Missouri communities hope Rock Island Trail will bring fresh faces and business to rural towns | KCUR 89.3

WINDSOR — Kim Henderson arranges four modest log cabins tucked a few blocks behind Main Street in this small town 90 minutes southeast of Kansas City.

“I’ve told people so many times — and I still do — that I made the cabins more for Windsor than for myself,” Henderson said.

Windsor, population about 2,900, is where the Katy Trail meets 47 miles of the existing Rock Island Trail. Both are two former railway corridors. One is now a world-renowned outdoor recreation attraction. The other is only a quarter complete.

Henderson, now a small business owner, has lived in Windsor for more than 30 years. She has seen the benefits the Katy Trail has brought to her community.

“It brings people here who would never come to Windsor, Missouri,” Henderson said.

The Missouri Department of Natural Resources officially acquired the remaining 144 miles of the undeveloped Rock Island Corridor in 2021. The trail plan has been in motion for much longer. Henderson looked forward to the creation of the Rock Island Trail and followed the outline maps in anticipation.

“I watched the dotted line at 47 miles for 15 years,” Henderson said. “I was looking at that dotted line…and I was waiting.”

When former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon pledged to complete the first 47 miles of the Rock Island Trail before he left office, Henderson bought two parcels of land near where it intersects with the Katy Trail. She started renting out her first cabin in 2015.

“My first guests weren’t even cyclists,” Henderson said.

Maggie Lennox

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Columbia Missourian

The Pour Poet is a cafe and antique shop on Main Street in Windsor, Missouri.

A local Amish carpenter built two more cabins for Henderson two years later. She furnishes them with items from the family’s furniture store in Windsor. In 2018, the fourth booth was installed and Henderson quit his full-time job as city administrator.

Kim’s cabins are often booked solid. She estimates that about half of her guests are cyclists. The rest are families visiting Windsor for funerals or weddings, traveling nurses, vendors at the Missouri State Fair, construction workers and people traveling through mid-Missouri.

“I put them in thinking cyclists,” Henderson said. “… I never imagined how many people would come for all kinds of other reasons now that the cabins are here.”

$69 million to zero

This spring, Gov. Mike Parsons announced a historic investment for the Rock Island Corridor: $69 million to turn another 78-mile stretch into a trail. He plans to use money from the federal America’s Rescue Plan Act.

If and when the trail is completed, due to its intersection with the Katy Trail in Windsor, it will become the longest rail-to-trail trail in the world.

But Parson’s plan did not survive the legislative session. The Senate reduced Rock Island’s budget to $0.

Lawmakers cited the Missouri Department of Natural Resources’ backlog of maintenance at other state parks and the concerns of landowners along the corridor as reasons for cutting the money.

Communities along the trail are moving forward despite the lack of legislative support.

Mac McNally leads the volunteers who make up the Missouri Rock Island Trail group. He said lawmakers’ decision to cut funding is disheartening, but by no means the end of the road.

“We’ve faced challenges before,” McNally said. “We will continue to try to help with funding to get the trail built.”

The group is made up of local government officials, business owners, cyclist and pedestrian advocates and anyone interested in seeing the trail completed. They are motivated by the growth they have seen the 240-mile Katy Trail bring to neighboring communities. A 2012 report, the DNR’s most recent analysis, found that trails brought in more than $18 million to the state of Missouri.

“This could mean a huge economic boost for small communities that have been kind of left behind since the railroads went out of business more than 30 years ago,” McNally said.

It’s not just local volunteers who are looking for funding. Representatives from the DNR and the National Park Service stepped in to help connect communities with grants to complete their portion of the trail.

“The National Park Service is proud to be a partner in this and to serve Missourians in this way,” said Ashley Newson. She works for the National Park Service’s Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program.

Newson spent the summer helping interested communities along the trail hold meetings, determine grants and design trails. She said building parts of the trail is a great way to build momentum for the project.

Kim's Cabins in Windsor, Missouri.  Advocates hope the Rock Island Trail will bring economic development to small towns along the corridor.

Maggie Lennox

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Columbia Missourian

Kim’s Cabins in Windsor, Missouri. Advocates hope the Rock Island Trail will bring economic development to small towns along the corridor.

Eventually, each section of the trail will need to be connected. But Newson said the piecemeal approach shows commitment.

“That’s an important component of getting that grassroots support to show the county or the state like, hey, we’ve developed it in all of our cities.” Now we just need it to connect through those areas,” Newson said.

Potential to rejuvenate rural communities

Kelly Thompson describes the collection of used books in her downtown Windsor store.

“I’m pretty heavy on the classics. I think you can’t always please everybody when they come in to pick up books, but if you have classics, there are commonalities,” Thompson said.

Thompson moved to Windsor two years ago. Her husband, Donavan, followed a year later. Originally from Southern California, they lived and worked in Nevada and Saline County, Missouri.

“We’re Missourians at heart,” Donavan Thompson said.

The Thompsons opened their new shop, The Pour Poet, last month. They sell coffee, tea, pastries, used books and antiques. Kelly Thompson explains the eclectic mix.

“These are all my passions. All I have here is my passion.”

Kelly Thompson talks about an antiquarian book at The Pour Poet in Windsor, Missouri.  Thompson has many favorite items in her antique shop, including a chair, a stitch sampler and a book.

Maggie Lennox/Maggie Lennox

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Columbia Missourian

Kelly Thompson talks about an antiquarian book at The Pour Poet in Windsor, Missouri. Thompson has many favorite items in her antique shop, including a chair, a stitch sampler and a book.

The Thompsons have bought multiple properties in Windsor and plan to renovate and restore them all. Some of the properties have been empty for so long that they have found scattered newspapers from the 1940s and 1950s.

Donavan Thompson has a career in construction and does all the renovations. A few people wondered: Why bother?

“Everybody tells me it’s abandoned and needs to be torn down,” he said.

The rear corner of a building collapsed a few months ago. Thompson took it in stride. He cleaned it, then built a new foundation and wall.

“I will fight to save him.”

Kelly Thompson said the trail was a huge factor in their decision to move and open a small business in Windsor. She found a lot of information about the trail while researching the area.

“And the only place they meet is in Windsor, Missouri,” Kelly Thompson said. “It went bang, bang, bang, bang. You’ve got a winner there.”

The Thompsons have plans for a small inn, restoration shop and office space for the remaining properties.

“There are many plans. It’s going to take some time,” Kelly Thompson said, “but we’re not going anywhere.

As Amish buggies roll down Main Street right outside The Pour Poet’s front windows, the Thompsons explain how they fell in love with the people and character of Windsor and know others will too. They believe expanding the Rock Island Trail could breathe life into other small towns along the route.

“There is so much heart in this town. There is a lot of pride. There’s a lot of history,” Kelly Thompson said. “And frankly, it’s really about bringing it back.”

The end, for now

The existing Rock Island Trail meets a paved road behind Windsor City Park and stops. Across the road is a former railroad corridor so overgrown with brush and weeds that you can barely see past the first dozen feet.

The Rock Island Spur connects the trails in Windsor, Missouri.  Governor Mike Parson has planned to convert another 78 miles of railroad to trail to expand the Rock Island Trail.

Maggie Lennox/Missourian

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Columbia Missourian

The Rock Island Spur connects the trails in Windsor, Missouri. Governor Mike Parson has planned to convert another 78 miles of railroad to trail to expand the Rock Island Trail.

Henderson is passionate that the trail is the next chapter for Rock Island cities. Trains haven’t run in 40 years, and with no interstate access, reusing the corridor in this way is Windsor’s best bet.

“We’re not going to have big industry again, so small towns have to think outside the box,” Henderson said.

Henderson and other trail advocates are adamant that the trail improves the quality of life not only for travelers, but also for residents of the small towns it bisects. Henderson can attest to the demand for accommodations and believes the intersecting trail will attract more amenities to Windsor.

“I mean, it’s just a huge opportunity because we’re a crossroads,” Henderson said.

Henderson’s advocacy for trails led her to become vice president of the Missouri Rock Island Trail group. She said small towns cannot disappear because they are “where family and friends come back.”

After seeing the Katy Trail’s success firsthand, Henderson hopes there’s more to come.

“I’ve watched the trails for so long and I knew what it could do for small towns.”

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