CALIFORNIA, Mo. — The drive down Missouri 179 through Moniteau County is quiet and beautiful. The picturesque scenery features rolling hills, wide green pastures where horses and cattle graze, the packed parking lot of a simple white church and trees decorated with warm shades of orange, red, yellow and brown.
This is the heart of Missouri's new 50th House District, where state Rep. Caleb Jones, R-California, is unopposed in his bid for another term in the legislature. Jones said the neatest thing about the 50th District is that people wave as you drive by.
“They view people in their community as their neighbors and friends, so they’ll wave to you. It’s kind of weird,” Jones, 32, said. “I lived in D.C. for three years, and nobody waves at you over there. It’s cool.”
But there were few people waving on a recent rainy day. Many locals were inside California's Nic Nac Cafe, where the aroma of breakfast food filled the air and families and friends talked about the previous night's St. Louis Cardinals game. Framed silhouettes adorned the wooden walls of the no-smoking room, depicting icons of a storybook country life: wagons, horses, wind mills.
"Of all the places I could’ve lived, here’s where I’m at,” said Dennis Hentges, a retired Army man who was born and raised in California but has served all over the world. These days, Hentges runs a home-repair business. It keeps him busy, but he likes that.
“I guess that makes me weird,” he said.
Sometimes Hentges will help a neighbor out for free.
“A lot of people in this town don’t really have anything. They’re livin’ day to day,” Hentges said. “Contractors would charge them a lot of money. I tell 'em: ‘If you get money later, you can send it to me,’ but I fix it then. Here, we have a people-take-care-of-people mentality."
The coffee table
Hentges sits at the Nic Nac’s “coffee table” with Russell and Judy Roedel and John “Herbert” Glenn. People know Glenn by his nickname, “Herb.” It’s on his truck’s license plates.
The long wooden table stands at the center of the cafe, right next to a counter where waitresses, including Hentges' wife, Colene, brew coffee and pull ingredients from cabinets.
Here folks sit for hours drinking coffee and talking about everything — and everyone. There’s a saying in California that if you go out to pee in your backyard, people will know before your zipper’s up. People may be nosy and in your businesses, Roedel said, but it’s for a reason.
"If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t want to know.”
The coffee table group has been coming to Nic Nac since forever. The members can talk about how the cafe used to be a drive-thru and reminisce about a long-ago time when the diner relied on chunks of ice to keep food cool. That was before there were freezers.
Years of history can be hashed out over a piece of toast. Memories are still as fresh as the hot coffee in refilled mugs. A joke goes with the conversation like butter with bread.
In the middle of the coffee table, a stack of greeting cards sits atop a napkin holder so folks can offer get-well wishes, congratulations or condolences for their neighbors, family and friends.
The heart of Missouri
California’s population numbers around 4,000, making it the largest city encompassed by the 50th District. Ashland is second with about 3,500 people. The district runs south from Columbia to the northern tip of Cole County and west from Ashland to grab about half of Moniteau County.
Small towns dot the district's countryside. In Lupus, houses stand on stilts just a stone's throw from the Big Muddy. Lupus holds an October chili festival every year that draws thousands to the otherwise sleepy village.
The district is also home to the 146-year-old Moniteau County Fair and to the Hartsburg Pumpkin Festival one of the most anticipated events of fall in Boone County.
Religion is important to the communities of the 50th District. In California, for example, churches crowd downtown. There are five within a span of three blocks. Local divisions of Church World Service and Ministerial Alliance raise thousands of dollars and donate provisions to help combat poverty.
“There are more churches than beer joints,” Hentges said.
A family affair
Although the 50th District is a new area dictated by boundaries drawn after the 2010 census, it feels like home to Jones. Born in Columbia but raised in Clarksburg, Jones, like his parents, is an MU grad. He studied agriculture and law at MU, and now practices law in Columbia. He enjoys running with his wife, Lindsey, and describes himself as a motorhead.
He still owns the red ’64 Oldsmobile he used in his campaign for student body president at MU. He lost the election but had a lot of fun.
“That thing was an awesome ride,” Jones said of the Olds. “Part of campaigning is getting your name out, and we had this big old boat of a car, so we drove it around campus, gave people rides, painted flames on it and put our name on the side.”
Not everyone in California knows Jones personally, but most know of him. Many people in town watched him grow up. Caleb Jones isn't a showy, suit-and-tie kind of person, people say.
“He’s a heck of a good guy,” Hentges said.
Caleb Jones’ father, former Moniteau County Sheriff Kenny Jones, is on a first-name basis with nearly everybody. Kenny Jones was a highway patrolman before he became sheriff in 1984. Jones served 20 years as sheriff before he went on to serve two terms as state representative for the 117th District from 2006 to 2010.
The Jones family has a long history in California, a history that includes tragedy. Caleb Jones was only 11 in 1991 when Vietnam War veteran Jim Johnson went on a shooting rampage. He killed four people: two deputy sheriffs, the Cooper County sheriff and Jones' mother, Pam Jones, whom Johnson shot through the window of her home as she hosted a Christmas party for the Christian Women's Fellowship.
Johnson was convicted of multiple counts of murder despite a defense that said he was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. He was executed in 2002.
The people of California came together to help the Jones family through the ordeal, chopped firewood for them, did farm chores and checked in from time to time.
“There are certain things in life that mold you or help shape your work ethic and how you view the world,” Caleb Jones said. “That was one of those events in my life that will forever shape me. It’s made me appreciate how important my family is to me, and to make sure to reach out and lend a hand if someone needs it.”
Caleb Jones is close with his father. They talk at least once a day, sometimes three of four times. He followed his father into public service when he won his vacant seat in the 117th District in 2010.
“I grew up in a small town and close-knit community,” Jones said. “Whenever someone gets sick or hurt, everyone pitches in a little bit and helps them get through it. That’s how I view public service.”
Jones said his platform reflects his constituents' values. He said every family is worried about the economy.
“How do we make sure businesses want to come here, move here, set up and create jobs for the state?” he said. “... It affects everyone’s lives. I don’t think you can find one person who doesn’t know somebody who was laid off or terminated from their job because of the economy.”
Jones opposes abortion and supports the right to bear arms. He also favors limited government. “The most important thing to citizens of the 50thDistrict is knowing government is not going to encroach on their lives,” he said.
Factories, family businesses and farms
California has recently seen an influx of Hispanic immigrants. Hentges said that's been a boost to the area.
“If they weren’t here, we might shrivel up like some of those other towns.”
Miguel Garcia owns El Rincon Latino, which sells goods from Hispanic countries. He arrived in California in 1996 at age 28, when there only a few Hispanics in town.
“Now you can find us most anywhere,” he said.
Garcia worked at the Honeysuckle White Factory, a division of Cargill Inc. Eventually he saved enough money to open his store. What really attracts immigrants to California, Garcia said, is the prospect of full-time jobs. Many work at factories such as Cargill, which, along with agriculture and small family businesses, serve as the economic lifeblood of the town.
There's the Arkansas Valley Feathers factory, which makes boas and plumes worn by Las Vegas showgirls halfway across the country. There's Burger’s Smokehouse, which packs meat from Missouri cattle and sends it all over the world. There's Tana Wire Markers, which makes the brightly colored balls attached to electrical wires to warn aircraft of their presence.
But businesses in California and elsewhere in the 50th District are seeing rough times. The high cost of gas, grain and materials makes business difficult.
“Sometimes you’re not making a penny,” Garcia said.
Residents worry about the general store that recently closed and the fact that Cargill ended its third shift. They lament the U.S. 50 bypass that reduced traffic through town. Fast food places usually don't last long here, and it’s hard to buy everyday items in town. A lot of people shop in Jefferson City.
“It’s sometimes frustrating,” Jones said. “Living in California, if you forget something at the grocery store and it’s 10 o’clock, there’s no place open. Movie theaters are 30 minutes away. Stuff like that. But the positives definitely outweigh the negatives.”
There are signs of growth, Jones said. Professional couples are moving to the area now that it's easier to drive to Jefferson City and Columbia for work. Hentges bought a house in a newer area of town; the area is mostly populated by retired people. Meanwhile, he said, there's a “big, fancy” housing area being built on Francis Street, and the city library and the Finke Theater are being renovated.
Across the river
Bruce Martin of Hartsburg might be a code inspector for the city of Columbia, but the Hartsburg resident isn't a stuffed-shirt government employee. His eyes are a blinding blue and his smile a sharp V.
“Sorry, I get a little country sometimes,” he said after forgetting to tell a visitor his name. “A little too laid back.”
When he’s not enforcing building codes, Martin is working in his Show-Me Harness Shop, which he established in 1983. The leather shop attached to his garage is filled with belts, horse racing collars, bridles, dog leashes and sheets of chrome and stainless steel. The walls are covered with pictures of Martin’s favorites projects, including a baby seat he built for a saddle.
Martin has done work for the Ashland High School Rodeo Association, MU professors and Caleb Jones. Jones' grandfather asked Martin to work on two large leather briefcases that were gifts for Jones and his brother when they completed law school. Martin sewed their names onto them.
Jones said he still uses the briefcase today.
Martin doesn’t know Jones but knew his grandparents, the Teels, very well. “If Caleb’s anything like the rest of his family, then he’s a good man.”
Martin has worked for Columbia for 30 years but could retire any day.
“I want to retire, but I enjoy my work,” he said. “They treat me well. You earn a good day's pay from a person; you give 'em a good day's work. That’s the way it should be.”
Martin lived in St. Louis as a child but spent summers with his grandparents in the river hills near Ashland. Raised in a Democratic family, Martin now believes party affiliations are unimportant. Jones just needs to keep Missouri out of debt and keep jobs coming, he said.
“Most importantly, Jones should work for the people,” Martin said. “He is there for the people and to represent their best interests.”
Jones said he intends to do just that.
“My hope is that whenever people look at the 50thDistrict, they still view it as a place that they want to live, work and raise a family in,” he said. “The people here have the values and hard work ethic that makes Missouri strong. It’s important for the people in my district to know that I’m happy to represent them, but I’m even prouder to be a part of their community.”
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.