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Apple of their eyes: Clarksville residents, businesses work to boost tourism

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 22, 2011 - Nathalie Pettus didn't start out to become the largest employer in Clarksville. It just happened as she began to dig deeper and deeper to her roots.

Overlook Farm -- the umbrella for her inns, restaurant, gift shop and farm -- has 40 employees now and will add more in the summer. It takes its name from Pettus' grandfather's farm and apple orchard. (Pettus adds that her family's history in the area actually goes back to the late 1700s when it received a land grant from the Spanish crown.)

Pettus is full of stories about her grandparents. Like how her grandfather once sent a wagon load of apples to Washington, D.C., with every apple stenciled with HST, for Harry S Truman. Or like how her grandmother, a onetime Veiled Prophet queen, would saddle up her white stallion, pack up her pearl-handled pistols, call out the dogs and go shoot transformers.

Her own childhood memories, while less flamboyant, are vivid -- like the clear nights when she and her friends would view the stars from the telescope on the nearby Mallinckrodt property.

Shaking her head, Pettus recalls, "When I was a child, I came up here on the weekends. I hated it back then; I hated having to go to the farm. Now when I think about it -- the tennis court, the horses, the family all together -- what a treat."

In 2003, after her father died and she turned 50, Pettus took her inheritance and changed her life. She bought more property in Clarksville, including an abandoned gas station and surrounding fields. Two years later, the Clarksville Station restaurant, with its eclectic gift shop, opened. "The entry was the station's bay; part of the gift shop was where the gas tanks were," she recalled.

The restaurant, which has had its ups and downs, seems to have found its own "farm to table" identity -- organic as much as possible, using herbs and vegetables from the chef's garden; locavore with meat, cheeses, fish, vegetables coming from Missouri farms and ranches; and upscale without being snooty.

That apparently wasn't enough. In the next few years, she gut rehabbed two historic buildings, transforming them into elegant bed and breakfasts -- Cedarcrest Manor, first built in 1842 with an 1860 addition, and Rackheath House, named after her family's estate in England. (I Love Inns just named Cedarcrest Manor one of the top 10 romantic inns in the country -- the only one in the Midwest.)

In 2009, Pettus decided to focus on the restaurant's courtyard patio, which now includes trellises soon to overflow with wisteria, a firepit for bonfires and an elaborate outdoor kitchen, with a wood oven for pizzas and a grilling area for the annual barbecue festival.

And that's still not enough.

Throw in the outdoor summer movies new this year; the spike in weddings from five last year to 18 this year; cooking classes; kayaking on the Mississippi; a new bed and breakfast on the drawing boards -- and Pettus is in constant movement.

That's the dynamic of creating a destination, she believes. People come for lunch, then they want to come for dinner and then they want a place to stay. Or they come for the barbecue festival and want to come back for a quiet weekend. Or they come for a romantic getaway and think what a perfect place it is for a wedding.

Overlook Farm is an engine, a way of drawing people, but Pettus emphasizes that the town is an engine, too. People come to Clarksville for the apple festival, for the fall color, for the eagles, for the antiques, for the artists.

The trick is to keep them coming back.

Keeping the Town Running

No one understands that perpetual motion machine better than Jo Anne Smiley, the mayor of Clarksville, who is running herself, but for re-election. She has served six years and is hoping to win her fourth two-year term in the April election.

Smiley, who was a music teacher at Ladue high school for 30 years, came to Clarksville with her husband Wayne about 11 years ago. "My husband found it. We loved it." Drawn to the town because of "its charm, magnetism, the wonder of seeing an artist at work and Mother Nature," they subsequently opened an antique store, B.T. Dove Antiques, a few doors down from city hall.

Over time, Smiley has witnessed first hand the ups and downs of the town.

"In 2008, we were doing well. Tourism was up, sales tax was up," she said. "Then the market and the gas station closed. There was the flood" and, of course, the economic downturn. In late 2008, the cement manufacturer Holcim announced it was closing its plant in Clarksville, a huge blow costing the area 181 jobs.

The flood and its aftermath "exhausted" the community, said Smiley. "The spirit was hurt," and the town, she said, is still trying to rebound even as it prepares for another flood season.

Right now, Smiley's first priority is advocating passage of a bond issue in April to fund necessary structural improvements in how the town handles its water and waste water. It's not an easy sell, given the hardships the town has endured, but essential she says if the town is to avoid federal fines.

But she is also intent on helping to keep that tourism engine going. "When Nathalie has her barbecue festival, the town is alive," she said. "During apple fest, the town is alive."

Still, it's not enough to have events; they have to be "unique enough" to draw people here, she adds. "Christmas was great because we had reindeer come. It was different, not the same." (Ralph Quick was Santa and Caron Quick was Mrs. Claus. All the stores did a bang-up weekend then, recalls Caron Quick -- all but theirs because theirs was closed while they were busy being the Claus family.)

During the twice annual 50 Miles of Art events -- the next one is March 26-27 -- Clarksville's artisans are known for their arts and craft demonstrations, from blowing glass to fashioning a Windsor chair. The first Diva Days weekend is coming up at the end of April. Dawn of Creation and Clarksville Art and Glass have been busy creating goodie bags, hoping to attract a "girlfriends weekend" crowd.

Brought to town by special events, visitors should also notice, the mayor hopes, the Eagles Bluff golf course just south of town and the Crown Valley Port House, with wine tastings and music, just north of town. But that's still not enough. The mayor has her wish list -- a reopened skylift, a marina, both of which have seemed at points tantalizing close. In the tourism business, there's no standing still.

Labor of Love

Richard Cottrell was in the antiques business for years in St. Louis before he returned to his hometown of Clarksville and opened a small antique shop there. On a slow late Sunday afternoon, he wrote a short note -- be back in a few minutes -- and taped it to the shop's door. Caron Quick was adamant that we couldn't leave town without touring Cottrell's own personal work of art.

Cottrell is an artist of a different sort; his medium is an 1845 house -- with an 1860 addition -- built by Hezekiah Elgin. Cottrell, who bought the house in 2007, is only the home's fourth owner. He calls it the Elgin-Cottrell house: Elgin built it; Cottrell restored it.

"When I got the house, it was not livable," he said -- no dependable electricity or plumbing, a leaking roof. "The lady who had lived here lived like a recluse."

In four years, he has completely renovated the place, doing most of the work himself and transforming it into his personal, pink-accented vision of a dreamy 19th-century mansion. Elaborate glittery chandeliers hang from the ceilings; shelves, mantels and tabletops are lined with vases, of porcelain and glass; lamps and candelabras; and all sorts of decorative items. Massive gold-gilt mirrors reflect back each room's sumptuousness.

Some displays are completely whimsical. A collection of bovine creamers hangs in the kitchen just above a pack of Staffordshire dog figurines.

The house is open for tours on festival weekends, for rent for parties and weddings, and for tours by appointment. Otherwise, it's Cottrell's private residence, his own labor of love in a town built and sustained by many labors of love.

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.