Paul Wilson: Sometimes the Past Really is all it’s Cracked up to be

Lowell DavisLast weekend I made my annual pilgrimage to my home town of Carthage, Mo…

The Maple Leaf Festival is the 3rd weekend of October and it’s the main event that draws old classmates back to town. There’s a two hour parade down stately Grand Boulevard, home of the original city father’s mansions; the barons of banking, lumber, mining and bed springs from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Typically you wander from home to home to past yard parties starting early and running late until the parade is over – Bloody Mary’s are flowing – catered food, home cooked breakfasts, it runs the gamut.

I left Carthage in 1978 and to find my way in Kansas City but I grew up in the childhood home of Lowell Davis, an internationally famous artist known as the “Norman Rockwell of Rural America.” Davis has made millions over his career as an artist and later as an ad exec in Dallas before returning home to Carthage in the 1980’s.

I was an infant when my father bought our home in the late 1950’s and one of the first things he did was clean the attic. He shoveled hundreds of hand painted wooden figures and animals through the attic window to a waiting truck bed below. At the time it was just scraps of wood Lowell’s dad had brought home from his job as a carpenter for his young, budding artist son to carve and paint.

Marshall Hooker's office

Marshall Hooker’s office

Today, it would represent his earliest works, long since composted in the city dump.

When Davis parents sold the home to my mom and dad, they moved to Red Oak, Missouri, 18 miles outside of Carthage. I finished my teen years in that home and moved to KC. But we hardly ever make a trip back without going to visit Lowell and Rose.

Lowell’s career has been amazing. He will tell you he’s been rich beyond measure and lost everything three times. He returned for a visit in the 1970’s only to find his home of Red Oak all but a ghost town, with people leaving to move to the “city.”

Joplin Motel

Joplin Motel

That was the beginning of a dream and he knew where his money was going to go.

Like many, he went through an ugly divorce and found himself contemplating life in the depression that accompanies so many divorces. Precious Moments artist and longtime friend, Sam Butcher, gave Davis the gift of a trip to the Philippines and encouraged him to get away and relax. On that trip Lowell met and fell in love with Rose, the manager of a Chinese restaurant he and Butcher had visited.

Lowell had already bought the farm and had begun to buy abandoned buildings in his home town, dismantle them piece by piece and move them to his farm, Red Oak II. He married Rose and brought her back to the beginnings of his massive, dream project. She’s been as involved as him ever since.

Lowell lives in the home of Belle Star, the famous female outlaw from Carthage. Star was murdered in Oklahoma by two shot gun blasts to the back. Discovering an old slave quarters log cabin in the Ozarks, he connected it to one end of Star’s house where it serves as his personal residence and studio today.

He found and restored the Marshal’s office of my distant Uncle, Ralph Hooker, the author of “Born out of Season.” Hooker is the only man to have walked the 780 mile Santa Fe Trail alone and ride the entire 1,040 mile Chisholm Trail on horseback.

Next, the General Store which was originally run by Lowell’s father and was where Lowell learned to sculpt and paint. Then the Salem Church, a roadside Phillips 66 station, half dozen houses, and a blacksmith shop that was in his family along with many other buildings.

Red Oak II is a major attraction with Route 66 historians and travelers from all over the world. On our last visit they were hosting 40 motorcycle riders from Australia, traveling the full length of the historic highway.

Sitting with Lowell and Rose is a treat; a visit with a good friend who could care less about success and still celebrates his creativity and loves his wife and his God. I’ve known him since childhood so you lose track of the fact of who he’s been and who he is now.

He still writes and paints but most of his time is spent with Rose planning what building is coming next, receiving the endless stream of visitors and posing for pictures with his signature corn cob pipe. He has one of mine that I passed on as a gift several years ago.

Belle Star home

Belle Star home

Lowell’s love of Red Oak II and old Route 66 is apparent.

“People’s lives are so busy these days that I think they’d like to be reminded of a simpler time,” he says. There is nowhere in the world I would rather live than right here. I want to sit on my porch, talk to the folks that come by, paint, and live my good life.

monopolyhalloween“I don’t believe that an artist should be restricted to use only paint or clay. It can be anything including junk, wood, even an old building. To me, Red Oak II is a combination of a painting and a sculpture, and it is just made from things that someone else threw away.”

If you’re making a pass down 71 South – now Interstate 49 – don’t miss this place.

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22 Responses to Paul Wilson: Sometimes the Past Really is all it’s Cracked up to be

  1. chuck says:

    Excellent story! I am looking everything up now so I can enjoy it even more!

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      Chuck, it’s only a little over two hours down the road. You can stay in Carthage at the Route 66, restored Boots Court Motel for $66 a night, take your camera and spend the night.
      They have live music on Saturday nights; Chelle sang there last Saturday and brought the house down!
      We are looking at the old mill, right behind Lowell’s home, as a weekend getaway and studio. In discussions with him now about completing it. To me it’s the most fascinating, historic building there.

      • chuck says:

        Let us know the next time Chelle is under the lights down there. If possible we would like to come see her.

        • paulwilsonkc says:

          Chuck, I’m waiting for the Hater In Chief to attack, but this isn’t a night at Jardine’s, this is the coolest collection of “locals” you can imagine.
          There were two 70ish year old ladies playing dulcimers, one, equal age on guitar, the local Priest on violin, one man playing violin, mandolin and acoustic. 10-15 total musicians on any given night and everyone takes a turn doing solos.
          Chelle has toured internationally; she leads worship at Church of the Resurrection every Sunday evening, 20,000 members, and sings with Dave Stephens when he’s in town, but when we walked out the door of that old, restored church Saturday night, she said, “That was without a DOUBT, the highlight of the entire weekend!”
          So when you say, “next time she’s under the lights”, this is the furthest thing from that, but man, what a great group of local musicians, playing and singing not out of a sense of thinking they are anything but local musicians, but because of the love of what they do. It was a great time.
          We are trying to tie up a deal to take the old mill as a weekend, summer getaway, studio space. We’ll be back down in November, before Thanksgiving, to talk about that further and it will certainly involve a Saturday night at the Salem Church! You have my email, stay in touch and I’ll let you know when. It makes a great day trip, or go down at stay at the historic Boots Motor Court! You can even stay in the Clark Gable room. He frequented the place with some regularity.

  2. Jeff says:

    Great article Paul. These are the types of insights I find fascinating when reading about Midwestern history. Thanks much!

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      Thanks Jeff. It’s worth a day trip just see it and meet those two. I’m with you, it fascinates me, it’s a living museum and two better people you’ll never meet.

  3. Anita says:

    Great story! There is nothing more sad than seeing a once thriving building falling into decay, not to mention a whole town. It’s so moving to walk through the rooms that generations have walked through before. Connects you to them in a way reading about it cannot.

  4. Super Dave says:

    F**k the Hater we all know he is an idiot. Good story.

  5. Howie says:

    Great piece, Paul. And I personally find it difficult to believe you have any haters. Cheers!

  6. Paul says:

    Paul, I’m an east coast transplant of thirty years and still marvel at the out-of-the-way gems in our region that are just waiting to be found. For every ten small towns that are drying up we’re lucky that there are a couple, like Red Oak, that are finding a way to remain viable. Thanks for reminding us that we need to support these treasures. Let us know when you return to Red Oak. My wife Robin is a bit of a singer too, and we might join you.

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      Paul, dont wait for that, just go down any Saturday night. When we got there the house was about 3/4 full. The main dude up front watched us go to our seats and as soon as the song was over, said, “Welcome guys, where are you from?” which we answered, then asked, “Did you bring us some MUSIC or just here to listen?”
      Its a free for all and a lot of fun. As I said earlier, its a great day trip. Go down Saturday afternoon, meet Lowell, tour the place, music starts at 6:00pm. You can get out by 9 and drive back with plenty of time.
      Well worth the day and incredible people well worth the investment of time.

  7. Orphan of the Road says:

    Nice to see people preserving the past rather than bulldozing for a McMansion.

    Never spent much time in Carthage but many a Friday night at the speedway in Nevada. Making a stop at Suzie-Q’s.

    Lived in an house which began life as a log cabin in 1705. Eventually it was a three-story with a second-floor veranda on three-sides. Walk-in fireplace which had a secret passage to a room to hide runaway slaves. Hand-blown glass in some windows and in the built-in cabinets.

    Built by Quakers who, like the Amish & other Plain People, did not use measuring tools when building. Everything was a little off-kilter if you looked close.

    When it was no longer habitable everyone wanted the house but no one had the money to salvage it. Ended up a pile of ruble.

    If you ever get back to the Philadelphia area, plan a day trip to the Oley Valley (55-miles). The entire town is on the National Historic Register.

    The one place I missed most when returning to the Paris of the Plains was the old half-way house on US 24. It was half in KC, half in Jackson County. One of the James’ brothers haunts, if the sheriff came in you just walked to the other side of the room, out of his jurisdiction.

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      First, Orphan, let me say its incredibly nice to see you back up and at it! Hope all’s well and thanks for the comment. I think we should get a group together and go down for a Saturday. Load up the instruments and have some fun. That place in Nevada is still open, best breakfast around!
      Lets plan a caravan!

  8. Larry Griffith says:

    Paul, I loved the article. It makes me proud of Carthage and the people from here. Lowell has a warm spot in my heart also and what is has and is doing to preserve the history and ambiance of Carthage is amazing. My cuddos to you and of course to Lowell and Rose.

    I am pleased to call you friend and will do anything I can to welcome visitors to our fair town.

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      Well thank you, Larry, I appreciate that. For KCC readers, Larry is a nearly 50 year friend of mine from childhood….and all round good guy.

      • paulwilsonkc says:

        PS; breakfast with you was GREAT; please don’t take Chelle’s “highlight of the weekend” comment as a slight to you, CD’s, or biscuits and gravy!

  9. Janet says:

    I knew Lowell many years ago when he was at the height of his popularity–there isn’t a nicer, more genuine person on this earth!!! He was a true friend to everyone.

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      I have to agree, Janet. Question; how did you find us? You’re a new name.

      • Janet says:

        I like to keep up with what’s happening in KC with KCConfidential–very interesting! Most of the time I’m just in the background–but I really wanted to comment on Lowell since he’s so very special!
        Thanks for the update on him.

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