Kathy Ennis remembers years ago driving by the cattle farm west of the city where the Columbia Mall now stands. Back then, the Parkade Center, anchored by J.C. Penney, was the mall that attracted shoppers from around the region.
Ennis owns Ennis Appliance Center on Business Loop 70 with her husband, Gary. They’ve watched over the years as the character of Columbia has changed from more of a rural community to a burgeoning metropolitan area. More and more, the agricultural land that once lay outside Columbia’s boundaries is being absorbed by the city and transformed into residential subdivisions and strip malls. Witness the 489-acre Philips tract, where cattle have roamed for years around a lake that’s been a quiet resting spot for geese. And the 1,000-acre tract east of the city that Billy Sapp is converting to a golf course and upscale housing development. And the 320-acre Crane family farm along the banks of Gans Creek, which the city has agreed to buy for a regional park. The Cranes have said it’s no longer feasible to operate a farm so close to a growing city.
- 1810: DANIEL BOONE’S SONS DISCOVER A SALT LICK. After his death, the area was named Boone County to commemorate his pioneer spirit and that of the new settlers moving in, mainly from Kentucky and the upper South.
- 1818: THE TOWN OF SMITHTON IS BORN. Smithton Land Co. is one of the first purchasers of property in the area. The town is renamed Columbia when water shortages force citizens to shift east toward Flat Branch Creek.
- 1833-1851: MU, COLUMBIA COLLEGE AND STEPHENS COLLEGE ARE ESTABLISHED. As education becomes a major industry, Columbia becomes the Boone County seat and develops a law industry to support county politics and courts. The population increases from about 600 to tens of thousands over the next 50 years.
- 1860s: COLUMBIA IS BYPASSED BY THE MAINLINE RAILROAD SYSTEM. The city remained relatively isolated until highways and airways replaced railroads. The city attracted few factories or large corporations. Education, law and health care remained the city’s main industries.
- 1969: COLUMBIA’S SIZE INCREASES 86 PERCENT. As communications and transportation infrastructure increased, Columbia’s population rose until the city authorized its first major annexation, increasing its geographic size from 22 square miles to 41 square miles. Today, the city encompasses about 63 square miles.
“There’s very little rural of anything,” Gary Ennis said.
The growth brings mixed results for folks like the Ennis family. The influx of new residents means more business, but it also brings a dilemma. Expand the business to meet growing demand, or stay small and maintain the service-first mentality that’s worked well for them so far?
“We don’t want to grow,” Gary Ennis said, “but you have to grow with it.”
“What’s going to happen when all of these small stores are gone?” Kathy Ennis asks. She refuses to patronize chain stores. She wants to support businesses in similar circumstances.
Bob King, the owner of Pendulum Bob’s Clock Shop on West Ash Street, is among them. He’s been in the clock business for more than 14 years, starting in the basement of his home but quickly moving to a storefront.
“It got to the point that I needed to expand or give it up,” King said.
King said Columbia has changed in many ways in the 40 years since he graduated from MU. As a student, he said, he would often take walks on Broadway in the middle of the night to take a break from studying.
“That’s what college kids did,” King said. “Everything was the university back then.”
King said the small-town, rural character of Columbia kept him here when he had finished his studies. He still likes it here — especially the “young and liberal attitude” — and there’s no doubt the growth has boosted his business. But he tries to maintain the friendly atmosphere that a small-town store would offer.
Toward the east end of the Business Loop, at a table in the far corner of The Senior Center, former engineer Richard Westley and his wife, Ann, were having lunch. They moved to Columbia from Mississippi about five years ago.
“We moved here to be close to our grandchildren,” Richard Westley, 70, said. “Maybe it is because I’m comparing it to where I come from, but I think Columbia is great.”
Westley likes the fact that Columbia is close to both St. Louis and Kansas City. But leave the metropolitan stuff to those places, he said.
“I don’t want Columbia to grow into a big city,” he said. “You can’t help that the city is growing, but they need to find a way to keep the small-town atmosphere.”
John Schweitzer, 65, has lived in Columbia for 45 years.
“I moved from Kansas City because I didn’t like the traffic and the two-hour commute to work every morning,” he said while spending time at the senior center.
“I’d hate to see Columbia grow into a big city,” Schweitzer said. “When the city is smaller, there are more individual, small businesses, and I don’t want big corporations taking over Columbia.”
Like Schweitzer, 57-year-old Catherine Synder first moved here 31 years ago from Kansas City, when Columbia was “almost like a small town in a big area.”
It’s not so much like that now, she said.
Snyder, who works in the meat department of Patricia’s Foods, has a hankering to leave, but her husband’s new job keeps her here. If it weren’t for that, she said, she’d hightail it to the Ozarks, where she thinks she’d be more comfortable.
The desire for a small-town atmosphere isn’t limited to older or long-time residents. Alina Dacila, an 18-year-old freshman majoring in fashion marketing management at Stephens College, came here from Jefferson City. She likes Columbia just the way it is.
Another Stephens freshman, Jenny Karlsen from New York, said she chose Stephens largely because it was in a “cute little town that was very homey and comfy.” A theater and English major who attended a performing arts high school in New York that was 90 percent female students, she said Stephens was the only school to which she applied.
Sara Erbschloe, 18, said her personal preference would be to see Columbia expand and become a larger city similar to St. Louis or Kansas City, but she acknowledges it’s nice to be able to get across town in only 15 minutes.
“I’m split, because I can see why Columbia would want to have that small-town feel for families, but I like big cities and their open job markets,” the Rock Bridge High School student said.
Jim McNeil, a 20-year-old MU student who grew up in mid-Missouri, said he wouldn’t change a thing about Columbia.
“I hope Columbia stays as close (as possible) to what it is in 25 years,” he said. “I just think it’s awesome.”