Ruth Reynolds remembers when shopping at the Fulton town square was a countywide event.
“It was a big deal. People would come from all over the county every Saturday,” said Reynolds, a native of Fulton in Callaway County. “We would sit on the main street eating ice cream as our parents would do their shopping and catch up with each other.”
That was in the early 1950s.
Now, most of those town-square shops are gone, but residents say the county still retains a neighborly character. This characteristic adds to the town’s general quality of life, a factor that helped earn the county recognition as the fourth best place to live in rural America from Progressive Farmer magazine.
County residents say they still find time to sit down and talk together as they did a half century ago, a quality some call “county charm.”
That charm is what drew Jim and Cathlynn Dodson to Fulton.
“I wanted to live somewhere where you can slow down and say hi to your neighbors,” said Jim Dodson, a bed-and-breakfast owner who recently moved from California. “No one has time for that in L.A.”
Weighing subjective factors such as quality of life, Progressive Farmer ranked the county fourth out of 600 counties across America in its February magazine.
Statistical information on each county was compiled by OnBoard LLC, a research company, and examined categories such as health care, education and crime rates. OnBoard LLC is the same company that compiles information for a best cities to live in list for Money Magazine, Progressive Farmer’s sister publication under Time Inc. Progressive Farmer sent out two editors to examine OnBoard LLC’s top 10 counties and rank the top areas’ subjective attributes, including leisure opportunities, cultural pursuits and scenery.
Executive Editor Joe Link, a native of Fulton, was one of the editors sent to examine these top counties. Although he is from Callaway County, he said there was no conflict of interest because all the editors participated in the ranking.
“If you look at the qualities we tested for, the top 50 counties are all very desirable,” Link said.
“I think Callaway is going to face the same challenges as any other growing county,” Link said. “The decisions people in the county will make on how they handle their growth will be important for years to come.”
Some residents, however, have mixed reactions to the national attention the ranking will draw.
“It will be both good and bad,” said Edith Dixon, a Callaway County resident since 1978.
Dixon said the publicity will probably boost the economy, but at the same time it might greatly increase the county’s already substantial growth and could disturb the “peaceful balance of the area.”
The Census Bureau recorded a 24.3 percent increase in the population of Callaway County from 1990 to 2000, one of the largest rates of increase in Missouri for that period. Boone County had a population increase of 20.5 percent over the same time span.
Faye Oden, a resident of Auxvasse who has watched the county grow throughout her life, is concerned about how an increasing population will affect farmers.
She is concerned that as more people move to the county, the rising cost of land and limited space might harm the farmers.
“Farmers have been having a hard time of it,” Oden said.
Fulton business leaders, however, do not think Callaway is in danger of overcrowding.
“The trend in growth is very strong,” said Bruce Hackman, president of the Fulton Area Development Corp. “But I don’t think there can be any negative results from the ranking.”
Hackman said some people might be scared that Fulton might take off in growth and end up like Branson, built-up and overcrowded. But he doubts that will happen.
“We have lots of room to expand,” Hackman said. “I don’t think we are in danger of growing too fast or losing our rural charm.”
Nancy Lewis, executive director of the Kingdom of Callaway Chamber of Commerce, echoed Hackman’s confidence that there is no danger of overcrowding and said the magazine article will have immeasurable benefits for the community.
“I’m not sure how we will ever track everything this will do for our county,” Lewis said. “It will be a wonderful marketing tool in selling our county and will hopefully be important to people looking to move or start a business here.”
Dixon said there are always good and bad parts to change.
“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” Dixon said. “It’s not so much the growth that matters but people’s attitude toward living here.”
No matter what effects the ranking might have, Callaway County will keep its same county charm, she said.
“People will still take the time to stop and speak with each other,” Dixon said. “We still care enough to communicate.”