For More Details
For more information, contact the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-777-0068
Sikeston/Miner Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-888-309-6591
New Madrid Chamber of Commerce, 877-748-5300

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From the Cape to quakes
Southeast Missouri tour combines river lore, history in a relaxed pace

Bollinger Mill State Historic Site, located in Burfordville, Mo., is a scenic spot to the northeast of Cape Girardeau. The covered bridge was completed in 1868. The mill is the third one built on this site./ Dennis R. Heinze photo
By Kathie Sutin
Published: Jul/Aug 2000

Think of Missouri and you probably think of St. Louis, Kansas City or Branson. But there’s more to Missouri between and beyond those cities.

Take southeast Missouri, a quiet part of the state that holds a long, fascinating history, beautiful scenery and lots of surprises, including cotton fields and swamplands, “gingerbread” homes and seismographs. This is Missouri with a Southern accent.

Heading south on Interstate 55 from St. Louis, even the terrain says this area is different. Tall, green hills loom as a picturesque backdrop while rocky outcroppings and pine trees stud the land. In some places, the highway is cut canyon-like through the rock. The rolling hills ease off as you approach the first stop on your trek south.

City of Roses

Cape Girardeau, snuggled along the Mississippi River, is southeast Missouri’s largest city, and is best known as the site of Southeast Missouri State University and the hometown of talk show personality Rush Limbaugh.

Every river town has its own feel and interface with the Mississippi, and Cape Girardeau’s is dramatic. Floodwalls separate downtown from the river and block the view of the water, but walk through the gates and you’ll see a spectacular view of the river.

Nicknamed the City of Roses, “Cape” features almost a dozen separate murals throughout the city that depict various periods of history or significant events. The large “Missouri Wall of Fame” mural features 45 famous Missourians, including Dred Scott and astronaut Linda Godwin, as well as the Missouri flag, which was designed in Cape Girardeau by Marie Watkins Oliver in 1908.

Follow winding Cape Rock Drive to Cape Rock Park, the site where Jean Baptiste Girardot set up a trading post in 1733. The rock’s point, which later was blasted away to make way for the Frisco Railroad, became known as Cape Girardot, later Cape Girardeau. Today visitors can enjoy sweeping panoramic views of the Mississippi River below the park.

Cape and the surrounding area offer a wide variety of bed and breakfasts, many in historic homes. Even meals can be steeped in history here. The French-style building housing Royal N’Orleans Restaurant started life as an opera house in 1868, and the building that is now Port Cape Girardeau Restaurant is rumored to have been Gen. U.S. Grant’s headquarters during the Civil War, and a haven for bootleggers during Prohibition.

A change in attitude

Heading south from Cape, you leave the rolling hills of Cape Girardeau County as the highway takes a dramatic drop from Crowley’s Ridge near Scott City into flat, expansive farmland. The change signifies the separation of the Ozark Hills into Delta country, the northernmost cotton-producing area in the nation.

Locals joke that the imaginary line also signifies a cultural change–speech is a little slower below the ridge and takes on a bit of a drawl as the North melds into the South

I-55 brings you into Scott County, one of the six counties that comprise Missouri’s Bootheel. Here the land spreads out endlessly. The rich, alluvial land was deposited into this region by the last inland sea millions of years ago. The largest swamp in Missouri was in New Madrid County until the early 20th century, when they were drained and turned into vast agricultural plains extending eastward to the Mississippi River. Come in late summer and fall and you will find fields white with cotton.

Can you catch a roll?

Rich with history, filled with interesting places to see and things to do, you’ll find enough in the Bootheel to keep you busy for several days.

Catching rolls at Lambert’s Cafe in Sikeston is a must while visiting Missouri’s Bootheel . / T. Jaynes photo
Hunters and fishermen will find a paradise at Ten Mile Pond Conservation area near East Prairie. History buffs have much to explore with the Battle of Belmont State Historic Site in East Prairie; Higgerson School, a restored one-room schoolhouse in New Madrid; and historic homes in several nearby communities.

Shoppers, too, will find rich bounty here. The Sikeston Factory Outlet Stores, antique malls and shops and flea markets throughout the area will provide many happy, treasure-seeking hours.

For a unique dining experience, plan a stop in Sikeston at Lambert’s Café, known far and wide as the home of “Throwed Rolls.” Throwing rolls is now a tradition in this restaurant serving up down-home food to thousands of tourists each year. The decor is rustic with photos of cowboys, celebrities and mules, license plates and other memorabilia, and the food is “country-good.”

Venture into the downtown and you’ll find the Sikeston Depot, a former train station, now all spruced up for a new life as a cultural and arts center. For something really zany, stop by the Southeast Missouri Agricultural Museum east of Miner for a look at more than 6,000 pieces of antique farm equipment and exhibits on rural life in the area.

Shake it up

North America’s most violent earthquake occurred in New Madrid in 1811. In a series of quakes and aftershocks, the area was kept reeling for nearly two years. The strongest of the quakes reportedly rang church bells in East Coast cities, buckled the land around the tiny town and re-routed the Mississippi River.

The eyes of the world focused on New Madrid several years ago when scientist Iben Browning proclaimed “The Big One” would strike again, swallowing up the area and causing massive disruptions over an area covering several states. Nothing happened, and New Madrid returned to its sleepy self–a historic town on the Mississippi with a spectacular view of the water where it makes a 360-degree turn below its observation deck.

Visit the New Madrid Historical Museum (a former 1886 saloon) for a look at exhibits that describe the incredible force of the earthquake, Civil War battles and other historical events in the area.

The Hunter-Dawson State Historic Site (left) offers a glimpse at 19th-century life in southeast Missouri./ Dennis R. Heinze photo.
Nearby is the Hunter-Dawson State Historic Site, a plantation-style home built by William Washington Hunter. The home exemplifies the type of life that existed in the southeast part of the state.

Also nearby is Towosahgy State Historic Site, the remains of a Mississippi-an Indian village. The mound builders are thought to be tied to those to the Cahokia Mounds Indians at Cahokia, Ill., with the same culture although they built mounds but on a much smaller scale.

A Missouri treasure

Tucked in a corner of nearby Mississippi county is the crown jewel of the Bootheel, Big Oak Tree State Park, a fascinating blend of huge oaks and swampland and one of the last remaining virgin hardwood forests in the country. Some of the country’s largest living specimens of tree species are here, with canopies averaging 120 feet or more.

A 1.25-mile boardwalk winds its way through the forest so visitors may stroll among the towering hickories and oaks and through the quiet serenity of the swampland.

This tour of southeast Missouri might be best enjoyed with an overnight in one of the communities. Slow your pace as you follow the Mississippi River’s meandering route through this part of the Show Me State.

Kathie Sutin is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

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