It was only minutes to Midnight when a violent thunderstorm whipped it’s way through the small river town of Rocheport, Missouri on June 17th. A thunderous atmosphere wailed and gale force winds tore through the village; ripping limb from root and sending the community into a blackout. While many in town slept through the storm, Rocheport residents Brandon and Whitney Vair were far from slumber. They lept towards the phone to report the power outage to the Boone County Electric Co-op. Just feet away from their front door, in the restaurant they had poured their blood, sweat and tears into, laid a fridge cooler full of food that comprised the menu of their only days-old restaurant Meriwether Cafe and Bike Shop.
Luckily, the power was back on at their restaurant less than an hour later and all was well. Such scares and stresses like this one are par for the course when opening a new eatery, but the Vairs have had more than their fair share of trials in the journey from raising a trailside restaurant from the dead and creating one of the most exciting new culinary experiences in the Mid-Missouri area.
Anyone who has biked to or from the trailhead in Rocheport knows of the space where Meriwether now resides. Previously known as The Trailside Cafe, the restaurant and bike rental business was the first merchant to open on the Katy Trail in the mid-80s. While the Trailside was once a happening spot, in recent years it had become somewhat of a perplexing staple of the town in that its location right on the Katy Trail would have made it a prime location for a thriving business, but inconsistent hours and lack of upkeep in led the property to lay mostly dormant. When the cafe went up to auction early this year, the Vairs saw an opportunity to turn the space into something new and fresh.
“Whitney and I moved here in 2014 to belong to a small community that would be an idyllic setting to begin our family,” says Brandon. “We have had such an amazing response from the people of Rocheport and that just increases the pleasure it gives us to open this business in a place that we care for so much.”
“Idyllic” is the operative word and it is exactly what comes to mind when sitting outside of Meriwether, under the shade of the large tree, enjoying a breakfast plate and sipping on a dark roasted Fretboard Coffee whilst watching bikes roll by on the trail. My first meal there consisted of a pair of Boatright Farms eggs prepared sunny-side-up, Show-Me Farms bacon, and house-made bread perfectly baked by Brandon’s wife Whitney. All of these traditional breakfast items are prepared perfectly, but the true champion of this meal was the not-so-traditional Patatas Bravas; Spanish style fried potato tossed in garlic and tomato sauce, topped with Creme Fraiche and chives.
The way in which Meriwether blends tradition with an eye to the future is indicative of Brandon and Whitney’s culinary backgrounds. Brandon has been working in the food industry since we was 14. In 2007, he worked closely with his family to launch Bleu Restaurant and Wine Bar in Downtown Columbia. “I performed every position from dishwasher to kitchen manager and every front of the house position from server to bar managers,” says Brandon. “Having such a diverse experience within a small business that I helped build has been invaluable to informing our new adventure in Rocheport.”
There is little doubt that part of what makes the Vairs approach so successful is their synergistic approach to working with one another. The two met one day when Whitney stopped by Bleu to fill out an application. The restaurant had not yet opened and Brandon proceeded to give his future wife a tour of what would be. “His passion for the place was infectious and I immediately began filing out the application in the lobby of the Tiger Hotel,” says Whitney. “He kept checking in on me and we ended up talking for almost two hours. I never finished the application and he never finished his shift. We walked through downtown getting to know each other and he asked me out the following evening. We haven't been apart for two days in a row since!”
The two of them worked together at Bleu for almost three years. Whitney worked as pastry chef and Brandon was Kitchen Manager. It was through that experience that they were able to find a workflow that would lay the foundation for their new culinary adventure in Rocheport. Whitney would tell you that it is their different approaches that make make things work. “We are very different in our approach to creativity. But our styles are very complimentary- I am very stylistic and freewheeling, where Brandon is a bit more analytical in his management style- he definitely grounds the business in the numbers while I excel in the aesthetics.”
While the Vairs have no doubt seen tribulations while working at Bleu, but nothing could have prepared them for the process of remodelling the Trailside into a restaurant worthy of their vision. What was initially thought to be a simple remodel turned into a long winding journey of basically rebuilding the interior of the space completely. While the tasks were arduous, the Vairs now view the whole process with the same level of plucky optimism that they approached the project with. “It has been an unimaginable thrill to have a clean slate to work with. Our vision for the space and what we wanted it to represent was in no way recognizable in the building we walked into,” says Whitney. “We are so grateful for the opportunity to revitalize one of the Katy Trail and Rocheport's most recognizable institutions.”
Another definitive aspect of Meriwether’s operations is their fleet of brand new bikes available for rent. A row of brightly colored 2017 Marin Stinson STs line the bike racks outside the shop, waiting patiently to get some trail dust on them. Aside from regular trail bikes, Meriwether also has some unique options by way of a selection of kids bikes from John Deere steel tricycles to 21 speed mountain bikes for young adults. There are also tandems(bicycles built for two), trikes(three wheel recumbents) and quads(side by side recumbent). The Vairs are always looking for new, eccentric bikes to appeal to everyone. They promise more additions to the fleet as they learn what people would like to see.
Meriwether is of course named for Meriwether Lewis whose famed expedition with William Clark in the early 1800s made its way through Rocheport. This history is very much engrained in the identity of the town itself and Brandon wished to further establish the connection with his restaurant’s namesake. “Their names grace the streets of town and even some barn cats we know of.” With an ear to the past and eyes toward the future, the Vairs have embarked on an expedition of their own. Though it has already had twists and turns, Brandon and Whitney’s epic journey has really only just begun. Like Lewis and Clark before them, Whitney and Brandon have the best possible companion in each other to help them down this path together.
Written by Brett Dufur, Photos by LG Patterson, Story used by permission of Inside Columbia Magazine.
They say the story of a house is also the story of the man who lives there.
If we run with that metaphor, then the story of Matt Williams’ adventure in housing reads more like a three-part odyssey of discovery, adversity overcome and the triumph that concludes every good story. This could be The Odyssey… with a slight twist. This is Matt’s odyssey, a 6-year heroic quest, to resurrect a small, forlorn Rocheport house.
Nestled in a garden-like setting, Matt’s house frames a proper scale of man in nature — subdued, not overreaching. Out back, his property is hemmed in by the quiet flow of Moniteau Creek as it cuts along a final tall bluffline before emptying into the Missouri River. Outside his kitchen window lies a picture-perfect view of the Katy Trail State Park, where bikers can be seen crossing a bridge to explore the old train tunnel.
It was there that Lewis and Clark explored the Rocheport area back in 1804, before the town was even founded, in 1825. Since then, the spot continues to be marked by historical milestones, including the completion of the train tunnel in 1893, black soot still apparent on the ceiling from a century of railroad use.
“The story I inherited was that the original house (the middle of the current house) was built by a family who came here to help build the Katy tunnel,” Matt says. The tunnel is now one of the most popular spots along the entire Katy Trail State Park.
When Matt purchased the home in March of 2010, its decaying walls and foundation were but suggestions of what might have been, or what could be again, in the hands of the right person.
“It was basically a 125-year old railroad shack that had been added on to and modified many times,” Matt says. “Most significantly, it had never had a proper foundation. Like many homes built pre-1900s, this one probably only had rocks at the corners to keep it off the ground. A section of wall in the kitchen was sitting on railroad ties! But 120-plus years of gravity, in soft river bottom soil, meant that most of the house was on the ground or very near it. There had also been modifications to the ceiling joists that had to be rectified.
“But I loved the basic feel of the place: semi-contemporary meets cabin, especially the openness and the loft over the kitchen. Since the most pressing problem was the lack of foundation, I consulted a contractor and floated the idea of digging a foundation out from under it. He thought it was doable — or he didn’t really think I’d be insane enough to try — so I went for it!”
Like any good rehab-turned-nightmare resurrection story, Matt had no idea of the saga that was about to unfold.
“I thought I’d be able to just tear out the floors, dig footings, pour a new foundation, put the floors back in, and put everything back together,” he says. “But I kept finding more problems: rotted and termite-eaten wood, inadequate support in load-bearing walls and walls that had shifted due to the removal of the ceiling joists. I knew it didn’t make sense to go to all the trouble of putting a new foundation under the house, only to just cover up all the problems I’d found, so I just gutted it.”
After recounting the early days of his project, he pauses to calculate exactly how long it has taken to rehab the house.
“I’ll let you know when I’m done,” he says with a laugh. “Actually, for all intents and purposes, it was finished in May of 2016, so a little over 6 years. There are still a few odds and ends, but the big stuff is done.”
Matt persevered long after many homeowners would have caved or completely broken. Some would have succumbed to just taking out a huge loan and hiring crews to finish it. Some would have thrown in the towel and moved on. Others would have settled for what it was: a train-wreck beside a train track (pardon the pun).
But like the little engine that could, Matt kept going. “I would tell myself ‘You have no choice, so keep going.’ Giving up — that just wasn’t an option. I sometimes compared it to climbing to the top of a tall ladder only to realize that you’re actually terrified of heights. Freaking out will do no good, you have to figure out how to get down. In spite of all the challenges, I really do enjoy this kind of work. Seeing your ideas come to life in concrete and wood and glass and paint is pretty exciting.”
Matt says he had never done anything of this scale before. “I’d done some relatively light remodeling on my previous house in Columbia, but this was in a whole other category. I’ve just always loved this kind of thing and I think that’s what matters. When I was a kid, I added a deck and running water to my tree house. If you have a basic interest and curiosity, there are ways of figuring out the details. Ag classes in high school helped. I was an ag major in undergrad and had a class in electricity and wiring. There is, of course, a ton of information online. David Mast, the contractor I hired to pour the concrete for the foundation, was a huge help. I could call him up at any time to ask for advice.”
Matt completed the impossible, while holding down a full-time job. “I did everything except pouring the concrete. I dug out the footings by hand… I went through three shovels!”
Fast forward to today. It’s a crisp winter day and the wood stove is keeping the house perfectly toasty. Sam, the dog, is goading his guests for endless belly rubs. The space is comfortable, relaxing, it is simply: home.
Contemporary touches, as if by a designer, are everywhere. Hints of architectural styles seamlessly merge. The list of well-balanced details is long: the beauty of old wooden beams, weathered wide-plank cypress floors, old Columbia pavers surrounding the wood stove, schoolroom slate countertops, white-washed wooden ceilings… if contemporary and Adirondack styling can merge into something as impossible as Nouveau Adirondack, than this is certainly it.
Even though many would see this as a crowning achievement of the age of HGTV rehabber show binge watching, DIY overdosing and Pinterest obsessives, Matt is none of those things. He hasn’t had cable television in 14 years. Instead, he followed his internal compass. Unburdened by having to “stick” to a prescribed style, in something more architecturally suggestive, such as folk Victorian or other Rocheport style, he was freed to treat the resurrected house as a blank canvas and to follow his internal aesthetic.
“I wanted everything to be ‘real,’ if that makes sense,” he says. “Real wood, real brick, exposed beams that are actually performing a structural function. Un-fussy. There’s not much enclosed storage space. Part of that is the lack of space. Overall, the house is a little under 1,000 square feet (not counting the loft). But it’s also a conscious choice. I’d rather have a few things I really like and enjoy seeing, than a bunch of junk that I never use or don’t really care for hidden away. Clean lines, simple materials.
“I’d say the overall vibe is rustic-cottage-cabin with just enough industrial-modern, even a touch Scandinavian, to keep it from being too cute. The theme that ties it all together is comfort.”
Many of the materials Matt used were either recycled or up-cycled. His love of tradition is apparent in details such as the vintage porcelain sink, the clawfoot tub, period pieces that work to complement contemporary furnishings.
“I was able to save and re-use the cork floors in the studio area and master bath when I tore out the old floors. The wood flooring and backsplashes in the kitchen and master bath are cypress that came from Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington. The laundry, kitchen and master bath sinks are all vintage. The kitchen countertops are slate chalkboard from a one-room school east of Moberly. The bricks in the hearth are from The Rome restaurant in Columbia. They have ‘Columbia Paver’ stamped on them.
“The tongue-and-groove yellow pine that I made the kitchen cabinet doors out of are from the attic of an old southwest Columbia house. The mantel on the hearth was a beam that I tore out from under the old kitchen floor. I made the vanity in the master bath from wood I found floating in a wetland nearby. The clawfoot tub came out of an old house in Mexico… Craigslist has been my friend.”
As Matt gathered the materials and his home was taking shape, his style evolved. “I’ve built things out of recycled wood for quite a while. I used to sell wooden boxes at Bluestem Art Gallery and I love starting with materials that already have so much story to them,” he says. “Since I had so much time to play around with ideas, I could change things as I went along and figure out what worked and felt best. Here, in person, in real time.”
“I never doubted he would finish it,” says Jennifer VanHorn, Matt’s friend of 16 years. “But when I visited and he was digging out the foundation, at that point, it seemed like ‘Oh my gosh, he’s gotten in over his head’ — literally. It was crazy!
“And now, when I walk through his house, it’s all so perfect,” Jennifer says. “Everything has a function or a purpose or reminds him of a memory or reminds him of the land around it. It still completely baffles me, he did it himself, every single thing and taught himself to do the things he didn’t know how to do, and did them all to perfection. I think his remodel is completely consistent with every story I’ve heard of him growing up. He will only do things that he can do 100 percent.”
As any artist would reply to the question of what now, now that this is done, Matt replies, “There are still doors to be built and I’d like to rebuild the deck into a screen porch and do something with the cabin.”
The cabin Matt refers to is sitting a few hundred yards away, an artifact of another time. It is leaning heavily and is slowly giving up the ghost. It is a part of the setting as much as everything else here, the towering cottonwoods and sycamores, the tall bluffs, the creek, the tunnel, the list goes on and on — a scene painted by an unseen artist’s hand.
“The setting is why I’m here,” Matt says. “I added windows to the creek side of the house to take advantage of the view. I think the history of the place — a Native American village here pre-1800s and Lewis and Clark camping very near here — contributed to the desire to re-use materials and to try to create some sense of continuity with what this place has been.
“I love the history of this area, the proximity to the river and the trail. I grew up in a town not much bigger than Rocheport, so the small town thing appeals to me. There’s such an eclectic mix of people here and I love the relatively constant flow of people using the trail or visiting the town. I like the sense of being able to stay put and rooted while having the scenery change around me.”
One of the maxims of restoring an old home is that it often takes more time and money than building new. Matt is one of the fervent few fed by rehab fever, who understands the path less traveled.
“When I brought my concrete contractor out here after getting the floors torn out, he walked in and said ‘Have you thought about a bulldozer?’ I said ‘No, but I wouldn’t be too upset by an electrical fire.’
In retrospect, it probably would’ve been easier — there was almost always something in the way of where I needed to be. But starting with a shell, even a shell without a proper foundation, seemed less daunting than starting from scratch. And more economically feasible.
“This house doesn’t fit into any of the usual historical architectural categories: it’s not Victorian or Greek Revival or Craftsman. None of the original trim work was left when I got to it and there was only one remaining original window.
But I think there’s a historical value in another sense: this was shelter at its most basic. The people who built the original two rooms 125 years ago were mostly concerned with not getting rained on and keeping their kids safe.
“I’ve even wondered if they were actually squatters (the house sits on what was supposed to be the right-of-way for a street that was never built). While I was dismantling the place, I found evidence of a chimney fire, termites, lots of rot, and of course, floods. So it’s kind of a miracle that the house has even survived and I think that deserves to be honored in some way.”
Article and Photos by Colin LaVaute
To will oneself to become a notable musician takes an immense amount of time, focus, and perseverance. While anyone can learn how to play a musical instrument, it takes a special breed of person to push the envelope of their craft into the arena of becoming a professional musician.
Mike Dulak has garnered praise for his musical abilities. What separates this picker from the vast array of talented music makers in Mid-Missouri is his drive and passion to move beyond the stage and into the workshop as he creates quality handmade mandolins in Rocheport, MO.
Dulak has been building mandolins for 22 years. Having spent decades playing in honky-tonks and clubs, he is a seasoned and grizzled musician with the chops to hang with any band you could put him with. Folks in Columbia might recognize some of his hilariously named (but blazingly talented) groups such as The Rank Sinatras and The Boone County Tickpickers. Anyone that has seen Dulak on stage knows that he is just as much a comedian and performance artist as he is a musician. Sometimes, he would refer to himself as Mike Raphone while bantering with the audience (Get it? Microphone?).
“There was a period where I was playing four nights a week, for seven straight years, year-round at the same club,” says Dulak. “That’s how I got relatively good at playing the guitar and country singing. When you play that much, you either get good or they throw you out.”
The shop for his company, Big Muddy Mandolin Company, is nestled in the river village of Rocheport. There, with his trusty Basset Hound Oliver at his side, he meticulously hand crafts each mandolin with great precision and care. Using such exotic woods as koa and purple heart he has created a mandolin that not only looks gorgeous, but sounds great. Handmade mandolins of this caliber could easily cost an arm and leg, but Big Muddy Mandolins are very reasonably priced for the quality of the product.
Dulak enjoys the quiet life of living in Rocheport. When he isn’t building mandos, he is hitting the trail with Oliver or playing in senior league baseball tournaments. Don’t let that laidback lifestyle fool you. When it comes to precision of his craft, Dulak never skimps on quality. When the rare occasion in which a client needs a repair, he goes out of his way to help them out. In one instance, a broke college student needed a major repair.
“I told him that it would cost him two pounds of dark roasted coffee from his local roastery,” says Dulak. “I could hear the guy’s jaw hit the floor when I told him that over the phone, because it was a pretty major repair. When I got the package I actually ended up with five pounds of coffee.”
His craftsmanship has gotten him noticed by national acts. Atlantic Records Country Recording Artist Hunter Hayes plays a Big Muddy Mandolin. Hayes even went so far as to send Dulak a signed endorsement stating: “Thank you Big Muddy Mandolin for making an unbelievable little instrument that I can’t put down!”
When speaking with Dulak, it becomes obvious that this craftsmen is bound, not only by a common love of instrumentation and musical talent, but also by a jovial air of pride in his work. He is a musicmaker in more than one sense and the effects of his passion can be heard echoing throughout the corridors of music venues across the U.S.
Written by Rocheport resident Cheryl Thomas
Sometimes it’s best to be alone in order to fully appreciate the beauty, history and tranquility of Rocheport. Take a slow walk to the river; listen, smell, feel the weight being lifted as you go. Sit down awhile and wait. Be patient and quiet. The show will start soon. The birds, bugs, snakes, turtles, and fish will entertain you. They either forget you’re there, or they’ve accepted that you mean them no harm. I like to think it’s the latter. Listen to the trees as their trunks rub against each other in the breeze. Listen to the leaves move, the limbs on the ground snap to some unforeseen force.
Who else sat in this area hundreds of years before you and pondered the sights and sounds? There’s a pretty good chance you’re sharing the same spot where Indians and fur traders stood in the past.
What did they see and hear that you don’t? What do you see and hear that they didn’t? I can imagine they saw many more animals than you’ll ever be able to appreciate. You can be sure they didn’t hear the machinery at the sand plant, or the traffic on the I-70 bridge. They didn’t see the contrails in the sky or the warning signs and buoys along the river. But you can both agree that it’s a beautiful, powerful thing to see; the river in her glory and strength, rolling, laughing, giving and taking.
As the sun begins to set, you slowly amble home. The mourning dove serenades you as you walk alone. Are they sad because the sun is leaving, it’s the end of a peaceful day? Or is that a lullaby they sing to one another, “all is well and we’ll do this again tomorrow?”
Late into the evening a magical, spooky yet beautiful chorus will start. The coyotes far and near, perform their ritual. It’s a mesmerizing and haunting sound. Then the owls chime in as they communicate with others within hearing. Listen to the bats chirping as they flit around above your head. You know you’re fortunate to listen in, to be allowed to share in this, the night sounds that have gone on for centuries and hopefully will continue for many more.
Rocheport and the natural settings around it are a true blessing, a gift to be opened and shared. Slow down, walk away, and clear your mind. Be alone with the thousands of wonders waiting for you out there. It’s a true gift to cherish.
Rocheport Historian Monett Lite's brief synopsis of one of Rocheport's most famous artifacts. Her article is part of a book written in 1992 entitled "Rocheport Memories" available at the Friends of Rocheport Museum or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Gregory C. K., editor
Illustrations 1881, Teubner
by Monett Lite
Long before the white man set foot on the abundant lands of Missouri, the Sacs, Foxes, Kickapoos and Potawatamies maintained a reverent existence along the Moniteau Creek and Missouri River. The Indians* called the creek "Manito" or "Creek of the Great Spirit." The waterways afforded the Indians a comfortable lifestyle with plenty of wild came and a means of travel. They buried their dead upon the bluff next to the "Manito" for safekeeping and painted hieroglyphics on the bluffs to demonstrate their faith.
John Bradbury, naturalist, in his journal of a voyage up the Missouri River in 1810, mentioned the "Manito" rocks in the Rocheport area and explained that the Indians often applied the word "Manito" to unusual manifestations of nature which they highly venerated. He described the primitive red-keel Indian paintings on the bluffs as representations of deer, buffalo and other animals.
Maximilian, Prince of Wied, traveling up the Missouri River in 1833, noted many red figures on the bluff among which was that of a man*** with uplifted arms.
The Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804 opened westward expansion of the white man. By 1815, the Indians signed treaties relinquishing all rights to their lands north of the Missouri River. As the Indians moved south of the Missouri River and later west to Indian Territories, signs of their existence diminished. In 1892, the sacred burial grounds were destroyed. Indian bones were dumped into the Missouri River. The pictographs were blasted by dynamite and lost, all to accommodate the expansion of the M.K.T. Railroad. A few examples of the pictographs remained as late as the 1950s. Now weathered away, all that remains are an occasional arrowhead and the "Great Spirit" of the Moniteau Creek.
* archaic., derr., slang. current synonymn Native American
** Red Keel a.k.a. Red Ochre, an earth pigment common to clay soil. Orange-red in color, ancient and versitile it can be made into a primitive chalky pencil (Tom Sawyer uses Ochre to write on a pine shingle in moonlight), a non-toxic stain or dye, or refined and dissolved into industrial pigments.
*** Illustrations below depict females, they are taken from a different panel than the one mentioned in the book.
Written by Brett Dufur