- Associated Press - Friday, October 7, 2016

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) - Tens of thousands of people poured into Christian County over the last three decades.

They developed neighborhoods, paved parking lots, and erected big-box stores across Ozark, Nixa, and even Clever, the News-Leader (http://sgfnow.co/2dP6EJB ) reported.

The urban sprawl from Springfield seemed to touch every place around the county - except around the town of Billings, the only city in Christian County that lost population from 2000 to 2010.

Growth now appears to be on the way: A handful of stores have opened along the town’s main drag since last year, a subdivision in the town’s southeast is starting to take off, and a new mayor is advocating to attract more businesses and more residents.

People here wonder if the development boom that doubled and tripled the size of nearby cities will soon arrive in Billings.

But if it does arrive, will it be at the expense of the area’s proud tradition of farming?

The whistle - now a siren - that lets farmers know it’s time for lunch still blows at noon, the church bells ring in the evenings, and the train rolls by about every 15 minutes.

Surrounding the town are verdant farms and content cows.

Fred Zell is one of the last dairy farmers left in the area. His dairy farm sits across the street from the city limits of Billings.

He calls it his “time warp.”

Every morning, Zell and his wife milk cows, prepare feed, and feed calves in their red barn as thousands of other Christian County residents commute north to Springfield.

If Billings takes off like the rest of Christian County did, that growth and development could butt against the farms - like Zell’s - that dot the area around Billings.

This summer, Zell’s dairy farm became a “Century Farm,” a recognition bestowed by the University of Missouri Extension to farms that have remained in a single family’s ownership for a hundred years or more.

The MU Extension has a list of 72 farms in Christian County that received the Century Farm distinction, and about a third are located in the county’s narrow western panhandle around the town of Billings.

While farms around Clever and other cities were sold and turned into development, farmers around Billings have continued to hold onto their land.

Zell couldn’t say for sure why that it is, but he said it could have something to do with the 19th-century German emperor Kaiser Wilhelm.

Wilhelm unified Germany, but he also made it hard for people to get land, Zell said. So Germans immigrated to America instead, he said, and numerous families ended up in what was then a booming town on a railroad line: Billings.

The church the Zells attend - St. Peter’s United Church of Christ - still has German script on the wall.

Land was precious to these immigrants, Zell said, and, despite the passing of a few generations, that respect lingers among families in the area.

“They don’t want to give up that ‘old country’ tradition,” he said. “It’s going to be a while before our town changes.”

However, even Zell, sprightly at 70, knows he won’t be running his farm forever.

“One of these days things will change, I guess,” he said. “This is probably going to be the last generation.”

At 56, Ray Dean Hutter said he’s one of the young Century Farm owners in the area around Billings. In the 19th century, his forebears came over from either Germany or Switzerland, Hutter said, though he can’t remember which one.

He has a cattle farm on South Pine Street that he still actively works on, but there’s a “class” of Century Farm owners around Billings who are in their 70s or 80s and don’t do much with their land anymore, Hutter said.

Hutter doesn’t have children of his own, he said, but his farm could pass one of his three nephews or his niece - “whoever has the gumption.”

“It’ll supposedly pass on down, but you never know,” he said. “Nothing lasts forever.”

Hutter said a lot of farmers in the area sell to their neighbors - not outside developers - but eventually those farms are going to be sold off and the development that has come to other Christian County towns will have to spread to Billings.

“Where else is there to go?” he asked.

The boom has been expected for about a century now.

That’s according to David Rauch, whose family tree includes some of the original German immigrants to Billings. Rauch heads up a Billings betterment group and is also the unofficial town historian.

Rauch said when Billings was platted, the streets were 80 feet wide across - “unusually wide … (they) anticipated significant growth.”

“The idea of growth and expansion was very central to the town,” Rauch said. “In modern times there have been those that are satisfied to have Billings be a bedroom community to Springfield.”

At one time the town was second in size only to the county seat of Ozark, Rauch said. There used to be five grocery stores, a tomato cannery and a cider mill, he said, and butter from Billings was shipped all across the Midwest.

But as time progressed, the railroad dwindled in importance and the dairy industry became more specialized.

Rauch said the strong tradition of farming in and around Billings has affected the town’s ability to grow, but not so much anymore.

“The perception was land was going to be hard to buy around the town … Today, there are places around Billings to grow,” Rauch said. “We are looking at why are we not growing and what can we do to enhance that growth.”

The downtown, for example, is built around Highway 60 which has a steady stream of traffic throughout the day, but several open lots and dilapidated buildings pock the area.

Gerald Griffin wanted to buy one of those lots about eight years and spend $130,000 to build a business to sell race car chassis, he said, but city leadership laughed at him.

“Because it was zoned for no auto sales, they wouldn’t let me put my business there,” he said. “I thought that was nuts … they wouldn’t even consider it.”

The next year, Griffin was able to buy the building where he operates his current business, Griff’s C.A.M. Shop, across the street from that empty lot. He is now in his seventh year operating in Billings‘ downtown, and the lot across the road still sits empty.

If anything, farmers have supported the town when the town didn’t want to support itself, Griffin said. For instance, Griffin said he’s been doing machine work for Zell for years.

It’s been city leadership that held the town back, not farmers, Griffin said, explaining that he resides outside of city limits.

Griffin praised the city’s current mayor and said city leadership’s opinions on growth are evolving.

Down the road, the owner of a vintage shop echoed some of Griffin’s comments.

Greg Wilson and his mother opened S & K Treasures about 12 years ago and said this year has been his best on record.

That’s for two reasons, he said - the first being an increasingly pro-growth city leadership.

“I think we’ve got better (aldermen),” he said. “A lot them didn’t want to grow.”

The second reason is that more flea markets and vintage shops opening up in Billings.

Stores like the Whistle Stop Resale Shop, which Jim Viebrock and his wife opened this summer. He said there’s close to a dozen of these resale shops all within walking distance of each other.

Billings is quickly becoming known for its flea markets,” said Viebrock, a former Greene County commissioner who lives a few miles outside of Billings. “It’s a great place to come and spend a day.”

Just last week, Coyote Country Floral Shop opened up in an old gas station a block off Highway 60 - a location that the two owners said sat vacant for nearly a decade.

Another store owner, Sharlene King-Ferguson, envisions a city similar to Canton, Texas, a small town that frequently attracts thousands of people because of its thriving flea market scene.

She and her son own a repurposed furniture and lighting store called King’s Custom Vintage, which they opened last year. The inside is chic, with a high ceiling and dark hardwood floors.

“It’s not your typical Billings shop,” King-Ferguson said. “It’s kind of a small-town shop with a big-town feel.”

The town also has a great advantage in being located smack dab on Highway 60, King-Ferguson said. Yes, she still sees tractors and horses come by, but there’s also thousands of cars that pass through the heart of the city.

Mark Jenkins, the president and CEO of the Bank of Billings, agreed, saying a fast-food restaurant would be a smart addition to the main strip.

Like much of the town and its farmers, the Bank of Billings has a long history that includes surviving the Great Depression.

The Bank of Billings was founded in 1889, Jenkins said, and has done business with many Century Farm owners, including Zell.

Jenkins said farming has decreased overall in Billings as farms get passed down through families.

“We’re not seeing a lot of new farms,” he said. “That next generation has to step up and want to do farming.”

Looking past farming, Jenkins predicted that population growth and economic development will come to Billings, he said - it’s just not clear which one will happen sooner.

“It’s like what comes first, the chicken or the egg? A grocery store would be a great addition to the city,” he said. “Billings is missing some key features. … The town is ready for some growth and some industry.”

There is a tiny housing boom in the southeast corner of the town. There are piles of bricks and freshly overturned dirt. A circular saw can be heard cutting tile, and there are electricians, utility workers and a painter on the street.

Amanda Martinez and her family moved into this subdivision earlier this year. She doesn’t know Fred Zell, but they both like Billings for similar reasons.

“Everybody’s nice and you can actually know people around here,” she said.

Her house, along with a few others, was built in 2012, Martinez said, but then construction stopped. This year alone, though, about a half-dozen houses have gone up, and several more are in the process of being built, she said.

Martinez pointed to the field behind her house, saying the developer has plans for continuing the subdivision.

“As soon they sell one, they put another one up,” she said.

The mayor of Billings, Mike Hodges, said the subdivision is supposed to eventually have about 50 houses.

More people need to come to Billings before economic growth comes, he said.

Hodges said he moved to Billings about two decades ago so he could put his children in a smaller school district and has watched business dry up during that time.

Hodges didn’t comment on past city leadership, but he made it clear he wants Billings to grow.

“I want people to come in and businesses to come in,” he said. “I’d like to see it grow where the kids would have jobs around here. … a manufacturing place around here would be great.”

Hodges said he doesn’t think the farms around Billings have kept the town from growing, but if Billings grows like he wants it to grow, development will eventually run up against the surrounding farms - if they’re still there.

For the farms to continue, farmers like Zell will have to find someone willing to continue an increasingly antiquated lifestyle.

The 100-year-old dairy farm is one of a handful of farms he and his wife Diane own in the area, and Zell is aware he’s getting older.

He can still swing his legs over a fence, but he said an injury at his age would be hard to handle.

Zell is looking to transfer his farm to a beef cattle farm soon - which is what it was before he took over in the 1960s - and he said he sold half of his dairy cows last year.

It would be nearly impossible for a person to start a dairy farm nowadays, Zell said: The debt a new dairy farmer incurs is back-breaking, the profit margins are slim, and cows have to be milked every day.

“It’s a hard life. It’s a good life. But the income goes up and down and up and down,” he said. “I don’t think you could start one for a hundred thousand (dollars).”

When asked how his grandfather would feel about his farm turning 100 years old, Zell said he would be happy.

“I guess he would say, ‘Well done, young man,’” he said.

As Zell spoke to the News-Leader about his farm, two women came down the road riding bikes. It was his two daughters - Karen Frazier and Kathy Murray - who were riding in from Republic to visit.

Both work at Mercy Hospital and have families of their own, but they didn’t rule out keeping their family’s farming tradition alive.

When asked if they would take over their parent’s farm, they sighed.

“Maybe someday,” Murray said.

“That’s a long way down the road,” Frazier said.

___

Information from: Springfield News-Leader, http://www.news-leader.com

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