© 2023 University of Missouri - KBIA
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Rural Mo. town now a 'ghost of a past settlement'

Lukas Udstuen

Goss stands as one of the smallest towns in Missouri. While driving by, you might miss it if it weren’t for a few green road signs marking the town’s location along Route 24 in Monroe County.  If you stopped in Goss to ask for directions – you’re most likely out of luck because, well, nobody lives here. At least that’s what the 2010 U.S. Census reported.

The census shows the nation’s population is in flux. While some towns grow rapidly, others – like Goss – continue to dwindle.

Trains on the Norfolk Southern railway pass through Goss a few times each day. Back in World War II, miners used the trains to send clay. Mail deliveries came here by rail twice per day. But today, the trains just whish through.

Jim Rives lived in Goss for 74 years. As we roll down a dirt road in my car, he gives me an informal tour. He points to a dilapidated building on the left and says Mr. Dooley used to run a store there. 

“This used to be a very active little corner here,” Rives says. “He had the grocery store, and a feed store.”

Rives now lives in Paris, Mo. In his kitchen, he tells me that just a short drive down the road from Goss he met his wife at a street fair in 1947. They ended up raising three kids together in Goss.

“It seemed to me like you had really good control over your kids,” Rives says. “We didn’t deny them anything. They had about everything they wanted. And, we’d have parties to entertain them.”

Credit Lukas Udstuen / KBIA
Although Goss, Mo., has zero residents, my cell phone's weather app recognized it as a valid location.

At Goss’s peak, right around World War II, it had about 30 residents. Rives remembers when a salesman from Quincy, Ill., traveled to Tink Hardware in Goss every few weeks to sell tools to a shop in town. Rives says that after World War II, one by one, the stores and church in Goss closed up. But he says it wasn’t a slowing economy that did the town in – it was an economy that got better.

“The grocery man that ran the store out there, he said it wasn’t profitable anymore,” Rives says. “Because the roads were getting better, people were getting automobiles, and they’d go to bigger places to shop.”

Today, there’s not much left of Goss. One lonely dirt road runs along the railroad tracks. A smattering of houses lines the road. Across the railroad tracks, a graveyard of machinery rusts. One contraption looks like it used to load rail cars.

After talking with Rives, I came back to try to talk to residents in the surrounding area. Just outside the town limits, I knocked at the doors of three houses. Two of those houses turned out to be vacant. It grew colder and began to rain. I was losing hope I’d find anyone.

Then, a pickup truck pulled up across the tracks. I walked over to see whom it was.

Bob Gilliam rolled down his window and told me to get out of the rain and hop into his truck. Dust coats the inside of his Chevy truck. An ashen beard lines his face. Gilliam’s tired eyes gaze upon the dead machinery strewn outside. He owns the narrow strip of land between the railroad tracks and the highway — the Census Bureau considers this land the entire town of Goss.

“There ain’t nobody that lives in Goss anymore,” Gilliam said. “It’s closed up. Everybody moved out…That’s all.”

“Elected by paperwork”

Gilliam used to run the now defunct Joe Gilliam Mining Company in Goss.

“Well, I was going to start another plant up over there, but the government closed the companies up I was going to sell to, and I just quit and walked out,” Gilliam said. “I sold practically all of the machinery; we're just using it for storage now. This is a dead, dead place.”

Gilliam says Goss is going to be even emptier in six months. He’s working on tearing out all the rusting machinery that’s left. Most of what’s left is too old to sell, so he said he plans on cutting it up and selling the scrap metal.

It’s not quite the type of work you’d expect the Mayor of Goss to be doing.

Gilliam doesn’t call himself the mayor, but Census Bureau Documents indicate he’s the one in charge. Gilliam acknowledges there really isn’t anyone else.

“I got elected to it by paperwork,” Gilliam said. “They didn’t have nobody else to give it to, so they give it to me. And they send me reports and everything else to fill out, maps to verify where Goss still is now, and if it’s been annexed anymore.”

Gilliam says he’s given up worrying about the official definition of Goss. But he says if any of the people who

call asking about Goss actually came out to see it, there wouldn’t be any question as to what it is.

“It’s a joke,” Gilliam said. “Too much paperwork. People go on paper all the time. They don’t go out and find out what the whole story is. If they come out here, they’d find out there is no town of Goss. Which, there isn’t, really. But it’s on the map, and it’s going to stay on there, probably.”

The Census Bureau added Goss (or “Goss town,” as the Census Bureau refers to it), after receiving an update in its Boundary Annexation Survey from the Monroe County Clerk on April 19, 2001, according to Laura Waggoner, Geographic Areas Branch Chief with the U.S. Census Bureau.

Bob Gilliam was listed as Mayor on that 2001 paperwork. Waggoner said in an email the Census Bureau only keeps track of the highest elected official in its survey. The Census Bureau has maintained paperwork each year on Goss for 2009 – 2012. And for each year, Gilliam was listed as the Mayor.

Credit Courtesy of Census Bureau
This plat from 1904 helps paint a picture of Goss, Mo., at the turn of the 20th Century. The land shown has now become the junkyard of the defunct Joe Gilliam Mining Company. The U.S. Census Bureau holds this document as a record. The text at the bottom indicates it was filed for record July 9, 1904 by recorder James H. Hill.

“There’s nothing left here but brush and junk, and I’m clearing the brush out,” Gilliam says about his town. He says he’s working to tear out all the rusting machinery that’s left.

The spine of America is emptying out

If you look at the bigger picture, Goss disappears into a seemingly larger trend.

Brian Dabson, professor of regional and economic development at MU says there’s a long band from the Dakotas, extending through Kansas, all the way down to Texas where the population is emptying out.

“The young people are leaving, the elderly people are left aging in place,” Dabson says as he walks down the abandoned streets of Goss. “And that is the spine of the country – which is emptying out.”

Part of this is due to how our society has become more technologically developed. Agricultural production is much more efficient now.

“The communities which used to provide local services to the farming community are no longer needed,” Dabson says. “Farmers buy their equipment in big service centers. They don’t need the local places anymore.”

In general, Missouri’s population should continue to grow within the next ten years, Dabson says. Some counties on the edges of metropolitan areas or with attractions such as lakes will continue to grow very quickly.

However, other counties — about 20 in Missouri — stand to lose as much as 25 percent of their residents. These include counties north of Monroe County (where Goss is located) near the Iowa Border, and others in the Southeast by the boot heel.

“This is in many ways a symbol of a shift in the fortunes of small towns across Missouri and elsewhere,” Dabson says. “They lose their reason for continuing, and now we’re just looking at the ghosts of a past settlement.”

Credit Lukas Udstuen / KBIA
MU Professor Brian Dabson stands in a tattered workshop of the defunct Joe Gilliam Mining Company, which used to mine clay. Former owner, Bob Gilliam, said he bought up the property as the residents of Goss moved away.

It’s part of a process reinforces itself over time, he says. As people leave, the sorts of facilities a small town needs go away: the schools consolidate, the post office closes — eventually people in rural communities have to drive 3 or 4 hours to get services like decent health care.

“People no longer want to accept that as the basis for living,”. “So, they will leave these towns and those facilities will go away, the people will go with them.”

But it’s not all gloomy for rural areas. In fact Dabson says we rely on viable rural communities for things like food and energy production.

Still, small towns face big population shifts that have been going on for decades. Dabson says they can’t simply be reversed. And once a town shrinks to the size of Goss, he says it’s hard to imagine the town starting back up again. There’s not really a reason for it to do so.

“There’s a warehouse, there’s a lot of junk, a few nice houses” Dabson says looking out at  the remnants of Goss. “But that’s not enough to create a new future for this area. When they get to this stage, we should just say ‘Farewell, Goss. You made a contribution 50 years ago; we’re all moving on.”

Explore these linked historical documents to understand more of Goss's history:

Petition to make Goss, Mo. an "incorporated town"
Mayor Bob Gilliam filed this document on March 6, 2001, to change the formal definition of Goss, Mo., to "incorporated town."

A snapshot of history: Goss in 1904
This plat from 1904 helps paint a picture of Goss, Mo., at the turn of the 20th Century. The land shown has now become the junkyard of the defunct Joe Gilliam Mining Company. The U.S. Census Bureau holds this document as a record. The text at the bottom indicates it was filed for record July 9, 1904 by recorder James H. Hill.

Map of Goss town, Mo.
This U.S. Census Bureau plat indicates the boundaries of Goss, Mo.

Listen to an extended version of this story, which includes more from Mayor Bob Gilliam and former resident Jim Rives.

This story originally aired as part of Business Beat, a weekly program about business and economics in mid-Missouri.