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Salt of the Earth: Life in a small town

Penny Ridenour / Red Dirt Report
City Limit sign in Puxico, MO
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PUXICO, Mo.-- A few months ago, Netflix came out with a new series, Ozark, where Jason Bateman moves to Southwest Missouri’s mountain country to launder money and save his skin from a drug cartel.  Since I grew up in Southeast Missouri, I was asked if the culture portrayed on the show came close to reality.

The answer, as in most of small-town America I’m guessing, is yes and no.   I grew up in Puxico,  Missouri, a town of just over 800 people sitting atop the Bootheel.  I haven’t lived there for nearly 30 years, but the population sign hasn’t changed much.  Puxico is both the same as every other little town and is still unique. 

Every year on the second Tuesday in August, the town sits down and puts on its make up for “Homecoming” -- A carnival that turns all of Main Street into the quintessential small-town event.    A quick read of the carnival in “Charlotte’s Web” sets the scene, except for a couple things – goatburgers –think stringy, mild-tasting pulled pork -  and the square dance stage. 

This is not the polite square-dancing of the able-bodied elderly in sequins.  This is muddy boot stomping, swinging sweaty girls in cowboy hats, hollering yee-haw to the most backwoods bluegrass fiddle music in the hills.  And this one time a year, Main Street, typically in bed by 10 p.m. is aglow and thumping until the early morning hours.   

Homecoming has been put on by the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars to commemorate the troops coming home after World War II.  But that is only one week of the year.  The rest of the year, Puxico is the home of the good ole’ boy just trying to get by.  It is the home of yes and no.

It is where good neighbors bring a casserole if there is a death in the family, but will also inquire about strange cars parked in your driveway. It is where good men go to church on Sundays, but bristle at a stranger for trespassing on their property. Nearly every house has at least one gun and one car older than one of their children, and old men sit on five-gallon buckets to drink coffee at the auto parts store.

Like many small towns, Puxico is self-centered and respects its own pedigree. It exists as the center of its own universe and takes its time accepting change. If a family cannot trace its lineage through generations at Homecoming, acceptance in town may never be truly granted. As a transplanted outsider you might meet the nicest people in America who will never fully accept you as one of their own because you were born somewhere else.

This might seem like what you have heard about the South, but this is made of grittier stuff.  Puxico has all the fried chicken and sun tea and little of the “bless your heart” platitude. Nicknames stick for life, a man is known as “Jack Taylor’s” boy until he has grandchildren, and you can tell who lives out of town by how much gravel road dust paints their car.

The best story I can think of to illustrate the spirit of Puxico and all of southeast Missouri is of our very own folk hero. In 1981, the entire nation was reeling from a family farm crisis.  Feed the Children commercials featured small town farmers dumpster diving to feed their families.  It was at that time that Wayne Cryts harvested his soybeans, which represented an entire year’s wages to him and trucked them to a nearby grain elevator to store before sale.

In an incredible stroke of bad luck, the elevator went bankrupt and seized all the contents as their assets to pay their debts in the proceeding.   

Cryts and almost 600 farmers from several states showed back up at the elevator in spite of a court order to take back the beans. In friendly defiance, he told federal marshals the order did not apply to him and showed receipts proving his ownership of the harvest. The marshals made no attempt to stop him as he and the other farmers pried open a seam in the elevator with a crowbar and vacuumed out the 30,000 bushels of the beans, he had so recently poured in.

"I've worked too hard for what I've got  It's going to destroy our farming operation. At least if they're going to destroy me, well by God at least I'm gonna struggle before they do it,"Cryts was quoted in the Southeast Missourian in 1981.

The rest of the story is in the lengthy court proceedings, the Family Farm Foundation in Washington D.C. and Cryts’ unsuccessful bid for Congress. 

In every small town, you will find work-ethic-pumping-through-their-veins, shirt-of-their-back-friends-for-life, mind-your-business, but-keep-your-eyes-open, pull-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, still-waters-run-deep, push-your-car-out-of-the-ditch people just like in my hometown.   Yes, they are just like you imagine, and no, you might never know how much more they are as well.  

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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