STEEDMAN — Nancy and Gary Wilder drove about 1,400 miles from Massachusetts to Steedman to live close to Ameren Missouri’s Callaway nuclear plant. Staying in Wildwood RV park, Nancy Wilder said she was a “traveling RV gypsy."
Wildwood is about five miles away from the cooling tower that has become the iconic image of the plant, which powers more than 682,000 households primarily in Missouri.
Oct. 15 marked the beginning of the plant's 18th planned outage for refueling and maintenance. Gary Wilder is among more than 1,000 contracted workers who have come from all over the United States to help do maintenance, repairs and refueling work alongside the plant's 800 regular employees.
About 40 percent of the contracted workers are from outside Missouri; the other 60 percent come from within a 100-mile radius of the plant.
The influx of workers creates an economic boost for Fulton and the rest of Callaway County as they stay in area campgrounds, rent apartments, houses and hotel and motel rooms, and frequent the county's bars, restaurants and shops. Nancy Lewis of the Kingdom of Callaway Chamber of Commerce estimates the workers' impact at $4.32 million in the 30 days they're scheduled to be in the area. The impact extends into Hermann, Jefferson City, Mexico and Columbia, she said.
But for the workers and the business owners, it's more than an economic boost. There's a culture of camaraderie that emerges within their traveling community.
Wildwood harbors people from coast to coast
Nancy Wilder wrapped two baked potatoes with onion and butter in tin foil and put them on the charcoal grill set up beside her RV. Once the sun had set and given way to the flickering stars, she took out a lantern and used a flashlight to check on the sizzling spuds.
Nancy said it was too early to add the chicken to the grill because it might take a while for her husband to come home. Around 6:30 p.m., it was time for some of the contract workers to come home after 12-hour shifts and time for others to start.
Nancy checked out the cars as they came back from the nuclear plant, about one every five minutes. Their license plates show that their new neighbors are from all over the country: California, Massachusetts, Texas, Montana, Virginia, Louisiana and Kansas.
"It is kinda neat to be able to meet people all over the U.S.," Nancy said.
Wildwood harbored about 26 RVs and mobile homes with men and women living steps away from each other. Most of them work for one of 30 contractors who send them to work at one nuclear plant, then another and then another. Park administrator William A. Griffith said they bring in about $15,000 to the Wildwood Lot Owners Association.
Nancy, 59, met some couples in the park who work at the plant, but she hangs out on her own as the only housewife in the park. During the day, when Gary is at the plant, life can get a little boring for Nancy. TV reception is poor, and the Internet is slow. She often walks a quarter mile just to hear and talk clearly on her cellphone.
This is the first time the Wilders have come to Missouri to stay for an extended time. Gary, 61, is an electrical superintendent at the plant and they arrived in Missouri on Sept. 3.
“I’m getting cagey from living in a box,” Nancy said. That's why she spent some time in Columbia, getting her hair done at Columbia Mall and visiting a Subaru dealer to have her car fixed.
"Fulton is a small town. You can get what you need. But it’s a little bit too remote. I feel like I’m in the woods.” she said. She plans to take a break from Callaway County and visit her daughter in Colorado.
The contracted workers don't have the time for some of the leisure activities the locals enjoy, like visiting the shooting range near the front gate of the park. Nancy said that's not for her.
"The ocean, fishing and lobsters are a big part of our life," she said. “I’m not used to four-wheelers and gun shooting.”
On Gary's days off, he and his wife take rides around the countryside, stroll through Columbia parks or try the local cuisine. They attended a wine festival in Hermann, ate at Addison's in Columbia and tried out Beks restaurant and bar in downtown Fulton.
"People here are very nice, not rushed — and laid-back," Nancy said.
Linda Zabarowski, who also works at the plant, shared her thoughts on the region.
"It's the Midwest nice," she said. Linda and Nancy got to know each other from being around the campsite and feeding a stray dog that was wandering around.
In her red Ameren T-shirt, Zaborowski walked around the park, talked with her friends and smoked cigarettes at the door of her 9-year-old RV.
Growing up in California, Zaborowski said she likes the Midwest and West. She can't remember how many times she's been to the Callaway plant since her first time in 2002.
"You go where it's nice to work. That's why people come back over and over and over," Zaborowski said.
Zaborowski said she is an atypical contracted worker who doesn't hang out very often. On the days she works, she goes home, takes a shower, makes lunch for the next day and goes to sleep.
“When I go to work, I have no life. Zero,” she said. She only works in the spring and fall, and she travels the rest of the time. She's been doing contract work for power plants since 1999.
“I work four to five weeks and get laid off, then go back to normal,” Zaborowski said. “I travel full-time and work part-time.”
Captain Gary at the nuclear plant
After working for 14 hours at the plant, Gary Wilder finally arrived home around 7:30 p.m. He sat beside a lantern while Nancy quickly fetched him a Sam Adams Octoberfest. Gary likes to sip two beers after each shift.
The Wilders ended up eating inside the RV because it was too dark outside, but the smell of the grill lingered in the air under the starry sky.
After building, starting and maintaining nuclear plants for 35 years, Gary said Missouri is too quiet a place for him to live. As a licensed charter boat captain for the U.S. Coast Guard, Wilder used to be a scuba diver.
He painted his RV with the name of both his charter boat and his novel, "Jus' Restin." He wrote the book — which is about the adventures he had as a charter boat captain — for his grandchildren.
Gary, who retired at 53 for six years before becoming a contract worker, said nuclear plant work is tense and packed with pressure. But he doesn't mind.
"I thrive on it. It's what makes me go." Wilder said. He likens his affinity for the career to his appreciation of fast cars and motorcycles.
“I like to go fast," he said. "I like to feel the need of speed, into a turn and back out. I like being on the edge.”
“I’d work on the moon, but there is no way to get there.”
Wilder said he got to choose to work in Callaway. He said every power plant crew has its own personality and work ethic.
“It’s country folk here. Their enjoyments are deer, turkey and NASCAR. Mine are the ocean, boat, skiing in the mountains and fishing.”
Coffee bar with beer
Owner Jason Bowers was going to close his bar, Kenda's Klub, until the plant brought in the temporary workers.
The bar is just a short drive down Route CC from the nuclear plant. The refueling and maintenance period is "a good shot in the arm" for Bowers' business. The regulars and the temporary workers asked him to stay open, at least for a little while during their shift-change times.
"It was not worth opening if it was not for those guys," Bowers said.
The hustle and bustle that the refueling period brings is more than just business.
It was still dark at 6 a.m. Tuesday when Steve Jones came off his shift as an operation training supervisor at the nuclear plant and volunteered to open Kenda's Klub.
Ten minutes later, Dewey Bullard, a temporary foreman at the plant, showed up, ordered a bottle of Budweiser and gathered with a group of workers who came later.
Bullard, who lives about eight miles from Kenda's Klub, said he first came to the bar 12 years ago. Instead of going out of town, he said he would come here to get a sandwich or a gallon of milk when the "quick store" was still open. It closed six months ago.
As a site superintendent at the plant, Tony Leisinger lives on the other side of the cooling tower. A regular at Kenda's Klub who has been coming to the bar since the 1970s, Lesinger is known as Uncle Tony to bar regulars.
"If there was not the nuclear plant right here, there would have been nothing," Leisinger said. "I'd like to see another plant built. It helps everybody."
Leisinger said the way the economy functions is devastating for a few businesses in the community. When Highway 94 south of the plant is blocked, workers have to use gravel roads, or "horse paths," to get to work.
"You are damn well if you are working today," Leisinger said.
Tim Johnson said "the plant strives for perfection. Their goal is to have no mistakes. Everything is done perfect."
"If you can't handle the pressure, it tears you down inside; if you can, it's fulfilling." Johnson said.
Johnson, a radiation protection technician, came from West Virginia 28 years ago. He said he fell in love with the community and the people.
"They work hard; they play hard and they take care of each other,"Johnson said.
"It's like an extended family," Johnson said. "They have a sense of belonging here. It's like a home away from home."
The morale that develops among the group members outside work attracts some people to stay. They know each other as "the person and the face" rather than positions.
"Instead of talking to a supervisor over there or a working foreman over here, I know I can talk to Tony or I can talk to Dewey," Jones said.
Jones said he enjoys coming to Kenda's Klub to volunteer time as a bartender after his shifts at the plant.
"I like to stop here. We need something like this. See the dynamics. They sit here, talk. And they go back to work; they remember," Jones said.
Downtown Fulton to Kingdom City
It doesn't take but a few minutes to walk through downtown Fulton from the Callaway County Public Library to the post office on Court Street.
Shawn Brooks, manager and bartender at Beks in Fulton, said the restaurant is like a “headquarters” for the contract workers from the nuclear plant. “A lot of these guys come up here with their buddies, go home and go to bed.”
“We kinda hang out with them," Brooks said. "There's not a whole lot to do in Fulton.”
The Wilders went to Beks with a friend they met in their time in Vermont.
"You run into people half the country away that we've met many years in the past," Nancy Wilder said.
Retail stores also get business from the temporary crew. Yvonne's Resale and Consignment Shoppe has seen increased traffic as the locals have come in to buy necessities and gifts for their new residences and families — kitchen tools, glassware and furniture to set up their apartments and jewelry and toys to give to their wives and children when they go back home.
"They are spending dollars in our community even when they are here (for the) short term," Yvonne Clay said. "Anytime someone comes in town to spend money, that is a good thing."
For a motel with 60 rooms such as the Super 8 Motel in Kingdom City, one-fourth of their rooms are rented to the temporary workers.
"There are 10 to 20 rooms that we are not worried about selling because we always have those people in house," Jason Mushrush, the assistant manager said. "They generate a chunk of revenue for our hotel."
Mushrush has seen temporary workers coming and going from his motel during the plant maintenance period. The Super 8 Motel changed its breakfast hours to begin serving at 5 a.m. instead of 6 a.m. to adjust to the workers' schedules. However short their time in Callaway County might be, the transient workers are leaving their mark.
"The sense of community is the reminiscent of the days gone by," Tim Johnson said.
The Callaway nuclear plant is scheduled to be up and running again by mid-November, completing an 18-month cycle that for many of the permanent and contract workers has become a rhythm of life that goes beyond their jobs.