This is a success story.
Eldon Meyer brought his wife, Maggie, from the East to a rundown farmhouse on a hill outside his hometown of Hermann on the Missouri River.
She was not happy.
“I was a Jersey girl — I thought it was the Wild West,” Maggie said. “I guess you could call it a midlife crisis. We thought it would be nice to have a farm, but this was a dump.”
Four years later, the couple had fixed up the two-story farmhouse to the point where they decided to turn it into a bed-and-breakfast in the country, with hummingbirds by the front porch swing and a donkey in the pasture.
They called it Meyer’s Hilltop Farm because it was, indeed, on a hill above the tiny town of McKittrick, which is across the river from Hermann.
That was 1990 and, unbeknownst to Eldon and Maggie, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources had big plans for the abandoned Missouri-Kansas-Texas rail line that ran along the bottom of the hill.
In a bit of serendipity, Katy Trail State Park, a linear recreational trail, was opened the same year the Meyers opened their B-and-B. The trail soon was providing a steady flow of customers who welcomed Eldon’s gracious hospitality and Maggie’s hearty breakfasts. They expanded by adding an adjoining suite with a huge jetted tub for weary riders.
“In the beginning, business was fair, but in the last five years, it’s exploded,” Maggie said. “We have people come from all over. They love that trail, and they come back.”
As Katy Trail State Park celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer, the Meyers celebrated their quarter century in business by retiring. Eldon is 82 and Maggie 10 years behind, and they liked the thought of slowing down.
“It was very hard to retire from it,” Maggie said. “We made a lot of relationships. I just had somebody call last night.
“But the Katy Trail made us rich enough to be able to retire.”
In the last 25 years, some changes are obvious on the trail. It has grown to 240 miles, stretching from Machens on the east to Clinton on the west.
Once the trains stopped running, the forests along the flat, crushed-stone trail have grown a canopy of green, providing a welcoming sun-dappled shade for hikers and bikers.
From Machens to Boonville on the eastern half, much of the trail follows the Missouri River. In some spots, the 8-foot wide trail has the muddy river on one side, and wooded bluffs on the other.
The trail is just as the late Ted Jones and his wife, Pat, envisioned it. Jones is the St. Louis businessman who provided the money needed to purchase the abandoned line and develop it as the nation’s longest rails-to-trails conversion.
Jones wanted to show off the beauty of the Lower Missouri River Valley and bring a bit of life to the small towns left behind by the railroad.
Katy Trail State Park today draws some 400,000 visitors a year, and generates about $18.5 million to the state economy annually. For every dollar spent on the trail, the state sees a return on investment of $18.
For the visitors, the trail provides a back-door look at the bucolic countryside of tidy farms and sleepy towns in the rural heartland, far away from the buzz and billboards of the interstates.
The trail is pretty in spring when the redbuds and dogwoods bloom, busy in summer and gorgeous in fall when that green canopy turns red and gold. A balmy winter day has great views of the river and bluffs.
And, like all Missouri state parks, it’s free.
Dotty’s Care: A Family Affair
Businesses have come and gone along the trail. The Trailside Bar & Grill at Rhineland is going strong, Joey’s Bird House B-and-B at McKittrick gets good reviews and the Globe Hotel B-and-B at Hartsburg has new owners.
In Dotty Manns’ case, she has come and gone, and come back again.
Manns has operated Dotty’s Café in two locations in the trailside town of Hartsburg, 10 miles west of Jefferson City, for some 10 years. A year or so ago, Manns, who admits to being “past retirement age,” decided to lease the business to a relative.
“My total retirement lasted nine months,” Manns said. “I didn’t like it; I wanted to do it again.”
Manns reclaimed her café and reopened on New Year’s Day of 2015.
“We were swamped,” she said. The regular customers who welcomed her back “were lined up outside the door.”
Running the restaurant is a family affair. Manns’ two sisters work there, as do her daughter, granddaughter and grandson. “My sister Katie is in charge of the cream pies; I make the fruit pies,” Manns said.
“I love the bikers; I love the regulars,” she said. “I have met so, so many nice people from the Katy Trail.
“I’m always the last man standing. Thank you, Lord.”
Defiance to Augusta: 7.2 Miles
Because of its proximity to St. Louis, on the doorstep to Missouri Wine Country, Defiance to Augusta and back is one of the most popular rides on the Katy Trail.
Highway 94 doglegs in the middle of Defiance with the Yellow Farmhouse Winery, Defiance Roadhouse and Terry & Kathy’s bar facing one another on the bend.
The highway climbs and winds through the river valley, making it a favorite for motorcycle riders, especially on weekends, when they mingle with the cyclists in Defiance.
“It’s busy as heck; this town is full of people,” said Dan Lindsay, the clerk at Katy Bike Rental in the middle of it all. “They get along pretty well. Most of the people who motorcycle are into anything with two wheels.”
The bike rental shop has increased its fleet from 80 to 100 bikes and still sells out on some Saturdays and Sundays, he said. Rental is $5 an hour, $25 for the day.
“We’ve been doing really well so far this year,” Lindsay said. “Most of our customers come from St. Louis, of course, but we get people from all over the world.
“We get a lot of Germans and Austrians, a fair number of Swiss and Dutch. The idea of open space with little towns and wineries appeals to the Europeans.
“Many of the German people don’t know this area was founded by Germans. They’re really surprised when they find people who can speak their language.”
At Augusta, the trailside Augusta Brewing Co. was closed on this weekday so bikers were making the climb up the hill to wine and dine in town. Many of them found the newly opened Kate’s Coffee House, which serves cappuccino, lattes, espresso, smoothies and sandwiches.
Customers who “pull the hill” and make the ride to the top are treated to a free mini pecan muffin, hot from the oven.
But the reward is on the honor system, so even those who cheat and walk their bikes up get the treat.
Treloar to McKittrick: 16.4 Miles
A grain elevator at Treloar and an ivy-covered concrete silo at McKittrick have been decorated with poster-size paintings, thanks to the Katy Land Trust, which works to preserve and honor the river valley’s farm heritage.
Nothing much was in between the artwork, unless you count the wildflowers, indigo buntings and a sleek young black snake soaking up the sun. The trail heads arrow straight with river views on one side and bluffs on the other.
When you spot another rider, you tend to stop and swap experiences.
Joy Santee, 37, is a school teacher in Lebanon, Ill., and was riding the trail alone, end to end, starting on the west at Clinton. She paused after crossing one of the reborn railroad bridges, which decorate the trail like rusting iron sculptures.
“I’m camping out,” she said. “But I got dumped on pretty good the other day, so I spent that night at the Bothwell in Sedalia. That was nice.”
The Bothwell Hotel and the Hotel Frederick in Boonville are two historic hotels that cater to bikers seeking a luxurious break from the trail. Private and public campgrounds and overnight facilities are listed at on.mo.gov/1IOcyh9.
Dick Mayer, 67, a retired banker from Washington, Mo., also was riding alone. Until the new river bridge with a bike lane is built at Washington, slated for 2016 or 2017, Mayer drives across the old one and starts riding at Dutzow.
“I ride to McKittrick and back; that’s a little over 50 miles,” he said. “I do that two or three times a week, April through October.”
Rich and Cissy Byrd of Spartanburg, S.C., rolled up on a tandem bike. They had started in St. Louis and were following the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail to Astoria, Ore. A 165-mile segment of the Katy Trail, from Machens to Boonville, is part of the national trail.
“That’s 3,200 miles, depending on how many times we get lost,” said Rich, a retired doctor. “This is certainly pleasant, not to have the cars.”
As they pedaled off, Rich leading the way, Cissy yelled back: “This is a treasure of a trail.”
Easley to Rocheport: 15.8 Miles
A mile west of Easley, a collection of RVs, tents, boats and a general store means you’ve arrived at Cooper’s Landing Riverside Resort and Marina on a strip of river bank.
Cooper’s is not far from the spur that joins the trail from Columbia, and is a pit stop for Mizzou students who come for the river view, live entertainment and Chim’s Thai Kitchen, the only Thai restaurant on the trail.
Signs along the trail point out the spot where Lewis & Clark stopped in June 1804, and a formation known as Roche Percee, a natural arch high up a bluff. At Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, a dozen Canada geese fussed over their fuzzy chicks at the edge of the wetlands.
The stretch from Huntsdale to Rocheport was the first opened, and you can see why it got priority. As you approach Rocheport, benches line the trail along the towering bluffs, offering panoramic views of the Missouri River.
Rocheport is the quintessential railroad-town-turned-tourist destination. Les Bourgeois Vineyards sits on a bluff overlooking the river, and the town has restaurants, charming B-and-B’s, antiques and collectibles shops and the only railroad tunnel on the entire trail.
At the Trailside Café & Bike Shop in Rocheport, the picnic tables out front were filled with riders eating lunch and sharing trail notes. Those arriving from the east decided the stretch from Bluffton to Portland was the most scenic.
Hmm. That was not on my sampling of rides. Sounded like a good excuse for heading back.
Author: Tom Uhlenbrock, reprinted with permission of Missouri Division of Tourism (VisitMO.com).