Once upon a town
By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
NECK CITY, Mo. — It’s hard to get lost here.
Neck City: Four blocks wide and about as long.
Only one business: The U.S. Post Office.
“There haven’t really been any other businesses to speak of since I’ve lived here. That’s been 46 years,” says Gary Miller, the town’s unofficial historian, as he empties out a packet of black and white photos onto a table. Together with a book Miller and
other residents created in 1982 detailing the history of a Tri-City Mining District that included Purcell and Alba, the photos paint Neck City as a once-upon-a-time boom town.
One hundred years ago, there were 109 businesses. Merchants, barbers, teamsters, carpenters, blacksmiths. Some 30 mines. A population of several thousand living in the area.
“At one time, believe it or not, Neck City was bigger than Webb City,” noted Don Hole, the current mayor and Miller’s brother-in-law, who browsed through the photos with him.
But the mines closed, and the businesses with them. People moved away.
And then, Neck City wasn’t just a dot on the map — it actually dropped off of it. Maps distributed by the Missouri Department of Transportation, that is.
Lost in the system
Cities listed on the state map must be incorporated, they must be on a state route and there must be a sign for the city limits on roads entering and exiting the towns. Population also is taken into consideration.
In 2000, Neck City’s population was 119, while nearby Purcell was 357 and Alba was 588. By 2010, Neck City was no longer listed among census records. Then-mayor Pat Gooch called state and federal offices in an attempt to get things straightened out, and officials couldn’t even find the city in the system.
The city began working on projects to increase the population, including the demolition of several dilapidated, privately-owned buildings using some $80,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funding.
In 2009, an entrepreneur from Alba opened a general store across the street from City Hall in a two-story brick building that harkened to the city’s early days. The store lasted just a few years.
The city also attempted to open and sustain a recycling center, but it, too, didn’t last for lack of volume.
Community-wide celebrations also are hard to sustain in a town this size, Hole noted.
“We had a giant Christmas tree up on the main street. It had to have been the largest in the area; it had 25 strings of lights. Cost $10 a day while it was lit. It was real neat. We had a big community meal, usually chili, and fire barrels going,” Miller said.
“My wife, Milly — she’s born and raised here — she, my son, a friend, we all kept it going for several years.”
An ice storm brought it down, and although the city planted a new tree by City Hall, it didn’t get the same response.
“We used to have a Fourth of July picnic here — maybe 10 years or so. The last one was last year. There doesn’t seem to be support for it. It takes quite a bit to organize something like that,” said Miller, now 70.
“We also always had an Easter egg hunt. Don’t know if that’s going to happen this year. Maybe. We’ll see.”
‘You know your neighbors’
But despite its small size, its lack of larger city amenities, the challenge to keep a forward momentum, residents say they’d rather live here than just about anyplace else.
“The advantage is, you just don’t have all the noise of larger places. All the hustle and bustle. It’s peaceful here, you know your neighbors. It’s like a family. Everyone looks after one another,” says the town’s postmaster, Rhonda Snyder, who stopped by city hall to spend her one-hour lunch break pouring over the photographs with Miller and Hole and reminiscing.
Snyder, 61, grew up here just a few blocks from her grandparents.
“We could go wherever we wanted on foot or on our bikes, because it was safe and quiet,” she said. “We just had to be home before dark — there were no street lights.”
“People never locked their cars, their houses. They left their keys in the ignition. I guess you could say it was like Mayberry, but we didn’t have Andy or Barney. Probably just several Aunt Beas.”
Today, it’s not much different. Residents still get about on foot, bicycle or golf carts in good weather.
“It’s like a retirement community,” Snyder said.
And the post office serves in some ways, she noted, like a community center.
“It sort of plays that role for us,” she said. “There’s a bulletin board there; it’s kind of our hub. People stopping in and out, visiting. I can count on regulars at a certain time, and if I don’t see someone for awhile, I worry.”
Snyder also worried three years ago, when the Neck City Post Office was one of more than 3,000 targeted for closure by the U.S. Postal Service. The citizens reacted in opposition with a petition drive and city-wide meetings; the closure, like others across the country, was postponed.
Now, the city is focused on an initiative that Hole says is positive: Selling the city’s water lines to Public Water Supply District No. 2.
It required a vote by residents, which netted the largest voter turnout in many years: Two against, and 29 for.
Hole noted that in the past year, two new homes have been built, adding not only to the tax base, but to the hope that the town might survive.
Meanwhile, Miller, who helped put together The Neck City-Alba-Purcell Tri-State History book of 1982, closely guards his history book and packet of photos.
“I don’t think we’re ever going to be big enough to have a museum,” he chuckled. “I think this is it.”