Floodfest celebrates the Commerce that lives

Wednesday, September 21, 2005
2005: Bill Bailey walked down one of the main streets of Commerce that years ago had houses and business along side of it. (DIANE L. WILSON ~ dlwilson@ semissourian.com)

Residents make lemonade out of town's fights against the Mississippi.

COMMERCE, Mo. -- Buddy Vetter, 72, sits outside his mobile home on Tywappity Street, a humble abode built 3 feet above ground level with another few feet of solid foundation below ground.

This is the home of an experienced flood fighter, the home of a man who lives in an old, hidden Mississippi River town called Commerce.

1993: A single sign underscored the damage inflicted upon Commerce when the Mississippi River overran its banks in the 1993 flood.

Vetter and his town have been through many a flood together. He remembers a major flood in 1937, another in the 1940s and the 1993 flood, known by most in the Midwest as the biggest flood of this generation. But not so for Vetter. None of them compare to the flood in 1995.

From his porch, he gestures across the street to bare land that once was lined with homes.

"The water was everywhere," he said. "It was all out there."

1979: Water and debris surrounded a Commerce home as the Mississippi River flooded and swept through the small riverfront town.

Up to his armpits.

Much of the town, once lined -- as the name suggests -- with commerce, has succumbed to its final flood damage. But Commerce, now with half the population it had 10 years ago, celebrates its rough history every year in an event called Floodfest.

The financial state

Bill Bailey, chairman of the town board, looks out over Commerce's scenic view of the Mississippi River, unhindered by levees or floodwalls, and ponders the town's fate. Commerce was established in 1790, but now the chairman of the board frets over its financial state.

The $1.75 million federal and state buyout of of property in the floodplain in 1995 removed about half of the town's 200 residents, putting a huge dent in the city's revenues and putting the town's future at risk.

Since the buyout, property values have plummeted along with tax revenues.

"At this point, what do you do if a lawnmower breaks?" Bailey says. "We have to carefully consider each pothole."

Behind Bailey, on the other side Water Street, sit two old buildings, one a small structure of cinder blocks painted bluish-gray, the other a red brick store.

The windows are broken, the buildings abandoned. Commerce has retreated from the Mississippi.

But the town continues on, celebrating its history every year with Floodfest and looking for other ways to capitalize on that history.

The Floodfest

Jack High Sr. was born in Commerce in 1921 but had moved away. He came back in 1995, before the flood, to the town where his family had lived since the 1850s.

High and his wife Dixie were instrumental in starting the festival the year after the flood hit, naming it for the town's reputation for flooding.

"If someone gives you lemons, you make lemonade," said Dixie High.

The village will celebrate Floodfest Friday and Saturday.

In its nine previous years, the Floodfest has celebrated the town's history with mule-jumping competitions, car shows, lawn mower races, horseshoe tournaments and food and beer.

While history is key to the Floodfest celebration, its goal is to enhance the future.

More than just about anything else, Commerce needs new residents.

The skeptic

Many of those left in Commerce after the buyout are the "old-timers," people like Vetter and Ann Huck, people with deep roots in the town.

Huck held Bailey's position in Commerce for 25 years, leaving office in 1994. She led the city through the 1993 flood. She was the head of the board of trustees who voted 3-2 against a buyout after 1993.

Huck relocated her then-90-year-old home to higher ground, where it now sits on a tall foundation of cinder blocks at the top of St. Mary's Street.

"It was hard for me to understand because I was completely against the buyout, and they tore down some beautiful homes." She said she doesn't understand why they didn't move their houses to higher ground.

Huck is a skeptic about the town's future, wondering if it will ever recover.

The optimist

As Bailey looks over the river, he hopes for a brighter future based on history. He wasn't around in 1995, but moved to Commerce a few years ago. His wife's family has roots in the town, and Bailey has grown quite attached to the area.

"I think there's an opportunity to tap into the history this town has," said Bailey. "It's a nice, quiet place to do nothing."

This year the city hall building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Bailey and others have their eyes on other properties that could meet the same criteria. Lewis and Clark stopped here.

But then there's the problem of getting people to the historic attractions. Commerce is far removed from the main thoroughfares, tucked away on Route E south of Scott City.

"You have to have a reason to come to Commerce," said Bailey. "You don't just come through here to stop at the quicky mart."

Like fine wine

Some hope for the town might be found in Jerry Smith, who along with his wife Joni owns River Ridge Winery just down the road. Smith has loved Commerce since his first visit in 1977. When he started his business, he made sure it was associated with Commerce.

He brought property there in the early 1980s and moved to the town after the flood of 1995.

"I have an attraction to the water," said Smith. "We choose to live in Commerce. We don't ask for any help or any sympathy."

In Smith's eyes, Commerce has "one of the most scenic views in the state of Missouri."

Next year Smith plans to raise his house in case of another flood, and someday he wants to open a restaurant in Commerce.

Infrastructure needed

But there's a problem. There is no water and sewer infrastructure for development there is and no money to build it.

"The town won't want to pay," said Bailey. "They have a well and sewer, and they don't want to pay for it. You won't convince those people that it will help."

That doesn't mean Bailey won't try, even if he's not quite sure what can be accomplished.

"When I get old and die, I want something to still be here," Bailey said.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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