McBAINE — There are probably more candidates vying for the 2008 presidency than there are residents in McBaine, 10 miles south of Columbia. The town has just 17 people. Count them. It won’t take long.
Elsewhere Missourians may be worrying about zoning laws, traffic jams or Britney Spears’ shaved head, but here things are simpler: No one pays city taxes.
Almost a third of the residents serve on the board of trustees, which has power only to repair the town’s five streets and to hold quarterly meetings.
There’s no bank. No library. No gas station. Definitely no McDonald’s.
McBaine does have two ranch-style homes, four trailers, a motor home and an RV, enough to house those 17 people.
All that’s just fine with the good citizens of McBaine. They do have a social, political and cultural center.
It’s called Lucy’s. This local spot is a combination restaurant/bar/pool hall/beer garden/family pub. Pictures of John Wayne decorate the walls of the main room. Each of the three old — rabbit-ears-era old — televisions offers a different show, courtesy of the satellite dish now bringing in hundreds of channels.
Stop by any Saturday night and most of the 17 McBainians can be found tapping their feet to the jukebox’s Conway Twitty songs as the roar of NASCAR rushes by on the television above the bar.
Stop by any time, in fact, and the grill will be hot. Earlier in the day, Kenny — a cook who says “it’s just Kenny. No last name” — serves himself a platter of six biscuits buried in gravy. When a customer chuckles and says, “That’s a big breakfast,” Kenny replies simply, “It’s a fat boy breakfast.” Just Kenny is indeed a bit burly.
While this soybean farm community may prefer biscuits and gravy to hummus and pita bread, sometimes Lucy’s does offer exotic fare. Once a year, the restaurant brings out the deep fryer for the town’s biggest event — the annual Testicle Festival. You read it right. Testicles. Bulls’ testicles. More politely known as Rocky Mountain Oysters. The festival draws a crowd increasing the town’s size nearly 20 times over. The festival, held on the first Saturday of October, draws people from all over the state for beer and bull.
Just Kenny is wearing a festival souvenir T-shirt today. The back pictures a terrified bull, eyes as big as saucers, holding the family jewels and running for dear life, or at least for his manhood.
Lucille Coleman owns Lucy’s. Lucille is also town clerk and treasurer and one of the four trustees. She is calm and in charge as she pulls a Styrofoam box from the refrigerator and asks if anyone wants strawberries. Lucille, whose 80th birthday is March 31, peers through her spectacles and opens the box, left behind by an anonymous customer.
“I thought I saw a breast in there,” says a man sitting at the bar.
“Those look like chocolate penises,” says the woman next to him.
Lucille looks in the box again: “Oh my, I thought these were strawberries.”
Inside are white chocolates in the shape of various sexy bits, each individually wrapped in pink plastic. Not quite Lucy’s usual corn bread and beans for a dollar.
But McBaine isn’t mere sex— it’s also rock ’n’ roll. Farmers from other communities and construction workers on the job a couple of miles up the road visit Lucy’s for a lunchtime beer.
“Some of the guys like to come up to McBaine, because they can get away from their bosses, and their cell phones don’t work around here,” says Lucille.
But rock ’n’ roll isn’t just about rebellion, it’s also about music, and music doesn’t get any more rough and rowdy than the tunes of Conway, Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash wailing from the jukebox on a Saturday night. That’s when the folk of McBaine and nearby Huntsdale (population 30) set aside their friendly rivalry over a Bud Light (Appletinis haven’t reached McBaine yet). All comfortably enjoy their favorite Marlboros and Camels, too. There’s no chance an anti-smoking ban for bars and restaurants will be voted in anytime soon.
Next to the pool table, Lucy’s does have a laminated sign banning gambling and cursing. Her son, Carl D., ensures that second rule is about as legit as the famous “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Back in the good ol’ days when trains were the future, the town boasted a much larger population. McBaine was founded in the 1890s, says a 1979 Missourian article, “as a train depot for the spur from Columbia.” By the 1920s, 500 people lived there. The demise of the mail train and the post office in the ’50s, however, pushed the number down. Then the floods came.
“Between 1973 and 1974 we had three floods in a 12-month period,” says Mayor Marvin Sapp. The Great Flood of ’93 was the final blow. The population dropped from 35 to today’s 17.
The mayor and his wife, Kathleen, don’t need to call FEMA when the waters rise, as their house sits at the town’s apex above the downhill slope where everyone else has set up camp. Their trailers are ready to head to higher ground if the floods hit. The town’s only other house is owned by Sandy and Billy Leaton. The house is as prepared as can be against floods. The building can’t be elevated because of its original structure, but the Leatons have substituted concrete floors for the original wood ones.
Until the last flood, McBaine’s government was inactive. But in ’93, Sapp and the others re-formed the town board to deal with bureaucratic federal disaster relief.
Mayor Sapp is The Donald of McBaine, but at 74, he works infrequently. Announces the mayor with a chortle, “My wife says I have a hobby of farming.” This “hobby” has bought the mayor three cars, two trucks and practically half a town.
The town’s lots mostly belong to the Sapp brothers and the Wehmeyer bothers. The Leatons and Lucille own their own lots, but other residents rent theirs.
Without a tax code, McBaine’s operating money comes from donations.
“Me and my brother pay for about half, and the other brothers that own the other half the town pay half,” says the mayor. That adds up to about $1,000 a year used for road insurance.
Most everything in McBaine is privatized, and a town with no tax base doesn’t have a budget. At trustee meetings, “we just have to report what has gone on since the last meeting,” says Lucille, “and mostly it’s what I report.” Her restaurant is not only the main source of commerce, it’s also the main source of town news and the location for the meetings.
It may seem McBaine is merely paying lip service to the notion of a board of trustees, but, says Lucille, “We make ordinances to repair our streets, and we are trying to finish putting asphalt on the streets.”
The Sapps, both widowed from previous marriages, have what The First Lady of McBaine calls “a hodgepodge of stuff, and 11 kids between us.” The hodgepodge includes two dining room tables, two living room suites and the mayor’s paperwork piled to the ceiling in a back room.
On Saturday nights, the Sapps are usually found at home, sitting in platform rocking chairs, watching Lawrence Welk or a selection of classic country singers on RFDTV, Rural America’s Most Important Network.
Occasionally, the Sapps join the crowd at Lucy’s, but as teetotalers they generally stay home with RFDTV.
On a recent Saturday night at Lucy’s, Carl D. leans his chair into the jukebox as he searches for the next song, while Ostie Murray talks with his nephew Clint Murray about their long day of ice fishing. Smoke fills the air and dims the Christmas lights brightening the cheeks of the crowd.
Sometimes the modern world intrudes. Budweiser posters in the washrooms tell the whole story of feminism and diversity. In the men’s lavatory, posters of bewitching dames greet gents with a need to urinate. The woman on the right is of the Aryan race (well, blonde highlights can be deceiving), and the Latina woman on the left will remind any cowboy of multiculturalism.
Lucille, however, makes it clear objectification isn’t just for men when she says, “Women gotta have a picture on the door also, ya know.” And what a poster: hunky Tim McGraw in flannel shirt and tight jeans holding both a Bud and his guitar.
This is McBaine, home of the free, and land of the 17.