Opal Kamper poses with family

Opal Kamper, 94, poses with four other generations of her family.

If you don’t know where you’re going, you might miss the turn — a quick jut onto Route PP in St. Clair — completely. The winding road passes spacious green yards to drop you at the doorstep of a small house with a big family history.

The residence belongs to Opal Kamper, 94, who has called Walls Ford Road home almost her entire life. She and her husband, Elmer “Yock” Kamper, who passed away nearly 30 years ago, purchased the home she now lives in from her father in 1950. He bought it in 1929. 

The inside is decorated with Kamper’s quilting and embroidery, cooking ware she’s accumulated over the years and photographs of beloved family members. Kamper is the matriarch to a five-generation family, including three children, eight grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. 

Even though almost all have moved away from Walls Ford Road, most either haven’t gone far or have left the area and come back, wanting to be close to the family. They still consider “Granny’s house” to be their home.

“My mom has always been the backbone for us,” Diane Beckman said of Kamper. 

Beckman’s daughter Darlene Copeland, who has lived in the area almost her whole life, said she loves being in a community where her own teachers will one day teach her daughters, and where neighbors know you and know the character of your family. “All I ever had to say was, ‘My grandparents are Opal and Yock,’ and that meant something,” Copeland said. “It was important for me to have that safe place. Home is the safe place, and Granny’s is the safe place.” 

Copeland said her daughter, Kayla Wood, and her husband recently returned to St. Clair after living in Kansas City to be closer to the family. She now owns Au Claire Boutique and is active at Roots Church, and she lives in the house next door to her great-grandma, Kamper. Her sister Morgan Meyer lives in Union with her 3-year-old son, John Cole, who is one of few children to know his great-great-grandma. 

In wanting to live near their family, the Kamper descendants are not alone. According to North American Moving Services, nearly 72 percent of Americans stay close to the city where they grew up, and half of those people cite family as the deciding factor. A 2017 Pew Research study found that when asked what makes life meaningful for them, 69 percent of Americans said family relationships, with 40 percent saying family was the most important source. The next highest answer, career, was at 34 percent — only a source of meaning for half as many Americans. 

Living History

The home on Walls Ford Road has been the backdrop of more than one significant event in the family. It was in the front field, which Kamper and Wood can now both see from their windows, where Kamper first met her husband, who went by “Yock,” German for “little Jake,” after his father, Jake. He was among several neighborhood kids who would come play ball to pass the time.

“The first time I ever saw him he had on a white shirt and blue pants,” Kamper recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh that is just the cutest guy.’ I was 16.”

They started dating a bit after, and when he left in 1942 to serve in World War II, she waited for him. He came back in 1944 for a month when his father died, and the two were married March 4. He then left again for another year and nine months. Kamper passed the time working and saving money. By the time he returned, she had saved $2,300 — enough for a car and down payment on a house. 

“He was a good man and wonderful husband,” Kamper said. “I never wanted anybody else.” 

Copeland remembers how she and the other grandchildren adored the couple growing up. The then-young kids spent every weekend at Walls Ford fishing in the Meramec River, playing in the fields and drinking cold soda out of glass bottles, which Kamper always made sure the fridge was full of. 

“I always thought Grandma and Grandpa were rich because the fridge was always stocked,” Copeland said. “When I got older I realized it wasn’t money, they just made it feel like we had everything.”

Every Sunday, Copeland recalls, Kamper would stick a roast in the oven and load the eight grandchildren into the pickup truck or the blue Buick with white seats and drive to church at Virginia Mines Baptist Church, now Memorial Baptist Church Virginia Mines Campus, in Lonedell. After the service, the whole family would come for lunch. 

Copeland now keeps up the Sunday lunch tradition with her own daughters, who come each week after the service at Roots with children and dogs in tow. 

Aside from the roasts, a favorite specialty of Kamper’s is her chicken and dumplings. The dish was a staple at family and church events for decades, and inside her tattered red recipe book in her kitchen, Kamper keeps multiple copies of the recipe (typed with a few hand-scribbled notes) to share with anyone who needs it. Beckman said others in the family have tried to make it, but none tasted quite the same. 

Some of the grandchildren have been more successful in carrying on the tradition of quilting, Kamper’s other signature talent. Beckman and her sister-in-law gifted Kamper their first quilt. Kamper then started sewing them for everyone in the family. Graduations, weddings and special birthdays are all marked with a handmade quilt. Kamper even attaches a tag to each one that reads, “Made with love from Grandma.” Copeland said every bed in her house has one, and she uses them now when her grandson, John Cole, comes over. She even has one on display that was started by Yock’s grandmother, which Kamper finished before gifting it to her granddaughter. 

“It was in the hope chest for 40 years,” Copeland said of the priceless quilt. “She told me I couldn’t wash it because the back was made from a feed sack.”

‘Grandma, Say a Prayer for This’

Kamper, Beckman and Copeland said they agree the most important thing in their tight-knit family, besides the support they give one another, is their shared faith. Kamper recalled that when she and her husband were raising Beckman’s generation, he would say not to worry about things that might never happen, and he’d remind them that they will get through the things that do. 

“I remember Dad saying that,” Beckman responded. 

That philosophy has been passed down through the generations. Copeland said the family has experienced a lot of loss alongside happier times, but they have faith that they’ll get through it. 

“Usually, when something happens, Grandma knows,” Copeland said of Kamper. “She’s usually the one we’re calling, asking, ‘Grandma, say a prayer for this.’ ”

“We always stay strong,” Kamper said. “We stay stronger together.”