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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.