A Spark for Old Town

Who cares about old buildings anyway? They’re just piles of brick, crumbling masonry, rotting timber and danger.

For many years, that’s how I felt about the old Davis Store at Main and Gay streets in Old Town Warrensburg. I drive past the sagging, sad building every day, wondering when someone will haul it away.

Two curious lurkers watch a Delta Chi fraternity member toss scraps into a trash bin in front of the Davis Store at the corner of Main and Gay streets Friday.

The north wall, with the faded painted advertisements, has a noticeable inward bow. The brick on the rear corner of the building was replaced with cinder block several years ago and tin covers the brick on the other side. And mismatched colored tin covers the rickety roof over the front porch.

There’s not much left that’s original. And fixing up the place seems unrealistic.

So, I was surprised last Friday as we drove by the store and saw Delta Chi fraternity brothers loading a trash bin with junk from inside the building. And I learned that the owners, Nancy Anderson and her cousin, Noble Davis, recently donated the building and property to the Johnson County Historical Society.

The historical society board has taken on quite a project and an equal amount of risk.

Delta Chi fraternity members help clean out the Davis Store Friday.

Then Mike Shaw, JCHS board president, showed me a very old pickax unearthed from the debris inside. Shaw said the pitted-metal business end of the ax is old enough to have belonged to one of the miners thought to have lived in the building long ago. Warrensburg had major sandstone mines north of town.

Then Shaw told me about the piles of grocery receipts and property titles exchanged to settle grocery bills from the store – and the rolled-up two-page love letter dated 1864 written in impeccable, tiny script by A.W. Reece. Reece School in Warrensburg is named for this Civil War surgeon of the 31st Missouri Infantry who was attached to the Union army of William T. Sherman.

Why this letter was stashed with Davis Store receipts is a mystery.

Then Shaw told me the historical society wants to renovate the building, bring it up to code and rent it as a commercial property. My mind started racing about the possibility of Old Town getting some type of grocery store, restaurant or coffee shop – some kind of spark. Although not so interesting, but a logical tenant, apparently the West Central Genealogical Society is interested.

Then Nancy Anderson retold one of her fondest memories of the old Davis Store, which had been in her family since 1893 starting with W.O. Davis.

The store used to deliver groceries. Customers called to place orders and an employee would drive the groceries to them. Nancy said she used to ride along with the black man who delivered for the store.

“After he got out of the truck and got the load of groceries out, he would start either singing or whistling. And finally one day I asked him, ‘You know, why do you do that, Perry? And he says, ‘I have to do that so the lady of the house will know that I’m coming and that she’s not to be afraid of me.”

So, yes, old buildings are more than brick and timber. They are time machines. They tell us stories, teach us lessons and help give communities a sense of identity.

Why did Nancy Anderson wait so long to give the building to the historical society? Why wasn’t she inspired to raise money to fix up the place like she did to spruce up the entrance to Sunset Hill Cemetery, which is now a children’s memorial park named in her honor?

The simple answer is it doesn’t matter. The fact is the historical society finally has the building and it’s time to get behind them and support the project. Shaw has experience in these endeavors, having worked with the group in Columbia to renovate Blind Boone’s home. And he seems optimistic about the possibilities for the Davis Store.

The Davis Store is one of two original buildings from Old Town Warrensburg. The other one is the original courthouse, built in 1838. Shaw said some believe the store dates back to the 1840s but evidence proving this is circumstantial. He said they can confidently date the building to 1867, and the building itself was a grocery store in the Davis family from 1893 to 1969.

And back in the day, Old Town was Warrensburg’s town square. There were hotels and businesses until the railroad came and people started moving east and the current courthouse replaced the one now standing, preserved and fully utilized by the historical society.

Maybe we can get some of that attention back to Old Town. The city and historical society have already made great strides in sprucing up Main Street with a streetscape similar to downtown. And the old sandstone sidewalk in front of the courthouse is back in good shape.

But it’s not going to be easy. Shaw said they received an estimate of $453,000 to rehab the Davis Store. The other option is to tear it down for $15,000 and sell the lot.

“We didn’t want to pass it up,” Shaw said.

And with the amount of history and lives the old store touched, who can blame them for trying? Shaw said the idea is to reach out to the community for donations to pay for the work.

“If it’s not important to the community, then if we have to knock it down then it’ll be because the citizens of Johnson County and elsewhere didn’t care,” Shaw said. “We’re proving that we care. Now we’re going to need some help.”

Visit the historical society sometime at 302 N. Main St. Shaw is also keeping Saturday hours from 1 to 4 p.m. Or visit their website at http://www.jocomohistory.org/.

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  1. #1 by Lisa on March 31, 2012 - 11:41 pm

    An accurate portrayal of the mammoth task. And we are now maintaining five buildings. Come to the Old Drum Day Festival and check it all out. Thanks Matt.

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