Tarkio College was once the economic and cultural engine driving this Missouri community. Alumni and residents now try to maintain and restore the campus, while searching for a new role for the town’s biggest asset.
Free to a good home: one gently used, mostly vacant, 20-building college campus on 65 acres in northwest Missouri. Fixer upper.
That’s one way to sum up present conditions at Tarkio College in Tarkio, Missouri. The liberal arts college established in 1883 by the United Presbyterian Church closed in 1992. From 1995 to 2004, the campus housed a private educational/treatment facility for adjudicated, at-risk youth.
Another way to think about Tarkio is my way, as a child of the 1970s Midwest: with the music of Brewer & Shipley and their 1970 album Tarkio. That’s the album that spawned their number one hit single, “One Toke over the Line.” But it’s the title song, with its lyrics about “trouble” while bicycling the Tarkio Road, that country-rocks through my head whenever I hear the name of the town.
Yet for others, the connection to Tarkio is both personal and pragmatic, tied to the economics and future of one small town, one small county and the former college so many both grieve and celebrate.
Ed Salmond, a local businessman, is one such. He is on the board of the non-profit Heartland Educational Institute, Inc. He was there for the lawsuit against the adjudicated school, which arose to address damages to the facility during that period. Now he wants nothing more than for the school to be in someone else’s hands.
Although mostly long-vacant since its closure more than 20 years ago, Tarkio College is still a lovely and appealing place. A pleasant and snug array of buildings arranged in a neighborhood of stately homes, which, if you don’t look too closely, all seem ready to inhabit tomorrow. The property description details the school’s attributes: “Some of the building uses include a library, dormitories, administrative offices, lecture halls, classrooms and a chapel. There are 64 beds in several dormitories. Room sizes include singles, doubles, triples and apartment-style rooms. The property is served by municipal water and sewer as well as natural gas, electric, telephone and fiber optic lines. An extensive maintenance program has kept the facilities in good condition.”
There have been nibbles of interest from at least 10 various trade schools and two-year colleges over the years, but Salmond said those plans have fallen short because of a “perception problem.”
“Everybody loves campus when they look at it. But most students have to have jobs when they are in college,” he said. “Our biggest problem is that there is no employment in our town for their students. The closest place where they can find employment now is in Maryville, 35 miles away.”
There are factories and other employers in Maryville, but representatives of interested colleges think that is too far for their students to drive for work.
“I try to make the comparison to a place like Kansas City, and how far you can expect to drive to get to your job in a place that size. But they can’t get past it,” Salmond said.
“The reality is, as far as I’m concerned, if we had a good prospect, we’d give them the campus. If someone would provide a good business plan and prove to us they have the financial wherewithal, we could make it happen.”
Tarkio College’s closure was part of a national trend in which small, private schools closed or merged because of shrinking enrollment and increased competition from large, public schools. In its heyday in the 1960s, Tarkio College had as many as 750 students. It was building new dormitories and was the biggest employer in town, providing jobs for up to 300 people. Since its closure the town has suffered. “There are more than 200 vacant houses in town. The biggest employer here now might be somebody who has eight or nine employees,” Salmond said.
“When the college was open, we had a county with close to 10,000 people living in it. Now we are down to 5,600. Losing 300 jobs has had an economic impact.”
The board has kept the grass cut and the walks cleared. But facility upkeep is expensive. Salmond said the roof blew off the science building about six years ago, so now the inside is a disaster. Tearing buildings down is not an option either, because of the expense. “We’re a non-profit without a lot of funds. It is an issue; how do you use your money?”
As Salmond said of his years trying to save Tarkio College, “It’s been quite a deal. It’s been a long journey.” But that doesn’t mean Tarkio College is doomed. The campus gymnasium has been converted into a community recreation center and gets a great deal of use. Rankin Hall, the college’s central building, has been adopted by a resurgent Tarkio College Alumni Association.
I saw evidence of the board’s efforts as I walked the campus in early October, the Sunday of the high school’s annual homecoming event. The wide downtown streets were decorated with scarecrows, most sporting jack-o-lantern heads. They gave color and whimsy to a main street doing its best. A beauty parlor, a martial arts studio and other mom-and-pops contributed to the town’s available services, such as a grocery store, a dollar store, an auto shop, a gas station, a motel. From a high hill near Tarkio College, I could see a wind farm sporting dozens of tall turbines twirling against the sky. On the other side of that wind farm is Rock Port, the county seat. That’s where Monica Bailey serves as head of the Atchison County Development Corporation.
Bailey explained the history of the county “A hundred years ago there were multiple communities with unique identities. As population shifted, three primary communities remained: Fairfax had the hospital, Rock Port had the county government, and Tarkio had the college.” The hospital and the county government are still economic engines, but even with those entities intact, the county is struggling. Atchison County came in first in Missouri for loss of population in the last census, Bailey explained, partly because the college has closed and subsequent organizations on campus, such as the adjudicated school, were not sustainable.
“The loss of the college is important not just from a jobs angle,” she said. “The county took a big hit culturally with the loss of the college drama department that brought people to town from miles around. That sort of thing contributes to the vibrancy of a small town and drives the community.”
Bailey grew up in Tarkio and was young when the college closed. She moved away for about a dozen years. Now in her mid-30s, Bailey said people in her age range have different expectations for what is important in a rural community.
“There are some quality leaders in this generation among people who went away and then came back, and among some who chose to stay here. They are motivated to make it better. They know they can’t return it to what it was when they were kids, but they want to create something wonderful for their kids now. There is a different kind of awareness among people in their 30s and 40s that we have to create opportunities, that we have to act as a county, not as individual communities, and that football team rivalries don’t matter in the way they once did.”
But there are things that thrive. She describes the college recreation center as “going like gangbusters, with a volleyball league that has county-wide participation” as an example.
As far as the county’s future, Bailey notes that Atchison County is not an unreasonable commute to jobs in Omaha or Kansas City, especially because of quick access to I-29. It isn’t an easy sell to convince city dwellers who’ve never left Kansas City to decide to relocate to Tarkio or elsewhere in the county. But people who’ve left and have made the choice to return?
“They’re all about this place,” Bailey said.
That includes Linda Brunk Smith, who lives in Kansas City and is a 1965 graduate of Tarkio College, where she majored in history and political science. Training in those subjects prepared her well for the challenge of salvaging at least part of Tarkio College. She is the current president of the Tarkio College Board of Directors, and past president of the Tarkio College Alumni Association. Smith, with a crew of other alumni volunteers, is renovating the main campus building, their “beloved” Rankin Hall. The goal is to open as a training center providing continuing education for professionals in various fields that require certification or licensure. But before they can start offering classes or provide a site for webinars, they have to have a functioning building.
Soon, the north side of Rankin Hall will have Tarkio College memorabilia and Alumni Association offices. The south side will house the Training Center classrooms and administrative offices for the continuing education program. Three fields of study are in the pipeline: public service, public safety and health care. Public service will be ready first, Smith said. It is a joint venture between Tarkio College and the League of Cities. Students will come to Tarkio for some classes and can also accomplish some aspects of their training online and via webinar. “We want to take our time, do everything correctly.”
Smith noted a new policy, which is that only Tarkio alumni may serve on the college’s board. She did not want to dwell on the past, but indicated having people on the board with a strong personal connection to the college was critical to its success.
Although the Alumni Association only began leasing Rankin Hall in 2012, they’ve accomplished an extensive list of repairs, Smith said. Highlights of accomplishments include upgrades to the guts of the building, like new air conditioners, furnaces and plumbing, refinished floors, repainted rooms, maintained landscape, functioning downspouts, repair of the flat section of the roof and restoration and repair of windows. Frequent work weekends bring volunteers to campus from hundreds of miles away to saw, hammer, paint, landscape and polish.
Recently, the volunteers have homed in on the chapel. Smith said they’ve spent about $35,000 repairing eight large hail-damaged stained glass windows. When I spoke to her on the telephone, the sound of sanders buzzed across our conversation. That sound represented progress. They’ve been able to hold two weddings in the renovated chapel, so far, and hope more couples will use the space.
The biggest challenge now is replacing the main roof of Rankin Hall, which Smith said is a $400,000 job. This and other projects are being funded by donations, mostly from alumni and friends of the school. The Alumni Association is offering sponsorships for various items, such as chapel doors, pews and windows, display cases and even the chapel stage. A donation for a sponsorship gets that donor’s name attached to the item forever.
She signaled the end to our conversation by saying she needed to get outside and start planting flower bulbs in the Memory Garden.
“I can’t tell you how much this institution means to me,” she added. “It means more to me than anything else in my life. I waited almost 20 years to get to work on the school. It has been a long 20 years.”
Julianne Couch is the author of Traveling the Power Line: From the Mojave Desert to the Bay of Fundy. She is at work on a new book, Mountain Prairie River Home, of which this story is a part.