Scenic drive gives Southeast Missouri's small towns a chance to make a big impression

Friday, April 24, 2009

Residents of small Southeast Missouri communities such as Commerce, Brazeau and Pocahontas want the rest of the region to know that bigger is not always better.

These towns and others will have their charm, flora, food and history on display this weekend as they host the 19th annual Mississippi River Valley Scenic Drive. The self-guided driving tour Saturday and Sunday features 27 stops at area communities as locals roll out the red carpet for visitors.

The tour is a way for rural communities without big tourism budgets to put their best foot forward and show off, taking advantage of warming temperatures to bring in visitors attracted to the charm of small-town life. The Center for Regional History at Southeast Missouri State University acts as coordinator of the event, which director Dr. Frank Nickell calls "community driven."

The Perry county town of Brazeau, population 52, will likely host 2,000-2,500 visitors if the favorable weekend forecast holds true, Nickell predicted. He attributes the area's natural beauty and a yearning for the past as making the scenic drive such a popular event.

"This is as green an area of Missouri that exists," Nickell said. "And there's just a simplicity and beauty that's hard to find anymore. It's a look at life as it used to be."

Lovers of spring foliage will no doubt find the Pine Crest Azalea Farm near Oak Ridge a highlight of the tour. The free drive-through botanical garden features more than 3,000 plants.

History buffs will enjoy the old churches on the tour, including Apple Creek Presbyterian, one of the oldest Protestant churches west of the Mississippi River. That church, which has no electricity, will hold a gaslight sing at 6 p.m. Sunday. Before the sing, St. John's Lutheran Church in nearby Pocahontas will have its annual kettle-cooked beef supper from 3 to 6 p.m.

Other historical points of interest on the route include numerous riverfront landings and log cabins, in addition to a variety of historic crafts including quilts and aprons. Museums on the tour include the visitors center at Trail of Tears State Park north of Cape Girardeau and the Bollinger Mill State Historical Site at Burfordville.

Tourists who are hungry can sample local community fare such as beans and cornbread, stew and fresh-baked bread, all prepared outdoors. Visitors can enjoy the fruitage of the vine at wineries in Commerce, Altenburg and Brazeau.

The Mississippi River Valley Scenic Drive has been held on the fourth weekend of April each year since 1991.

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