Elmo, a town of about 150 people tucked away in the northwest corner of Nodaway County, is one of those little prairie villages that most people miss even if they don't blink their eyes while driving through.
Essentially created by the Wabash Railroad Co. and called St. Elmo early on, the town today is little more than a collection of old storefronts just off sparsely traveled Route C not far from the Iowa line.
But once a year on the Saturday before the 4th of July, tiny Elmo is reborn, if only in the collective memory of a few dozen families who still call the place home. The town's annual summer festival, held on a scenic hilltop where there used to be a schoolhouse, is a heartfelt event that speaks both to a fading past and a hopeful, if somewhat uncertain, future.
This past weekend was no exception. All the usual trappings of a small town on holiday were present and accounted for. There was a 5K run and walk, an inflatable obstacle course for the youngsters, a baby beauty contest (all babies were judged to be equally beautiful), a parade, lots of food, some music and dancing, and a big fireworks display.
Countywide there are a half-dozen similar festivals every year. But the Elmo fair is, somehow, a little different. Special. More of a family affair — a remembrance of things past. The town seems too small to have so much heart.
Decades after Elmo's heyday in the 1920s as a farm-to-market hub, the town's children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom have ties to the community spanning 100 years or more, are still coming "back home."
Two of those offspring, now in their 70s, are Dick and Ethel Phillips, who drove nearly 600 miles from their home in suburban Denver, Colo., to spend a day among the bottomland cornfields and rolling, wooded hills of their youth.
Dick Phillips played basketball and tennis for Northwest Missouri State University in the 1950s, then went on to become a Methodist clergyman and earn a doctorate in developmental psychology from Syracuse University in New York. Before retiring, he served 18 years as dean of SU's Hendricks Chapel, a nationally prestigious theological and academic post.
Though he grew up in Tarkio, Phillips calls himself a "surrogate member of the Elmo community." His parents and grandparents grew up in the area and are buried there. It's Ethel's hometown.
"One reason she married me is that every other boy she went to school with was her cousin," Phillips quipped.
But if the bloodlines run close and thick in Elmo, so do family values, said Phillips, who believes that farm life, church life and the iron-clad rural code of what it means to be a good neighbor were touchstones that made the little community special.
Page 2 of 2 - "It was a great little town," recalled Ethel Phillips. "I remember on Saturday night when everybody came in and there would be cars parked double up and down the street. I've adjusted to city life, but I'm basically still just a small-town person."
Of the memories that remain, Ethel said some of the most special are the corn cob and walnut hull fights she had with her cousins and attending a one-room school house,
Doing farm work during the summer for his grandparents and uncles, Dick Phillips best recalls putting up hay, going to barn-raisings and cultivating corn. In those days, he said, farming was a communal affair, with neighbors pitching in whenever someone needed help.
"It really was a family and a community atmosphere," he said. "Everybody shared and everybody helped."
Not that life was all work and no play. Like his wife, Dick Phillips has a very soft spot for Saturday nights in the 1940s and '50s when Elmo was filled with busyness, bustle, excitement and even romance.
"It was a great tradition," he said. "You came into town and you shopped, you went to the movies, you had a milkshake at the soda shop. People were having fun, and Elmo was just a good place to be."