The Katy Land Trust | Across STL
Conserving Missouri’s Hudson River Valley
By Andrew Cooperman
Great cities have great landscapes,” said Dan Burkhardt, who founded the Katy Land Trust (KLT) with his wife, Connie. “New York, San Francisco, Austin, Miami are all identified with what surrounds and adjoins them. The Missouri River Valley is St. Louis’ Hudson River and Napa Valley, Texas Hill Country and Everglades — and it all begins less than 45 minutes from the Arch. And like those landscapes, ours needs advocates.”
Land trusts work to bring attention to the value of the countryside, to remind all of us that the expanses of natural beauty, the farms and forests, that surround our cities can be permanently protected or they can become victims of development. Almost 30 years ago — the anniversary is in 2020 — a huge gift from Pat and Ted Jones forged the Katy Trail, a 225-mile reinvention of the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad line that allows exploration of this area. Stretching across Missouri, the trail is now a 280-mile linear park, the longest in the nation.
Nine years ago, the Katy Land Trust (KLT) was formed to advocate for and protect that park and the land that surrounds it — the farms and vineyards that soften the blufftop views of the Missouri River Valley. Sometimes that means stripping out invasive bush honeysuckle along the trail or planting native trees. Sometimes it means educating landowners about conserving their property. But the mission expanded fast to include historic and cultural preservation, as well as a little horn-blowing to make sure everyone in the region — and any tourist who shows up — knows the beauty and significance of this valley.
Connecting small river towns, the river valley is home to the first American Viticultural Area. Decorated with grapes and sheltered by forested hills, its wide cornfields were enriched by the river bottom. “And all historians know that the 100 river miles from Hermann to the Confluence are unrivaled in history-per-mile,” Burkhardt added.
In 2014, he and Connie bought the Peers Store near Marthasville to save it from demolition. Not long after, they bought the Treloar Mercantile nearby. Restoring those two stores meant more than historic preservation; it resurrected all the stories they held — a century of provisioning along the river, along the railroad, surrounded by small farms. Less than 4 miles apart, Peers and Treloar bookend an important stretch of the German Heritage Corridor. This stretch along the old railroad line “teaches us so much about our history,” Burkhardt said. “The two stores at either end are now tangible examples of what preservation can accomplish. They’re also a perfect way to demonstrate that to people who don’t have conservation as a top-of-mind issue. And visitors are coming from all over the world.”
Culturally, the Treloar Mercantile and Peers Store also “offer wonderful opportunities to showcase our state’s rich German heritage,” said Steve Belko of the Missouri Humanities Council. His work helped secure Peers a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, and he was gratified to see that “the Treloar Mercantile still retains much of its original architecture and interior.”
The KLT is making the most of the building’s setting, too. Back in 1896, when the Treloar Mercantile Building was erected to welcome the new railroad, an elm sapling grew up next to it. For more than a century, that tree lent its shade. Then it died a natural death, so when the Burkhardt’s bought the building, they also bought a magnificent dead tree. Rather than cut it down, they had it reduced to a 12-foot stump and brought in a talented carver to “remove everything that didn’t look like an ear of Missouri corn.” What’s left is a wooden homage to the crop that grew in the river bottom, filled the grain elevators, and kept the area thriving.
On one of those old corrugated-tin grain elevators, the KLT hung banners of artist Bryan Haynes’ work. Regularly compared to Thomas Hart Benton, he shrugs off the comparison, saying the landscape itself — its crooks and hollows, curves and bends — dictates a certain visual language. The paintings that decorate the elevators depict old-time farmers harvesting a wheat field and Missouri’s state bird, the bluebird, taking flight over a vineyard of Missouri’s state grape, the Norton.
Another installation is on a vine-covered silo at McKittrick, across the river from Hermann. There, two of Billyo O’Donnell’s small, vivid, thickly textured oil paintings have been blown up to show, from miles away, glimpses of what he considers “the most beautiful place in the world.” One shows two boats tied ashore at Berger Bend; the other is a scene just upstream of the grand limestone bluffs. At the Peers Store, the art form that’s capturing the region is music. Peers was originally the Glosemeyer General Store. It opened in 1896, because commerce was lively in the growing communities along the new KATY railroad. Linus and Loretta Glosemeyer ran the store for almost 60 years. Now, it’s a welcome post for residents and trail users, run as a nonprofit. And its wide, gingerbread-trimmed front porch is the perfect place to make a little music.
Rick Funcik coordinates that front-porch music, which feels spontaneous but happens nearly every Saturday and Sunday, noon to 4 p.m., April through October. “It’s about as non-commercial as it gets,” he said. “What we try to re-create is a scene that would have happened 100, maybe 150 years ago, when a general store was the social focal point — along with the church! — of a small town on the Missouri River.”
Local musicians show up and play, and people drop in — no admission price — and stay for a while, sip a cold soda, maybe stroll through the pollinator garden between the store and the Katy Trail. Often longer than they planned.
“We’ve heard blues, freedom songs, barndance tunes, and a lot of river songs,” said Funcik. He’s been touched by the musicians’ “deep respect for the music our ancestors made. The depth of historical knowledge is amazing.” He’s also touched by the musicians’ patience when a small child is fascinated by their instrument and wants to try it out: “That’s ‘folk’ music at its best!”
The only puzzle piece still missing is the folk music of the German families who settled and farmed the Missouri valley. Funcik’s hunting for those melodies.
Meanwhile, the KLT continues to support and promote local artists and glass-blowers, quaint old railroad towns, breathtaking views from the bluffs, and food and wine for the trail-goers.
Land trusts are one of the most effective conservation measures around. They’re nonprofit, community-based, and voluntary. And while they may sound gentle, even a little passive, they fight some urgent battles. KLT’s biggest recent preservation project was its campaign to block the Missouri Bluffs subdivision from sucking up public land, destroying views, and disrupting the forest’s ecological balance. “Conservationists and philanthropists have worked for decades to protect this area and create a place for public enjoyment. It’s our turn to make sure that effort isn’t wasted,” said Burkhardt.
Over the years, the KLT has produced CDs featuring river music, funded hundreds of bluegrass performances, helped develop a river camping experience, made TV documentaries, sponsored campaigns to eradicate invasive bush honeysuckle, bought and rehabbed abandoned buildings, and fought legal battles for preservation.
But many Missourians know that the Burkhardts are working in Missouri River Country because of two books that they wrote and published. In 2013, Dan published a lushly-photographed coffee-table book, Missouri River Country: 100 Miles of Stories from Hermann to the Confluence. This anthology tapped more than 60 Missourians who wrote original essays about their experiences with the Missouri River valley.
In 2016, the Burkhardts wrote a second book for younger conservationists and their families. Growing Up with the River: Nine Generations on the Missouri travels 100 miles, visiting different river towns from Lewis and Clark’s journey to the present. With beautiful original illustrations by Bryan Haynes, it is a history of the river valley through the experiences of children as they wonder about world changing around them — the trees, the river, the birds. and wildlife. Growing Up with the River received the Mom’s Choice Gold Award for Family Friendly Literature.
But Burkhardt, who conceived these books, sees them as more than literature. They are invitations — invitations asking all of us to jump on our bikes or to pile our families into the car.
“We’ve carved a 10-foot ear of corn from an old elm tree and hung art on grain elevators,” said Burkhardt, “all to connect people to the value and beauty of the Missouri landscape. Because people have all kinds of interests, we want to show them they can relate to our history and landscape in all kinds of ways. Everyone, lifelong Missourians included, need to get off Highway 70 and into the real Missouri countryside.”
Even the magazine in your hands is part of KLT’s efforts, in partnership with Trailnet, to raise awareness and appreciation of this extraordinary place and make sure it stays protected for years to come!
Across STL is a collaboration between the Katy Land Trust and Trailnet, telling the stories of the people and places that make up the St. Louis community.
This article was first published in Across STL Volume 3, click here to read the entire issue or sign up for your own physical copy of the magazine.