People who live along the Missouri River Valley probably all know some of its historical details — like the Lewis and Clark expedition that came through in 1804 and 1806 or the German immigration in this area or the steamboats that went up and down the river — but what was it like actually to live here 200 years ago?
Dan and Connie Burkhardt, who own Bethlehem Valley Farm and Vineyards in Marthasville, a working farm where they grow grapes, cut hay and raise cattle and chickens, have imagined it for you in a new historical fiction book, “Growing Up With the River, Nine Generations on the Missouri.”
Part children’s picture book, part coffeetable book, part history book, “Growing Up With the River” tells an interesting story from a child’s perspective in chapters that focus on nine communities along the Missouri River with each chapter set in a different generation:
1806 in La Charrette;
1832 in Femme Osage/Dutzow;
1862 in Hermann;
1883 in New Haven;
1904 in Marthasville/Peers/Treloar;
1932 in Washington;
1959 in St. Charles;
1986 in Augusta;
2016 in Chesterfield; and
2040, about the fate of the Missouri River Valley.
The story is illustrated with beautiful, historical paintings by Bryan Haynes and numerous other images to highlight facts about the area.
The chapters are short and can be read fast, although they are each so dense with details in the image cutlines and sidebars that many readers will want to take their time.
The style of writing is pleasant and easy to read. “It’s evocative to me of the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ books,” Connie Burkhardt remarked.
The Burkhardts, who wrote the book together — Dan writing the story line and Connie editing his copy and adding in dialogue and more details — say the book is meant to be more than just a beautifully illustrated history book.
“It’s an invitation,” they write in the preface. “The characters in this book, including the centuries-old bur oak trees and river towns, invite every reader to catch a bit of the spirit shown by the Corps of Discovery.”
The couple, who in 2010 established the Katy Land Trust in collaboration with the Ozarks Regional Land Trust “to protect the agricultural, scenic and natural resources along the Katy Trail in central Missouri,” were motivated to write the book to spread that message even further and to a demographic who may have been missing it in its other forms — children.
“We want to remind people of how much history there is out here, and we wanted to connect kids to the outdoors at the same time,” said Dan Burkhardt. “So the purpose of the book is to tell stories that would get kids to think about how they could come out and experience this area today, whether it’s on the Katy Trail or taking a canoe ride on the river or going to one of the nature areas or going to the Boone home.”
The story is written specifically to engage young readers, who may be turned off by history when it involves visiting a museum, said Connie Burkhardt.
The couple’s own grandchildren served as inspiration for their writing. It wasn’t hard for them to imagine what a child would do or say in those experiences because they’ve spent a lot of time witnessing their grandchildren explore their farm and surrounding area.
“When they come to our farm, they live this. They’ve been on that river on a canoe trip,” said Dan Burkhardt, noting their farm is about a half-mile off the river, but there are creeks and fields and arrowheads and tall trees with birds. “They are all nature lovers.”
‘The Eureka Moment’
The Burkhardts began working on the book about two years ago, discovering facts and details from contacts they made along the way. They had made many trips along the Missouri River Valley themselves and were very familiar with it already, but it took extensive research to bring it all together in just the right way for the story.
They met with historians in each community, read journals from those time periods and worked hard to track down details they wanted to include — like finding a set of ruby glass salt and pepper shakers that were popular souvenirs from the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis so they could use the image in the book.
The year in which each chapter is set is purposeful, said Dan Burkhardt. He chose the years that were significant to the communities in which those chapters were set. The chapter about Washington, for example, is set in 1932, just before the bridge over the Missouri River is going up and when the smog was so bad in St. Louis that Henry Shaw’s orchid collection was moved to his property in Gray Summit (now Shaw Nature Reserve).
“That was the eureka moment, when we figured out what year to make each chapter,” said Dan Burkhardt. “At first it was just this jumble of stuff. Then we picked nine communities, nine generations, and said it’s going to be in these years because these were significant times for each community, and we built around that.”
Some of the details the Burkhardts uncovered were surprising to them, like one described at the start of Chapter 3 on Hermann, set in 1862, where a young boy in town shook the hand of presidential candidate Stephen Douglas when he got off the train there:
The boy “shook the candidate’s hand after (his) speech and said, ‘Goodbye, Mr. Douglas, but I don’t think you will be elected.’ The crowd laughed at this, but he was right.”
“That kid actually said that. It was documented in the Hermann newspaper,” said Dan Burkhardt, noting each of the book’s chapters have details like that.
The Washington chapter includes details on how the Calvin Theater was new and the older generation was nostalgic for the Wonderland Floating Theater, that used to come to town on the Missouri River.
The New Haven chapter brings in the Tilda-Clara ferryboat that didn’t use firewood to make steam turn the paddle wheel. It had horses on board that wore harnesses and walked on a treadmill to power it.
A lot of people who live in the Missouri River Valley today may never have heard of a Carolina parakeet, but they were once very common along the Missouri River in the early 1800s.
“The punchline in the Chesterfield chapter (set in 2016) is that the kids are riding the Katy Trail and they come across this bur oak three that their dad says could be more than 200 years ago. It’s a mythical bur oak, but there are oak trees all over this area that Carolina parakeets rested in,” said Dan Burkhardt.
There are layers of stories to be found in “Growing Up With the River.” They are found in the illustrations, in the nuances of conservation and the environment and in the historical and cultural references too.
After the final chapter set in 2040, the book’s epilogue is written by Jon Landau, who was the producer on the Hollywood movies “Titanic” and “Avatar.” He is a friend of the Burkhardts, and Dan was originally going to ask him to write something about the book to include on the back cover, and that turned into Landau writing an epilogue.
Landau went one better by offering a page from the screenplay of “Avatar,” is a story of environmental destruction, to use as an image in the book.
“After reading this book, I understood why it was written — to encourage us to think about what the next chapter will be, and who can and should influence it,” Landau wrote.
“Growing Up With the River” includes several interactive components.
In the front there is a log encouraging young readers to “scout” the pages of the book for specific flora and fauna and make note of the pages where they find them. That was a suggestion by Dr. Frances Levine, head of the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.
And at the back of the book there is an area map with each of the communities marked with highlights of each one for readers who want to get out and explore the area for themselves.
“We’ve been to all of these places in the book,” said Dan Burkhardt. “ . . . whenever friends came to town, we would take them on this tour.
“We would drive Highway 94, come out to Hermann, come back down Highway 100, down to the Washington riverfront . . . We did all this. And we wanted really just to share that with other people, so when they have visitors, they can say, hey, here’s the way to see it.”
Finally, the book also includes a glossary to go into more detail about some of the facts included in the chapters. The words included in the glossary are typed in bold face in the story.
Printed in Missouri
Most of the books printed these days are printed outside of the United States, either in China or South America, but the Burkhardts are very proud that “Growing Up With the River” was printed in Missouri by Walsworth Publishing.
The book sells for $19.95, and all proceeds benefit the Katy Land Trust and Magnificent Missouri, nonprofit organizations “dedicated to educating Missourians about the value and beauty of our landscape and the opportunities to conserve it for the future,” said Dan Burkhardt.
Contributors from individuals, corporations and foundations helped pay for the book so that all of the proceeds would be donated to the Katy Land Trust and Magnificent Missouri.
The Burkhardts are hopeful that the price of the book will drive even more sales.
“We wanted to keep the price low to get as many books sold as possible since our goal is educating and connecting readers to the history and many things to do along the river,” said Dan Burkhardt. “Our primary goal is education. Our secondary goal is to break even.”
Meet the Authors, Illustrator
The Burkhardts will hold three events for “Growing Up With the River.” The first will be at the Washington riverfront Sunday, Oct. 9, from noon to 4 p.m.
Tickets are $25 which includes whole hog barbecue by Pappy’s Smokehouse, local beer and wine, live music from the River Rats and free boat rides on the Missouri River by the Department of Conservation.
The museum for Missouri Meerschaum Corn Cob Pipe Factory on Front Street also will be open for people to visit.
Both the Burkhardts and illustrator Bryan Haynes will be on hand to talk about the book and sign copies.
A second event will be held Sunday, Oct. 23, from noon to 4 p.m., in Peers and Treloar and along the 3.5 miles along the Katy Trail in between the two communities.
Missouri State Parks will have its tram at the event to provide rides between Peers and Treloar. There will be music at both locations.
The Marthasville Volunteer Fire Department will be set up at Treloar, and artist Bryan Haynes will be at Peers, along with the Burkhardts, who will be signing books.
Finally, the Burkhardts will give an author presentation at the St. Louis County Library’s headquarters branch on Lindbergh Boulevard in Frontenac on Wednesday, Oct. 19, beginning at 6 p.m. No reservations are necessary.
Copies of “Growing Up With the River” will be sold at all of these events. They also can be purchased at Fern and Sycamore, 319 Elm St. in Downtown Washington, the Peers Store (open Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. through October) at 19 Concord Hill Road in Marthasville or online at katylandtrust.org.