FRANKENSTEIN — To an outsider, little is frightening about this mid-Missouri hamlet that shares its name with the gothic novel. These villagers are more prone to know one another’s names than to rise up against a monster.
And the residents of the area say they like their close-knit community.
“Nobody moves out of this town,” said Ryan Brandt, 14, an eighth-grader at St. Mary’s School in Frankenstein. “But nobody really moves in either.”
Teacher and principal Marsha Stegemann puts it a little more gently.
“You know everybody,” said Stegemann. “You know aunts and uncles. Some of their family members I went to high school with.”
Stegemann teaches the combined seventh- and eighth-grade class at St. Mary’s School, a four-room parochial school built on a hill above a sharp turn in the winding two-lane Highway C that leads into Frankenstein. There are 37 students in grades 1 through 8, and Stegemann knows them all by name.
They’re from communities in the surrounding areas: Chamois, Frankenstein, and Bonnots Mill. Some have older brothers and sisters who attended St. Mary’s. Some have parents who did.
The community, an unincorporated part of Osage County, is a collection of about a dozen houses. The school shares the hill with a cemetery and Our Lady of Help church, which has been on the same site since the early 1890s — about the time Mary Shelley wrote her novel about a man who created a monster.
The school and church grounds overlook the farms that sprawl across the area’s rolling hills, and the church tower, made of solid gray stone, can be seen from a few miles away.
There are a few legends about how the town got its name.
The most common one, says Wilfred Kremer, 77, a lifelong resident of Frankenstein, is about a German man whose last name was Franken. He is said to have donated the land on which the church was built and “stein” was added because in German it means “stone.”
The town is the kind of place where cars slow to a crawl behind farm implements, deer are a common sight, the kids ride all-terrain vehicles and the neighbor “right next-door” can be two miles away. To give directions to visitors, locals tend to point in the vicinity of their family’s land, instead of noting landmarks or giving street names.
Halloween is one of the yearly events that brings the community together. Preparations begin a few weeks before the school’s Halloween carnival, which usually takes place the Friday before the holiday. The seventh- and eighth-graders — nine students this year — planned the carnival games and decorations.
During one day’s preparations, students shrug on paper smocks and button one another into them before painting beanbag throws and a wooden pumpkin decoration at cafeteria tables in the school’s basement-level multipurpose room.
Older students carve pumpkins for the carnival’s centerpiece. Each student carves at least one. Eighth-grader Seth Thoenen is trusted with the pumpkin carved to reveal the message “Welcome.” His teacher and classmates tease him good-naturedly about getting the jack-o’-lantern to turn out right.
Meanwhile Tim Troesser, 13, fights to cut the top off his pumpkin.
“That would make a good picture,” Stegemann joked. “Seventh-grader struggles against pumpkin.”
“Pumpkin will win,” Ryan added.
“I think it already won,” Tim said with a smile. “Any chance we’ve got a cleaver around?”
The carnival is one of the few events during the year when St. Mary’s parishioners — there are more than 200 of them — have the opportunity to attend a get-together on the church grounds.
After the carnival, the older students are rewarded with a scavenger hunt on the church and school grounds. The hunt used to be spookier, before an unoccupied, run-down convent on the church grounds was torn down a few years ago, Ryan said.
“You’d be running along and the wind would blow and tiles would fall off the roof,” he said.
Students tell ghost stories that make the old church and graveyard even more frightening.
“It was so creepy,” said Lindsey Peters, a 19-year-old MU student who grew up in Frankenstein. “People would say they saw somebody looking out the window, but then nobody was there. Or they would say a door disappeared, and they couldn’t find the room.”
For her, the carnival was important enough to trump a Hootie and the Blowfish concert in 1997 when she was an eighth-grader at St. Mary’s.
“I gave up a concert to go to that thing,” Peters said. “That was back when Hootie and the Blowfish was really big, and I had front-row tickets. .... I sold my Hootie and the Blowfish tickets to go.”
On Halloween night, those who are young enough to trick-or-treat make their way through the area — usually driven by a parent — collecting treats and visiting family friends.
“We drove there just to get a Tootsie Pop or something,” Peters said, laughing. “People expect you to come. I’m sure our parents would rather just buy us the candy than drive us around.”
Peters said other things make the trick-or-treating experience in Frankenstein a little different.
“Old ladies, instead of giving out candy, they would bake cookies,” she said. “Three-fourths of the stuff you got was homemade.”
But again, that’s the benefit of living in Frankenstein, Peters said: the close-knit community feeling.
“I had a friend who moved to (Jefferson) City in fifth grade,” she said. “So she was still young enough to go trick-or-treating, and she had little brothers and sisters, and they would come back to Frankenstein to trick-or-treat because it’s so much safer there. So much more of a community feeling and everything.”