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Clarksville, Mo., wants to become a foodie destination

Article from St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Joe Bonwich

Jesus Luevno works in the garden at Clarksville Station Restaurant at Overlook Farm.
Chef Cary McDowell builds his menu around locally grown produce. (Stephanie S. Cordle/P-D)

CLARKSVILLE, Mo. — Along with French radishes, heirloom lettuces and Hungarian peppers, business is growing in this Mississippi River town. The gourmet vegetables are thriving on farms and in gardens around the area, nourishing an effort to turn Clarksville into a destination for foodies.

Driving into town on Highway 79, the most visible sign of this culinary evolution is Clarksville Station at Overlook Farm. Here, St. Louisan Nathalie Pettus has transformed a 1960s-era gas station into a steadily expanding restaurant and gift shop.

Renowned St. Louis chef Cary McDowell recently joined Pettus' team. "It's always been a dream of mine to have a 'farm-to-table' restaurant, so this seemed like a perfect match," McDowell says.

A beautifully manicured culinary garden is just behind the restaurant. Freshly poured concrete marks the spot where a wood-burning outdoor oven should be in place by the end of the summer. Wood frames are stacked to the side, to be used as raised beds that will greatly increase the garden's yield.

And if McDowell is short any ingredients, he can hop in his car and drive up the hill to Vesterbrook Farm, where owner Mike Brabo grows a huge variety of produce, including chioggia beets, merlot lettuce and red Russian kale. "I spend every year trying to plant things not normally found in the Midwest," Brabo says.

Ultimately, McDowell and Pettus hope to attract other farmers and growers with philosophies similar to Brabo's.

Down a side road, the McPheeters family runs Bowood Farms, which supplies the plants for the retail nursery of the same name at 4605 Olive Street in the Central West End in St. Louis. About eight years ago, the McPheeters introduced a bison herd onto the property. It now numbers more than 125 head. The bison meat and some of the vegetables grown in Clarksville make their way to Cafe Osage, the restaurant at the Central West End nursery.

Pettus' family also owns several vintage houses in the area. She's converted two into elegant boutique inns: Cedarcrest Manor, dating to the 1840s, and Rackheath House, dating to the 1860s.

The sprawling grounds of Rackheath House are home to seven beehives tended by beekeeper Mick Dickus, who uses essential oils instead of smoke in maintaining his hives. The hives provide McDowell with fresh-from-the-comb honey.

McDowell is an aficionado of frogs' legs, and he has a steady supply from ponds on Pettus' properties. Local fishermen supply him with line-caught catfish. The grounds of Pettus' Clarksville residence provide, among other things, rhubarb, berries and sour cherries.

Pettus is thinking about stocking the waterways at Rackheath with trout and freshwater prawns, while McDowell hopes to plant apples and other fruit trees on Pettus' land.

At Clarksville Station, part of the challenge is creating a menu that will include everyday foods that will attract locals and casual tourists yet feature McDowell's distinctive gourmet style, which he likes to showcase on weekend evenings and at special events. (A note on the menu encourages diners to "just ask" if they're looking for something special.)

The standard menu offers simple soups, salads, sandwiches and breakfast all day, plus several desserts. Many dishes are based on Pettus' family recipes. On a recent Sunday afternoon, a stream of families dressed for church, bikers, tourists and other customers kept the dining room mostly filled, with the walnut torte and the coconut cream pie moving in large numbers.

A week later, McDowell showcased his skills for the St. Louis chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier, a group of women in food and hospitality professions. Pettus led the participants on a tour of the restaurant, farm and properties, and McDowell introduced them to Brabo and later made a salad from beets picked on the spot. His menu included such delicacies as snow cones made with syrup from Pettus' sour cherries, Taleggio crostini with Dickus' honey, and a roasted lamb.

"As each successive event and course and view unfolded, everyone was simply amazed," says Beth Huch, who organized the event.

But even the most ardent supporters of Clarksville acknowledge that many pieces must come together before the town achieves its full potential as a tourist destination.

"We've got a real jewel here, on the greatest American river," says Jo Anne Smiley, Clarksville's mayor. "But since Holcim (cement) left, there's no real industry except for all the local businesses. We have an idea of what we want to do in terms of marketing, but we're also trying to figure out how we do it with basically no dollars."

The town has applied for federal funds and grant money and is working on a master development plan and a strategic economic development plan.

Pettus and Smiley have high hopes for the reopening of the Clarksville Skylift, a chairlift to one of the highest points on the Mississippi that drew tourists from 1962 until 1996. The ride fell into disrepair and then became controversial because of an Indian burial mound at the top. The machinery and some of the structures at the top have been restored and the burial mound has been secured in concrete, but emergency access and liability issues continue to delay the reopening.

A new nine-hole golf course, Eagle's Bluff, has a restaurant, as does Crown Valley Winery's tasting room. But Pettus, who serves as president of the Clarksville Chamber of Commerce, would like to see more restaurants and lodging.

"And bicycle trails, and camping, and horseback riding," she adds. "Maybe even some zip lines."

"We just have to keep coming up with more and more reasons for people to make the trip up here."


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