Brazeau: A splendid day in the country

Friday, May 2, 2008

It's hard to believe that, until last Saturday, my wife and I had never been to Brazeau, a tiny Perry County community with a well-deserved reputation for hospitality that stretches back 200 years.

We rectified that during the 18th annual Mississippi River Valley Scenic Drive that takes visitors to curious and familiar places in Cape Girardeau, Perry, Scott and Bollinger counties. If anyone can think of a prettier day than last Saturday for such an outing, I'd love to hear about it.

Looking at a map, I can say with confidence that we have been to every community shown on the scenic-drive map, now that we've had a grand visit to Brazeau.

One of the first places we visited after moving to Cape Girardeau 14 years ago was Frohna, one of the German settlements whose claim to fame is being the birthplace of the Missouri Synod branch of the Lutheran Church.

Brazeau is just a bit up Route C from Frohna, close enough that you could almost throw a sack of wet cement from one town to the other. I can't believe in all these years we had somehow managed to miss such a lovely spot.

Today, Brazeau is a collection of a few houses, a magnificent Presbyterian church building, the old school that has been turned into a museum, a blacksmith shop, tea house, old bank building and the Hemman Winery in what used to be a general store run by the Hemman family where family recipes are used to make mostly sweet fruit wines that are popular with the locals and visitors alike.

During the weekend of the scenic drive, the folks in Brazeau set up a huge cast-iron kettle over a wood fire and serve ham and beans on Saturday and stew on Sunday. Diners enjoy each others' company at picnic tables set up in front of some of the town's old buildings next to the highway.

Most of the crowd were friendly residents or former residents of the town, which was settled by Scotch-Irish by way of North Carolina -- some say before the French established Ste. Genevieve -- who organized the Presbyterian church in 1819. Some say it's the oldest active Presbyterian congregation west of the Mississippi River.

All of the Brazeau residents we met are steeped in the area's history and love to tell the story -- we heard it seven times during our two-hour visit -- of how the Presbyterian Scotch-Irish took in the newly arrived Lutheran Germans when they arrived in the dead of winter without food or the wherewithal to make a go of it in the frontier. The Presbyterians looked after the new arrivals until they were able to clear their own land and build homes around Frohna. In all the years since, the two towns have enjoyed a wonderful spirit of cooperation and mutual assistance.

Perhaps the best legacy of all from our forefathers is the gift of hospitality. They took care of each in order to survive. Without mutual aid and a willingness to share whatever they had, many of our ancestors would not have made it through some tough times.

Before telephones came to Killough Valley in the Ozarks over yonder where I grew up, you never new whose car might be raising that cloud of dust coming down the hill from the highway. Sometimes when a car pulled up in front of the house is when we realized we would probably need to kill another chicken for dinner or supper. No one ever came to our house without being invited to share a meal, and most of the time they accepted.

My wife's family was the same. I don't ever remember being in my mother-in-law's house more than 10 minutes before being plied with something to eat and a glass of iced tea or lemonade or a cup of steaming coffee.

I'd like to think my family and my wife's family would have felt just as welcome Saturday in Brazeau. We certainly did.

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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