Something Old, Something New

Missourians can’t help it. They keep tearing Lawrence down.

Apologies to the good people of Lawrence, Kansas–both of them–but there’s bad blood between them and
us. In fact, the Civil War really began along the border between Missouri and Kansas, long before the first shots rang out at Fort Sumter.

The first time Lawrence got torched was in 1856 during the Bleeding Kansas conflict. Jesse James was only eight years old, so it’s doubtful his mom let him make the trip. Seven years later, he likely missed the second burning of Lawrence, too. But brother Frank was there, along with William Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, Archie Clement and a cadre of Bushwhackers.

Ang Lee’s movie, Ride with the Devil, wasn’t the first celluloid treatment of the 1863 burning of Lawrence. But he was the first to use an old abandoned Missouri town as the movie set. Lee found the perfect torchable town in Old Pattonsburg, Missouri, a town so ravaged by floods that the inhabitants moved out of the Grand River valley, up the hill and established a new Pattonsburg. Left behind, venerable old brick buildings–a church, a post office, mercantile stores–stood empty along Old Pattonsburg’s main street.

John Drake Robinson

With Hollywood skill, Lee transformed the old ghost town, made it look like Lawrence, and torched it again. Ang Lee’s circus of actors and technicians and trailers added a cash infusion to the local economy. Motel rooms sold out for weeks as movie crews spent money in local stores on food and booze and gas and stuff. After Lee’s movie, folks were excited that a burgeoning movie industry might take a foothold in this old ghost town, which could be dressed up to look like anytown main street from the 1850s to the 1950s.

With low overhead that would compete with the Canadian film industry, the town was poised to nickname itself Movie Set, Missouri. Instead, local authorities finished off what Bushwhacker actors had left standing. After Ang Lee’s carnival left the old ghost town, locals razed the solid old buildings on Main Street. They just tore them down. According to more than one source, the county couldn’t afford liability insurance. Plus, law enforcement authorities worried that kids would party in the empty streets and buildings. Legitimate concerns.

But with one big movie under its belt, Old Pattonsburg had street cred. It could have provided the small-town backdrop for movies about any era from Twain to Truman. Film a movie on the lot once every ten years, and you could reap enough income for liability insurance, two deputies to chase out the vagrants, and enough money left over to pay a few teachers’ salaries.

It was a forfeiture of forward thinking.

Kansans had the last laugh. They rebuilt Lawrence. Old Pattonsburg bit the dust. But if there’s ever a living testament to the phrase “Life goes on,” it’s new Pattonsburg. When the citizens of Old Pattonsburg got tired of the floods and planned their new shining city on a hill, they designed a new school in the shape of a geodesic dome. They built a modern business district, with artifacts from Old Pattonsburg.

In a new Pattonsburg store I found a mural commemorating Ride with the Devil. The scene, painted by Elanor McMahall, is a reminder of Old Pattonsburg’s last days, when Ang Lee brought his Hollywood carnival to town, dressed her up like Lawrence and set her ablaze.

It’s a vivid story of a tragic time set in a Missouri ghost town that had endured her own turbulence.

Rest in peace, Old Pattonsburg. You went out with a bang.

More of John’s travel stories are available at johndrakerobinson.comclm