Lessons in Small-Town Hospitality: Arrow Rock, Missouri

Two and a half hours after leaving St. Louis, we heard the pleasant sound of our tires crunching gravel as we pulled into the drive of Borgman’s Bed and Breakfast. It was 3:45 p.m. on Friday, and we were ready to start a weekend of relaxation. This was going to be the first bed-and-breakfast experience for me and Chris, my strong and handsome boyfriend (his words!), and we didn’t know what to expect.

We decided on the town of Arrow Rock for two simple reasons:  (1) at less than a three-hour drive yet more than just outside of St. Louis proper, it was the right distance away, and (2) the lodging offered electricity. Originally we were looking for a camping experience, but the B-and-Bs in Arrow Rock were so affordable, we decided to go for comfort. The town itself is quite small — approximately eight blocks by four blocks — and these aren’t city blocks I’m talking about. There are four other bed and breakfasts, as well as camping nearby, yet the town boasts only two restaurants and no full-size grocery store. It sounded like the perfect place for a getaway close to home, yet out of the city.

The timing of the trip wasn’t exactly perfect. We were both swamped with work, and we were moving in together in a week, something we were trying desperately to organize for. But when we made the reservations for the B-and-B, we didn’t know we would be moving, and we were both so stressed out, the thought of giving up a potentially relaxing trip to the middle of nowhere was utterly unpalatable. So we worked hard to pull it together.

After parking the car in the driveway and unloading our modest luggage, we walked up to the front porch and found a note on the door. Kathy Borgman, the proprietor, was out for the afternoon, but as promised on the phone a few days earlier, she had left the door unlocked for us. (In fact, the door was kept unlocked at all times except overnight — our first lesson in small-town living.) The note was simple enough: “Come on in and make yourselves at home. Choose any room upstairs. I’ll be home at 5:00.” Because it was still early in the vacationing season, we would be the only guests that weekend.

We walked in and took a look around. The first thing we noticed — or maybe I should say the first creature we noticed — was a very fat cat lying on the couch in the front room. He looked like something from Alice in Wonderland. I approached him cautiously, and before I even began to pet him, he began to purr. I have admittedly limited experience with cats, but I had never heard one purr that loudly before. The big guy was obviously old, and we soon learned he spent most of his time eating and sleeping (and purring!). After a few more pats on the head, we left the cat to his sleep and went to choose our room.

The house is a large two-story, with one bedroom, a front formal living room, a large kitchen, and a back living room on the first floor, and three more bedrooms, two full baths, and a common area upstairs. Clearly, most of the vacationing takes place upstairs while the downstairs is for daily living. Since we had our choice of sleeping arrangements, we looked in every room and tried out all the different beds before we finally settled on the front left bedroom with a firm but comfortable double bed, a dresser with vanity, and an antique baby crib complete with baby doll. We set our things down, stretched our legs, then headed out for a short hike before dinner.

You don’t have to get out of your car to realize you could walk the entire length and breadth of Arrow Rock without breaking a sweat. In fact, it would take only slightly more than an hour to go up and down every street if you didn’t stop to look around. But there are a few nice hiking trails that wrap around the town through the wooded areas, and that is where we were headed.

The trailhead was easy enough to find, and the path was well maintained. We were happy to get out into nature a bit, and it felt good to use our muscles again after the drive. The trail was hilly but not too difficult, and the weather was perfect, but at a clearing after maybe twenty minutes of hiking, we lost the trail and decided we better head back. Although we had picked up maps in the front hall of the B-and-B, we had failed to bring them with us. It was just as well, since we were both getting hungry for dinner.Back at Borgman’s, we showered and changed for supper. We had just two choices, Arrow Rock Station or J. Huston Tavern. We would be there for two nights, so we decided to try the Tavern Friday night and the Station Saturday night. We were looking forward to a big meal.

The Tavern, it turned out, had just reopened for the season the week before and was still working some kinks out of its all-new waitstaff. The proprietor had previously run a different restaurant but now was revitalizing the Tavern. A brisk-walking, short-haired blond, she boasted to a family in the dining room that she’s not afraid to use bacon grease if it makes her mashed potatoes better. The food, although tasty, reflected this lack of concern for health. Every item on the menu had some kind of butter sauce or gravy coating. I had fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, and carrots with a butter-molasses glaze, and Chris had the same. Luckily the meal came with a salad or our hearts might have stopped right there at the table. When it was time to pay the check we learned that the restaurant was having trouble taking credit cards. In the true spirit of a small town, the proprietor, who rang me out, offered to mail the bill to my house so I could mail back a check if I didn’t have cash.

It was near dark by the time we finished our meals, and after a brief walk through town, we headed back to the homestead. Kathy Borgman had told us ahead of time that she was going to be having some guests that night, so we sat on the front porch and worked on a crossword until it was too dark to see. Then we went inside and enjoyed a game of Pente in the upstairs common area. When we were ready for sleep we stopped downstairs to say good night to Kathy. She asked about dinner and commented on the new waitstaff at the Tavern. They were a little rough around the edges, she said, but she was happy to have a second place to eat dinner in town again.

In a place like Arrow Rock, it’s generally early to bed and early to rise. Once the sun goes down, options on entertainment are limited and you want to make the most of daylight. So at 10:00 we settled into our firm double bed, looking forward to a restful night’s sleep. We both proceeded to have terrible fits of sleep that included, for me, about thirty minutes of reading in the common room in the middle of the night trying to settle down. My stomach was not happy with the heavy dinner we’d had, and  Chris also woke often throughout the night. So much for rest and relaxation!

Because Kathy had a conference in Kansas City, Missouri, and had to leave first thing in the morning, we made breakfast for ourselves on Saturday. She had mentioned the meeting when I confirmed the reservation and let me know she would have all of the fixings ready for us to prepare when we got up. Thankfully Chris and I were well versed in making breakfast together. Besides the usual scrambled eggs and (pepper) bacon, we also had delicious granola, applesauce, and homemade cinnamon rolls, the house specialty. 

We cleaned up after breakfast and headed out for another hike. We had two or three routes to choose from, but we decided to complete the one we had abandoned the day before. We had the map with us this time and we were sure we could find the second half of the trail with the map. It had already rained in the morning and clouds were hanging around, but we were hopeful we could complete the hike before getting drenched.

On our way to the trailhead, we stopped at the Arrow Rock Visitors’ Center. A surprisingly large venue, the visitors’ center is free and filled with information about and artifacts from the founding of the city. In a nutshell, the city grew up across the river from Boonville, where Boone’s Lick (a salt mine) was thriving. Arrow Rock earned its name from the rocks the Native Americans used to make arrowheads. It seems most people must have lived in Boonville and come to Arrow Rock when they needed some arrowheads, and that’s about what it looks like today. (Boonville, fifteen minutes down the interstate service road, is roughly ten times the size of Arrow Rock, if not larger.)

By the time we left the visitors’ center, that is, about fifteen minutes after we left the B-and-B, it had started raining again. With jackets zipped and hoods pulled up, we waited until it let up some, then decided to go on with our hike despite the rain. When we reached the place we had originally lost the trail — a clearing where there is a road and a shelter — we found the trail marker was right in front of us. Our only explanation for missing it before was that there was a family in a car reading a sign and we got distracted by that, or they somehow had been blocking our view. Happy to know we were going to be able to complete the loop this time, we continued on the trail at a medium pace, enjoying the adventure.  Not long into the second loop, the rain became a downpour. We were happy to be out in the woods, but we were also ready to seek a dry refuge, so we stepped up our pace. At that point it was going to be faster to complete the loop than head back. We passed some car campers who were having considerably less fun than we were, and we talked about ditching the slick, slow trail for the road to make up time. We were a little concerned that without the trail we might get lost, but after more slow going and heavy rain, we found a good spot to leave the trail — the other side of the same clearing! Now we just had to figure out exactly how to get back to town. We had tried to protect our map from the wetness of our hands and the raindrops, but the paper was definitely feeling the strain. We followed the road that appeared to head home, but soon discovered we had taken a wrong turn into a picnicking area where the road made a giant circle. At that point I felt completely lost, but Chris was confident we would find the right road again.

Looking again at the map, we discovered the road we were standing on wasn’t even pictured, so we struck out for what seemed to be the main road and followed it around. We were completely soaked by then, to the point of not being able to get any wetter, which in a way takes the pressure off — nothing left to lose. We followed the pavement down to the bottom of the hill and from there we were sure we could find our way back to Borgman’s. The roads were rushing with water as enough rain had fallen to cause some flash flooding, and we still had a ten-minute walk to get back, but at least we weren’t making any more wrong turns. This was not going to turn into “Hansel and Gretel”!

Back at the house we removed our shoes, socks, and jackets on the front porch. My jacket was absolutely drenched, but amazingly my sweater underneath was hardly even damp. My jeans on the other hand were soaked and sticking to me. Chris’s jacket, T-shirt, and jeans were all soaked through, and we raced upstairs to get our wet clothes off. Kathy’s conference was an all-day affair, so we were alone in the house. After stripping down to our skivvies and showering, we hung up our clothes to dry and slipped on some more comfortable clothes to eat lunch in. We had thought to bring some deli turkey and cheese and bread with us in a cooler in the car, and I slipped in a couple of beers as well — one each — and we ate our meal on the front porch in the shocking quiet of midafternoon. We saw almost no one while we were out there and heard only two cars. Chris was a little worried about drinking beer outdoors in a town like Arrow Rock, but I assured him that in Anheuser-Busch country, no one would mind. The rain, of course, had stopped by then, and after the tiring hike and the adrenaline rush of not quite knowing how to get back, it was wonderful to sit, freshly showered, and be quiet for a while. That moment was the essence of everything I liked about our trip.

We spent some time inside doing crosswords and waiting out more rain, then headed out to see what the main drag had to offer. There were probably ten shops to see, selling various sundry goods and antiques. (There’s also a well-reviewed theater in town, the Lyceum Theatre, but the season hadn’t started yet.)  Our first stop was in the ice cream shop, where I had a root beer float and Chris had a Coke. It was interesting seeing the handful of townsfolk hanging out, enjoying a little ice cream and wandering over to inspect the antique furniture on sale. One man, accompanied by his daughter, mentioned that he wasn’t from Arrow Rock but from a few towns over, and he was cutting through on his way somewhere else. We got the feeling that kind of traffic is what keeps those stores alive. Without some infusion of outside blood, it wouldn’t be possible for the 79 full-time residents of Arrow Rock to sustain the shops. (Really, how many jars of apple butter can one person purchase?) We were also struck by how few children there were in town. The two or three we saw around town were definitely just passing through, and we only heard a few others after our hike Saturday morning. Being thirty-two years old and the youngest person around for miles makes you wonder what the future of the town can be.

As we wandered on from store to store, visiting Santa Fe Crossing Antiques, Arrow Rock Country Store, and Arrow Rock Craft Shop, we found one common topic of conversation: the new waitstaff at the Tavern. Not only were they new to the Tavern, but they seemed to be green all around, with limited experience waiting tables. We suspected as much when we were eating there, but it made us smile to hear so many people talking about it. Another lesson of small towns: anything different counts as news. We made our way up the strip, purchased some barbecue sauce, a jar of apple butter (had to have it!), and a hand-painted welcome sign for our new house, then slowly worked our way back to the other end of town. We stopped at John P. Sites Gun Shop hoping for a thrill — neither of us has ever handled a gun before — but the place was still closed for the season.

It was a bit early for dinner and I had just filled up on a root beer float, but we essentially ran out of things to do, so we decided to see what time the Arrow Rock Station opened for the evening meal. From all appearances on the outside, they were closed. But that couldn’t be; it was Saturday night! We tried the door and it opened right onto the dining room, with tables set and ready to go, but it was clear they weren’t open for business. According to our visitors’ guide, they should have been starting dinner service — there seemed to be a problem.

Meanwhile, back at Borgman’s Kathy had returned from her all-day conference. We told her about our adventure hiking and about our foiled attempt to eat at the Station. She confirmed that the restaurant should be open by now and, being an excellent host, she called over to find out what the trouble was. This is what we heard:

“Hi, Sharon, it’s Kathy Borgman. . . . Uh-huh. I have a couple of guests here who were planning to stop by the Station tonight for dinner. Are you not opening tonight?”

At this point Chris and I were speculating what could possibly be wrong. We knew it must be bad when we heard, “Oh, Lordy. . . . Lordy, Lordy, Lordy. . . . OK, well, good luck, dear.”

When she hung up, Kathy explained that the Station was closed unexpectedly because the basement was flooded and it didn’t have working plumbing due to the heavy rains. We couldn’t bear another heavy meal at the Tavern, but we didn’t know anything else nearby. Luckily Kathy came to the rescue with some suggestions for restaurants in neighboring Boonville. Although she wasn’t quite willing to say whether she liked the places she suggested, she did say, “You might try X. A lot of my guests seem to enjoy that.” (This is when we discovered a little something about what it takes to run a bed and breakfast: when dealing with so many people from different backgrounds, keep your personal life to yourself and your opinions as neutral as possible. Whether we asked about restaurants, trails, or shops, Kathy often replied the same way, without ever actually stating an opinion of her own.) After considering our options, we decided on Glenn’s Café in the Hotel Frederick.

Compared to Arrow Rock, Boonville is a metropolis! The two towns are connected by a short stretch of the outer road, and once we were in Boonville, finding the restaurant took about ten minutes. We didn’t know what to expect, but what we found was a small fine restaurant luxuriously remodeled with delicious food. Chris tried a gourmet sandwich, and I had open-faced roast beef, mashed potatoes, and baby carrots. The sides for my meal were nearly identical to what I’d had the night before at the Tavern, but the result was very different. I could almost guarantee bacon grease wasn’t on the menu at Glenn’s.

After dinner, we explored the riverfront, then headed back home. It was nice to be in the quiet little town again. We were tired when we got back, so we talked with Kathy for a few minutes, then headed up to bed. Unfortunately, it was another fitful night’s sleep, this time with nightmares for both of us. Morning came quickly.

With more rain coming in, we planned to leave town at 9:00 a.m. We had arranged to have breakfast with Kathy at 8:00, a near repeat of the meal the day before, but this time someone else was cooking. The breakfast was very good. Kathy shared the secret of how best to enjoy her homemade granola — with applesauce mixed in; delicious! — and Chris and I contemplated ways of sneaking more of those homemade cinnamon rolls into our luggage.

Kathy had an early-morning church appointment , so we said good-bye to her after breakfast, then went to ready our belongings for the ride home. As we spent our last moments in the room, we flipped through the journal beside our bed. Each room had a small book for guests to write down their thoughts and thank-you’s , and we wanted to add our own. We expressed our thanks for the hospitality, then checked out what some of the other guests had put.

With bags packed and our minds returning to home, we loaded up the car and laughed about some of the sentiments we had read in the journal. We particularly liked this line from one man: “Best night’s sleep ever.” That was one experience we did not have! On our way out of town, we opted to drive past the historic theater one more time for a look. As we turned for the highway, we saw the owner of the Tavern, and she waved good-bye as if we were old friends. It was the perfect ending to our getaway.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.