By Ken Newton
Tourists step down from the bus and into a land of stitches. Another day in Hamilton, Missouri.
The Caldwell County community began as a railroad town, established in 1854 beside the Hannibal & St. Joseph tracks. Hamilton would later become known as the hometown of James Cash Penney, who left Northwest Missouri to build a retailing empire.
But the visitors these days, from every corner of America and abroad, come on a pilgrimage. The town has become the Lourdes of quilting.
Other visitors, smaller and in flight, now have gotten local interest.
Monarch butterflies flutter from Canada to Mexico and back each year. A group has conceived a butterfly park on the edge of Hamilton, a way station of wildflowers meant to augment local attractions.
The grander vision, one that would lengthen the idea by a couple of hundred miles, calls for a Missouri Butterfly Trail, one that stretches from the Hamilton meadow down State Highway 13 to Springfield.
This idea convenes a number of different opportunities and needs.
One, the park makes use of 10 acres of land owned by the city, a former dump long since capped that became a rodeo arena unused in the last decade. The property, a little south of U.S. Highway 36, now features unkempt brush, poison ivy and potential.
Two, Hamilton has undergone a renaissance thanks to the growth of Missouri Star Quilt Co., a home-grown company that transformed the town’s declining main street into a bustling place of vibrant business life. But wouldn’t it be great to have other things for guests to explore?
”We have a lot of visitors come to Hamilton with the quilt shop, and some of them are looking for day trips or something else to do for their experience ... just other things to do while you’re in the area,” said Bud Motsinger, Caldwell County presiding commissioner and an advocate for the park.
Finally, the park touches an environmental exigency. Butterflies and other pollinators have struggled in recent times. Acreage thick with coneflower and aster, salvia and verbana, black-eyed Susan and blazing star, it can’t hurt. Many miles of it would be even better.
”We’re looking at all pollinators. Butterflies are the ones that catch people’s attention,” Motsinger said.
The project has developed fairly quickly. (“It’s volunteers instead of government,” the commissioner mused.) A community alliance had been collecting ideas to address town issues, a host of concerns from parks to housing.
One member had visited a botanical garden in Springfield, Missouri, and came away impressed with the butterfly house there.
It seemed a reasonable adjunct to the geography. Interstate 35, near Hamilton, has been designated the “Monarch Highway” because of its north-south similarity to the butterfly migration route. If these non-objectionable creatures pass through anyway, a place of welcome makes good sense.
Most people who heard the idea liked it. The city signed on with the land. Volunteers turned out for workdays. The Missouri Department of Conservation offered its help. The Missouri Highway 13 Corridor Coalition seemed game.
”We came up with the idea, why not create a butterfly trail,” said Bob Hughes, another driving force on the project. “Our long-range vision is if we can have about a 200-mile corridor of wildflowers and pollinators.”
Motsinger does not discount the amount of work it will take. Just more than 6 acres will be cleared of its existing foliage, followed by a controlled burn and then the planting of wildflower seeds. Another portion of the grounds will have raised beds available for adoption by families and businesses.
A nature trail will eventually wind through the area. But that will come after the root systems of the plants do their underground work, something that will take a couple of summers.
”One of the problems we have is, the first couple of years after you establish it, it’s going to look like a patch of weeds. Some people want a very manicured garden,” Motsinger said. “It takes a little while for it to get established.”
With everything else going on in Hamilton — the broad attention to quilting, the opening of restaurants and other services, the arrival of tour buses — a park on the outskirts of town might barely register.
But the diversification of Hamilton attractions owns the possibility of a dividend one day. The economy and butterflies might appreciate the effort.