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Thinking Out Loud: Novinger Renewal

Credit Trevor Harris / KBIA
Over 50 mines operated in Novinger, Missouri between 1883 and 1966. A map at the town's Coal Miners' Museum shows sites of the now-reclaimed mines.

What do you do when your town has been losing population for 80 years? If you are like the people heard in this episode of Thinking Out Loud, you hunker down, celebrate your history and build community with remaining residents. Despite decades-long population flight from Novinger, Missouri, local leaders are working to make the place inviting for new residents and future investments.

Starting in the late nineteenth century, Novinger was a center of coal mining activity. John C. and his brother Isaac Novinger are the town's namesakes who settled the town site as a speculative venture. Two railroads followed as the town eventually saw over 50 area mines digging coal from the area's Adair County hills. Some of Novinger's mines were small, employing only a few men. Other mines used dozens of laborers who came from places as far as Wales, Germany and Italy. These migrant workers brought their families and their culture. The ethnic history can be seen in places like the town's Coal Miners' Museum, which features a set of bocce balls on display. They were a donation to the museum from a local Italian family.

When demand for the area's coal declined starting in the 1930's, the population begin to drift away. Census numbers show that the town's population peaked at 1,743 in 1930. Double-digit census declines for Novinger occurred between 1960 and 1990. This exodus began a large-scale divestment in the town. You notice that divestment when you arrive in town. Derelict homes sit next to well-maintained homes of retirees and some young families who are moving in.

To stop this blight from discouraging investment in remaining local properties, the city went looking for public assistance. Last year, the City of Novinger was awarded a $188,000 grant to remove eighteen derelict properties. Mayor Jeff Dodson expects the work to remove some of the biggest eyesores in the city.

Residents that live here primarily work in the Kirksville area. There wasn't a lot of commerce. Of course, we've got our farming community, which is really strong. And we have the Adair County R-1 School system, which is here and employs several people. Besides that, we don't have a lot of employment base. We had a lot of residents over the years that had just moved out of the community... A lot of the properties had been inherited by absentee owners and so there was not a lot of motivation to keep those properties up and over the years, they have weathered and they are not not livable anymore. So those home are being taken out. New ownership is coming in and that is starting to improve the situation.

While the demolition grant will remove dilapidated eyesores throughout Novinger, the city is promoting area as a tourism destination. Visitors already flock to the area to hunt and fish and paddle the nearby Chariton River. One way the city is promoting the area's outdoor activities is a new website that Mayor Dodson and others are building.

While Novinger looks to the future, some locals are working to remember and share their town's history. Novinger Renewal is a local not-for-profit that publishes a town newsletter also called Novinger Renewal. Native Glenna Daniels Young is active with the organization. She has lived in or near the town for her whole life and regularly shares Novinger's development and social history with area civic groups and classrooms interested in knowing about the town that at one time employed an estimated 2,000 coal miners who worked in any of the town's 53 mines. (The 2010 population was 456.)

This immediate area was settled in the 1830s with the first white homes just southeast of town... The town itself was platted in 1878 by John C. Novinger. He knew the Quincy, Missouri & Pacific would soon reach Novinger, which it did in 1878. In 1879, the post office was established... They had to clear a lot of land just to be able to farm this area... The railroad timbers was the first thing that built jobs in the area. In 1883, John Porter sank the first mine shaft in Novinger.

Young notes that those mines provided work for laborers from far and wide. With the last mine closing in 1966, Novinger residents either left town or had to commute out-of-town in search of work. Like many of her fellow town citizens, Young leaves Novinger daily to work as executive director of a rural health network based in Kirksville.

Glenna Daniels Young is a realist. She knew that her children would likely not find work in town:

I never expected my kids to live immediately here because there weren't any jobs. To do what they wanted to do I just knew they were going to live somewhere else. I feel very lucky because I have some really good friends that I have known forever and we get together. You know, I listen to their woes about their kids and things that go on with them and I just know how lucky I am.

For those residents who have left town, Young's Novinger Renewal publication keeps over 1,800 members of the town's diaspora informed of town births, deaths, events and history. Novinger Renewal organizes community events for residents to come out and celebrate the town's history.

While the town's population continues to decline, there is a silver lining. Enrollment at the Adair County R-1 School District was up last year. The mayor attributes that to the rural lifestyle that a growing number of younger families find appealing.

Listen to new episodes of Thinking Out Loud each Tuesday at 6:30pm on 91.3FM KBIA.

This episode originally aired on January 6, 2015.

Trevor serves as KBIA’s weekday morning host for classical music. He has been involved with local radio since 1990, when he began volunteering as a music and news programmer at KOPN, Columbia's community radio station. Before joining KBIA, Trevor studied social work at Mizzou and earned a masters degree in geography at the University of Alabama. He has worked in community development and in urban and bicycle/pedestrian planning, and recently served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia with his wife, Lisa Groshong. An avid bicycle commuter and jazz fan, Trevor has cycled as far as Colorado and pawed through record bins in three continents.
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