“If I’m going to come down with my kids and go to a museum, I need to know that we’ve got an arcade downtown, or that they can shop downtown,” Hanrahan said. “We need people to come and feel like this is a place for a good day trip — to come and spend the afternoon.”
While Lexington has much to offer a visitor or a local consumer, it struggles with availability. Many of the businesses downtown are closed on Sundays. Hanrahan said it’s not uncommon to walk up to a restaurant or shop and find it closed for the day.
“We need to be working with our businesses (with) not only just print ads, Facebook ads, but how can they communicate with their customers in an effective way,” Hanrahan said.
Sandy Franklin owns the Faded Rose of Lexington, one of the few businesses open on Lexington’s day of rest.
Franklin moved her antique mall from nearby Buckner, Missouri, to downtown Lexington this spring. Now in the former Wentworth Military Academy Museum space, she has three stories of antique booths and significantly more foot traffic — especially on Sunday. It’s both a blessing and an annoyance.
“When people come through, I don’t really have any place to recommend, because hardly anything is open on Sundays,” Franklin lamented.
Last year, the Chamber started a Second Sundays series to encourage businesses to stay open and to popularize the use of a trolley that is normally only available when rented for large events.
Every second Sunday of the month through the summer, Lexington has a farmers market downtown with trolley tours to various historic areas of town. Many of the businesses take advantage of the added foot traffic downtown and open or offer specials — the Faded Rose hosts live music on its mezzanine.
The trolley tours have inspired the town of history buffs to dig deeper into the archives and find more interesting stories to tell. Corbin said this year they started placing living history figures at various stops along the tour.
“It’s been really fun for those of us on the committee to research a lot of those stories and find out more about some of the people that lived here,” Corbin said.
A recent character was a young Carl Stalling, who grew up in Lexington and went on to write scores for Looney Toons and Disney, after meeting Walt Disney during his time in Kansas City.
“It’s fun to learn those stories and know those connections,” Corbin said. “And it’s a way to create some new interest in the community instead of telling the same old stories, we found out that we have enough stories, we can tell different stories, and make it entertaining.
“The Civil War battle was three days — we have lots more that went on in Lexington over the years than those three days of the battle.”
This weekend Lexington will host its 67th annual Historic Homes tour. The ticketed event will lead visitors through five of Lexington’s historic homes and share the stories and history of each.
It’s one of Lexington’s most popular events throughout the year — and being just an hour away from Kansas City, Hanrahan said folks can visit town “and be home in time for dinner.”
“Looking at some communities that have really had to refurbish their downtowns and really build them — I don’t think Lexington ever went that far down,” Hanrahan said. “Because you’ve always had people like Marsha Corbin, who are interested in this … (locals) were never willing to say, ‘Oh, it’s a dead town.’”