The Mississippi River Valley Scenic Drive: History, culture right under our noses

Thursday, April 20, 2006

This weekend towns and businesses in Perry, Cape Girardeau, Bollinger and Scott counties are banking on spring fever and high gas prices to bring local tourism dollars their way.

Saturday and Sunday will mark the 16th annual Mississippi River Valley Scenic Drive, an event that encourages people to get out and see the historic and cultural offerings of the four-county area.

The drive covers a wide swath of Southeast Missouri -- from Brazeau in the north to Commerce in the South to Marble Hill in the west and the Mississippi River in the east -- over several local highways.

Organizers hope people in the area will take advantage of a cheap, easy mini-vacation close to home, avoiding high prices at the pump.

"The driving tour can be broken up in any variety of ways," said Chuck Martin, director of the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau and president of the River Heritage Association. "You can make it as long or as short as you would like to.

"You can literally pick it up wherever you want to pick it up at, and go to whatever section or site is best for you."

The scenic drive was formed in 1990, largely under the direction of Dr. Frank Nickell, director of Southeast Missouri State University's Center for Regional History.

Nickell said the drive started as a way to encourage people to look into the rich history of the region and to remind those in historic places what's right under their noses.

From a route of about 130 miles in 1990, the scenic drive route now covers about 230.

Cities and business in the scenic drive area volunteer to be part of the activities, with many offering special hours and events for visitors. Marble Hill has the highest number of stops for any town on the tour, including the Bollinger County Museum of Natural History, the Cat Ranch Art Guild and an array of restaurants.

One of the weekend's big highlights is the Saturday opening of a historic bridge in Old Appleton, said Nickell.

The weekend is always a strong draw for local businesses, communities and historic sites, said Nickell. Bollinger Mill can expect to see about 1,000 cars on a weekend of good weather (which this weekend is expected to be) and the tiny town of Brazeau, population 52, could have as many as 2,500 visitors, he said.

Joannie Smith, co-owner of River Ridge Winery in Commerce with her husband Jerry, said Nickell's numbers aren't just talk. River Ridge has participated in the drive for several years, and helped to encourage the inclusion of more southern environs like Commerce, Scott City and Kelso on the drive.

"I would say we see 15 to 20 percent more people than on a normal spring weekend," Smith said. "It's certainly worthwhile."

Brochures detailing each of the 31 featured sites on the drive are available at the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

335-6611, extension 182

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