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.
Monday, August 28, 2006
Posted by DARCOS CRUZ at 6:12 AM