Monday, August 28, 2006

Friendly Cape Girardeau

When Martha and Kenny Bender were teens, they remember, the muddy Mississippi often overwhelmed its banks and flooded into downtown Cape Girardeau, Mo. “People would be down here in canoes,’’ Kenny told me.

Since the 1960s, the town has been protected by a massive river wall … safe, but it wasn’t a pretty thing. So a few years ago the town decided to commission a series of murals depicting local history, including the visit of explorers Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s, and the beautified wall is now something of an attraction.

The Benders are the parents of Miami reader Becky Van Wagner. And though I don’t know Becky and her husband, teachers, she volunteered her parents to play tour guide should I make it to Cape Girardeau.

The town barely missed out to St. Louis’s Gateway Arch in our vote, and it was so nice of them all to offer that I stopped off anyway.

The Benders are retired now from business and mostly, from civic life, and they’re exactly the kind of warm, friendly people you’d like to have for aunt and uncle. Long active in this community of about 35,000, they’re proud of their town and delighted in showing it to a visitor.

We rode around and checked out the sights: Remarkable carvings of Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln and other figures by local carver A. W. Birk; beautiful homes from the 1920s; a church that was already open when Lewis and Clark came through; tile murals on the wall of the local newspaper, the Southeast Missourian; and graceful courthouse mentioned in Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi.

The local economics are driven by retail sales from area farmers, Southeast Missouri State University and two hospitals, I was told. This the largest town between Memphis and St. Louis.

We missed a couple of sights: the nearby park marking the Cherokee Trail of Tears, when thousands of Cherokees lost their lives in forced relocation, and an overlook of the town. A rainstorm and time were pushing in, and I headed on to St. Louis.

Photo: Kenny and Martha Bender, parents of Miami Herald reader Becky Van Wagner, in front of the river wall in Cape Girardeau, Mo. The scene behind them depicts the visit of explorers Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s. Photo by JANE WOOLDRIDGE/staff.


Chuck Martin said...

Jane... I enjoyed your post. As the Executive Director of the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau, I would like to personally invite your readers to visit Cape Girardeau. Here they can experience more than two centuries of rich history and heritage and a wealth of wonderful stories just waiting to be discovered. They can stroll along the Mississippi Riverfront and feel the passion that led Mark Twain to write so eloquently, feel the inspiration that General Ulysses S. Grant used to command with firm conviction, and feel the warmth and hospitality that Lewis and Clark discovered while on the journey of a lifetime. Some things shouldn’t change. Some things haven’t. Passion, inspiration, warmth and hospitality can still be found in this wonderful place that is uniquely Cape Girardeau, Missouri! A place where the river turns a thousand tales! Come create your own memories and stories. Surf to, e-mail, or call 1-800-777-0068.

Janet Esicar said...


I am so glad you were able to stop in Cape Girardeau. I learned of your travels from my aunt, Barbara Voight in Miami Beach. She sent a clipping from the Miami Herald and thought it would be fun for me to follow along your route, just in case you happened through Cape Girardeau.

Happy Trails as you continue your journey,

Janet Esicar

Jane said...

Thanks to you both! Barbara Voight is a Miami treasure!

Elizabeth Cruce Alvarez said...


Yes, Kenny and Martha Bender ARE the kind of people one would love to have for an aunt and uncle--they are my aunt and uncle, and Becky Van Wagner is my cousin! Although I grew up up river in St. Charles (another treasure of a river town), Cape Girardeau and the Bender household was a second home to me. Cape is a beautiful place and the source of many wonderful childhood memories of excursions to the Mississippi River, picnics at Trail of Tears Park and exploring the nearby woods with my cousins. I will be heading back in October, one of the best times of year to visit because of the gorgeous fall color. Thanks for stopping at Cape on your road trip. Sometime you'll have to visit St. Charles, as well, where the Lewis & Clark expedition first encamped before following the Missouri River to its source.

Elizabeth Cruce Alvarez
Southlake, TX