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Small-town community living drives family relationships in Rocheport

Thursday, July 5, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:53 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Friends Jessica Long and Amanda Weyerich both ended up in Rocheport and enjoy the small-town community atmosphere. Long owns Annie's Breads and uses the kitchen of the General Store in the early morning to bake her breads.

Editor's note: This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.

ROCHEPORT — On an overcast St. Patrick's Day, Jessica Long walks across the street and onto Amanda Weyerich's wooden porch. She needs to borrow some clothes for the next couple of days before the town's festivities start.

"Don't you think we look alike?" Long asks.

"I'm not sure," Weyerich responds.

Maybe their almond-shaped eyes share a faint resemblance. Their smiles are similarly wide. Anything beyond that is a stretch of the details. In fact, at first glance these women seem to have little in common.

Weyerich, 29, is a married mother of three. Her straight blond hair is usually pulled back in a ponytail or bun. She is quick to laugh, making easy friends of neighbors and passers-by.

She works one day a week as a surgical technologist but otherwise is at home, bending her schedule to the needs of her family.

Long is 26 and single. Wavy chestnut hair frames her face, which is usually bare of makeup. She tends to be reserved, speaking slowly and thoughtfully. She spends her time baking for the small bread company she bought here and fills in part time behind the counter at the Rocheport General Store. If she has a schedule, it is determined more by whim than work.

What the women do share is the community they've found in tiny Rocheport, a cozy river-bluff town 20 minutes west of Columbia. They met not long after Weyerich moved here two summers ago.

Long was drawn to Rocheport by its quaint nature and easy-going lifestyle. Weyerich's choice was more purposeful: This would be a good place to raise her children.

Despite different motivations and personalities, both have rejected — for now — the ambitious bustle of city life and the glitz-and-glamour material striving that drive many in their generation. They now move at the same relaxed stop-and-enjoy-a-glass-of-wine-and-stay-awhile pace of Rocheport.

Their way is a decidedly different route to defining and achieving the American Dream.

Small-town beginnings

Weyerich grew up in the small southern Missouri town of Mountain Grove, population just under 5,000, near fields and farms. She and her siblings amused themselves in nature. They made toys of the sticks and flowers and treasures found outdoors. Weyerich would like for her children to have the same experience, but in a struggling economy and job market, she can't afford the kind of land her parents owned when she was young.

Raising her children in Rocheport is the next best thing.

Weyerich has a daughter, 9, and son, 6, from previous marriages. The children live with Weyerich, her husband and their 7-month-old daughter.

Like many from her hometown, Weyerich married soon after high school. But there was a world out there beyond the one she knew. She and her husband lived in Texas for a while, then Weyerich ended up back in Missouri, divorced with two children. She studied anthropology and religion at Missouri State University for a time, but interrupted those interests to get a more practical certificate in surgical technology.

"You can make a decent amount of money for two years in school," she says.

Each day, as she left her home in Nixa to go to work in Springfield, a thought would nag at her: "This can't be it." Somewhere, there had to be something more — more culture, more ambition, more community. She and her then-boyfriend decided to find that something more and started looking for homes in Columbia.

The couple found Columbia too bland for their tastes, so considered nearby Rocheport, which makes up in character what it lacks in size.

Weyerich drove to Rocheport on a quiet summer day to check out a muted purple two-story house that was for rent across from the General Store, in the heart of what passes for downtown. The grass and trees were deep green, and the broad porch surrounded by white rails invited passers-by to sit and stay awhile. Weyerich loved it at first sight.

She ate lunch at the General Store before heading back to Nixa. As she sat in her living room that night, she knew Rocheport would be her new home. The location was perfect — close to the city-style offerings of Columbia but far enough away to enjoy the country. The folks in Rocheport were warm and welcoming. Weyerich could get to know her neighbors there. Maybe for the first time, she would want to get to know her neighbors.

Rocheport, population 239, boasts two restaurants and is something of a haven for artisans and bed-and-breakfasts. Residents joke about the Rocheport "beach," a sandy bank beside the Missouri River where locals sunbathe and hold bonfires. The town attracts a fair amount of young day-trippers from Columbia who bike or run there on the Katy Trail. Rocheport does not have a local school, and there is limited employment. Seventy-one percent of the residents are over the age of 35.

All that works for Weyerich, at least for now. Her husband commutes to Columbia where he works full time as a registered nurse at University Hospital. Weyerich's one-day-a-week surgical tech job in Columbia gives her time at home with the kids. She plans to take one class per semester at MU starting this fall, slowly working toward those interrupted degrees in anthropology and religion.

The two older children attend New Franklin Elementary School, about 10 miles away. Class sizes are relatively small. The principal knows both the troublemakers and the well-adjusted students by name and family history. Back home, Weyerich's children roam the dozen or so streets of Rocheport, walking to friends' houses and the General Store without the need for adult supervision.

Rocheport lights an oversized Christmas tree every holiday season just down the street from Weyerich. This past year, when her older children asked if they could walk down to see the tree, she didn't give it a second thought.

Her parents, who were visiting, were puzzled by the exchange.

"You can't let them go by themselves," Weyerich's father argued. He wanted to trail behind the children to keep an eye on them.

After Weyerich explained the safety of the community, she pointed out how much more unusual it would be to see an older man, who people didn't know, trailing the children without their knowledge.

However, the small-town safety net of Rocheport carries a price. One of the toughest internal conflicts Weyerich faces is whether to raise her children as "sharks or guppies." She wants them to have earnest, soft-spoken moral values — those she feels will be forged in Rocheport. Yet the social and career ladders tend to favor go-getters and toe-steppers.

"I do worry because the real world is huge and … corporate," Weyerich says, wondering if the idyllic life of Rocheport will prepare them for that world.

A try at city life

Long's route to Rocheport was more serendipitous than considered. She grew up in the tourist-and-music hub of Branson in southern Missouri but didn't envision a small-town future. She was infatuated with all that big cities seemed to offer — the different people, the energy, the action. She once asked her mom if Branson, population 10,500, would ever become a city.

"Probably not," her mother replied.

After high school, Long chased her city dreams to Houston and then to Kansas City, hoping to study art. But there were so many distractions in the cities. It was hard to meet people in Houston. Plans to enroll in the Kansas City Art Institute fell through. She and a boyfriend visited Rocheport and liked it. There was nothing tying them to Kansas City, so why not? The relationship ended, but Long found a home.

In the summer of 2010, she got a job with Annie Humphrees, a full-time college student who developed a part-time baking business. Long didn't know how to bake, but she learned. She took Humphrees' recipes and made them her own. When Humphrees was ready to move on, Long bought Annie's Breads from her, inspired by the idea that she could provide something so simple and timeless for her newfound community. Breadmaking, she says, combines creativity with purpose.

A casual way of business

The smell of fresh bread wafts through the open door of Rocheport General Store one day this spring. Inside the kitchen, where Long relaxes into the repetition of kneading dough, soft music plays in the background.

Two women, who biked to town from Columbia, are lured by the aroma of baking bread.

"Can I get a beer?" one asks, unsure of whether the store was open.

"Of course," Long says, welcoming them.

While her bread bakes, Long sits outside with the pair, enjoying the warm sun and cool breeze. The women urge Long to join their roller derby team, but she demurs; if she gets hurt, she won't be able to bake. Exchanges like this are one of Long's favorite things about Rocheport. Visitors are welcomed as friends.

On another day, a Thursday, Long is again sitting outside the General Store, drinking coffee and eating cinnamon bread she baked the day before. On this morning, it is locals who stop to chat, asking if she's baking more for tonight.

Thursday is locals' night at the General Store, though anyone can join. This week's menu includes pork steak and broccoli salad.

"People catch up and eat pretty cheaply," Long muses.

She'll be there, as will Weyerich.

Long hasn't decided yet if there will be fresh bread. Her bread baking doesn't follow a set schedule. She sells locally at the General Store and ventures to Columbia sometimes to sell at the Columbia Farmers' Market, Clover's Natural Market and Hy-Vee.

Her approach to business is pretty casual, as are the long talks with neighbors on their way to the post office next to the General Store. People greet you by swinging their arms wide and around your shoulders and smiling. Cars stop in the middle of the road so passengers can chat with people drinking wine and relaxing on their porches. Long likes knowing the man who toils in his garage across the street.

A sense of belonging and guidance

Although Long and Weyerich don't have a lot in common on the surface, Rocheport works for both of them. For Long, it means tight-knit relationships and a slow pace. For Weyerich, it means a friendly community and isolated security.

Long says she has always treasured relationships. Her mother was pretty hands-off in terms of telling her what to dream or be when she grew up but encouraged education and experience. What she wants out of life now includes a home of her own, neighbors she knows, a strong community and time for the small things. Rocheport offers that.

"I don't want to feel the rush," Long says.

Weyerich likes that there's no false striving here, no pressure to keep up with the Joneses — whoever they are. When she lived elsewhere, she would build a wall around herself. Here, that wall was broken down like that, she says with a snap of her fingers.

Her sense of belonging is so strong that she and her husband are buying a plot of land and building a house just down the street from where they live now. Getting all the paperwork and licenses and filings correct can be tedious. But instead of putting up bureaucratic roadblocks, city officials have helped guide her through the process — and invited her to join the city's Planning and Zoning Committee. Locals are thrilled to see a new family investing in the community.

"Any time you're talking any kind of business around here, it's like you're talking to an old friend," Weyerich says.

She plans to make Rocheport home at least until her older two children leave for college; custody agreements stipulate that Weyerich can't move out of state until the children are legal adults. By then, the baby will be 13, and Weyerich hopes to take her to Europe. For all she has settled into Rocheport, Weyerich likes to read to her children about foreign cultures and exotic places. She wants to expose her daughter to the world, to show her how other people live.

Weyerich describes the American Dream as "liberated opportunity." Not everybody born in the United States has the same access to education or wealth, but everybody has the opportunity to change their circumstances, she says. Some people might have to work harder because of the circumstances of their birth, but it can be done.

Weyerich remembers how her own mother told her that she was the only person in control of herself. Weyerich would have to decide how she wanted her life to turn out, which path to take. No one could do it for her. Since then, Weyerich says, life has been a series of choices, each considered carefully to advance her dual goals: raising a family and experiencing the world.

She wants to raise her children with that same sense of responsibility and self-determination and is concerned about the future of young people who have never been allowed to fail. "How can you ever learn to deal with defeat if you're never allowed to fail?" she says.

To that end, she tells this story: Her 9-year-old daughter came to her recently saying she wanted to be just like Taylor Swift — curly blond hair, hit country voice, pop star. Weyerich told her daughter that with singing lessons and hard work, she could be a good singer. But people like Swift, well, they are born with that sort of talent. Weyerich advised her daughter to focus on activities in which she is naturally gifted, such as swimming.

Her daughter burst into tears. Weyerich's husband later chided her: Aren't you supposed to tell your children they can be anything they want to be? Weyerich shook her head in disagreement.

"Failure is a necessary and natural part of life," Weyerich told him.

A part of the town

A green-clad crowd gathers around the General Store. Long grabs a few things she borrowed from Weyerich and hurries to get changed. Every St. Patrick's Day, Rocheport hosts an Irish road bowling tournament. Weyerich and Long are teammates this year.

The game takes all morning and half the afternoon. Teams take turns rolling a steel ball over a half-mile length of road. Between rolls, players share drinks and smack talk and hunt for lost balls. A referee in a black top hat and striped shirt bicycles back and forth. He is charged with keeping everybody relatively on-task and orderly.

"Relatively" seems to be the operative word. The team that crosses the finish line in the least amount of throws wins, but that's not why anybody plays. People play for the funny pictures and easy laughs and because everybody else in town is playing, too.

Weyerich and Long's team finishes somewhere in the middle of the pack, but the order isn't important. After everyone has thrown their balls back into town, the General Store welcomes them all in for a meal of corned beef hash.


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