Red Flags, Blue Ribbons and Deep-Fried Cashew Chicken.

There are 30-odd places in this country named “Springfield.” So why is this one — Springfield, Mo., in the heart of the Ozarks — any different? Turns out the answer requires more digging than you’d expect.

story by Jordan Hickey / photos by Jordan Hickey and Dan Oshinsky
published May 21, 2012

He looms over the interstate, a yellow beacon on the horizon, whose familiar face and closed-mouth smile welcomes you to a familiar-sounding town. Smiling out from a billboard, his face massive, his pores remarkably free from blemishes or imperfections, his beard in perpetual five o’clock shadow, he’s one of the first faces you see when you drive westward into town.

You know you’re in Springfield when you see that billboard of Homer Simpson.

In the United States, there are some 30-odd towns that have claimed Springfield as their name, and it’s true that there’s quite a lot about this Springfield — Springfield, Mo. — that could be said of just about any of the others. Whether in Illinois or Massachusetts or the one Homer and Marge call home [1], they’ve all got their problems and squabbles. There are concerns and hopes and dreams and fears that stretch across state lines and can be found in most any place around the country, regardless of what it’s named.

The stories you’ll hear in this Springfield run parallel to those you’ll hear in other Springfields. But here’s the thing: The personality of the place can’t be the same. This is not Homer Simpson’s town, no matter what the billboard tells you. There are many Springfields, but only one Springfield, Mo.

This summer, we’re going to bring you stories from this city of well over 150,000, right in the center of the Ozarks, here at the point where the Midwest and the South converge. We’re going to bring you stories about the people here, and the things that are on their minds in 2012, at this moment when normal American life meets election time.

But before we bring you those stories, there are a few things that should really be on your mind, things you need to know to truly understand where this community is coming from.

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Homer welcomes you to Springfield, Mo.
(Above) Homer Simpson greets traffic on Interstate 44. (At top) Highway 65, headed south through Springfield towards Branson.

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Springfield, Mo., is a place of red flags and blue ribbons, merits and chastisements documenting what the city’s doing well and what it could do better, doled out in an annual report about the town. Arts and environment, economic recovery and reform and the state of the local homeless — they’re all in there. They’re subjects that span the gamut of life in Springfield from the (arguably) trivial to the (equally arguably) important.

For the past several years, Springfield has been turned toward the mirror and taken a look at all these different things that make it what it is. It’s examined all the beauty marks, the blemishes and ingrown hairs, the good and the bad. It’s taken a look at its own people, and started asking questions.

And when they’ve been asked, the people have responded.

Back when the city was going through the Listening Tours — an initiative undertaken in 2009 to gather opinions about what people liked about the city, what they’d most like to change, where locals saw the city going and how they thought they could help get it there — there were more than a few arrows slung. And there were more than a few who had barbs you wouldn’t have imagined.

Springfield City Manager Greg Burris remembers one meeting that caught him by surprise. It was just “12 little ladies in a neighborhood who meet periodically, and they invited me to come. I thought, ‘Well, that’ll be nice. We’ll have cookies and tea and sit around and talk.’ They lit into me like no other group lit into me.”

But that’s when it’s most important to listen. Even when you’re bound to get hit by a few arrows, he says, you have to step out into the public and let the public fire away. That’s how trust gets built.

“If people trust us,” Burris says, “and we have credibility with them, and they say, ‘Well, if the local government says they’re going to do something, then they’re going to do something. If they say it’s the best thing to do, then it’s the best thing to do.’ Then that changes everything.”

Springfield has its problems. But it also has officials like Burris actively undertaking efforts to make change. So it’s got that going for it.

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Cashew chicken at the Canton Inn in Springfield.
(Above) Springfield-style cashew chicken at the Canton Inn.

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Another thing to keep in mind: Missouri has some truly signature foods. Think of St. Louis and you think of Budweiser, of course, and the Italian places on the Hill. Kansas City’s got that barbecue.

Springfield has cashew chicken.

You can see it in the back room, just waiting: Springfield-style cashew chicken. Fork over $4 — seldom if ever more than $4, no matter where you go in town — and the kitchen staff moves into action. There’s a ladle hanging out over the side, just ready to spoon out a portion. And there’s always a portion ready, fried chicken plated against the bed of rice and doused in a healthy — or maybe generous is the word that really fits here — serving of the brown viscous stuff, capped with cashews and onions. This is Springfield’s own cashew chicken. You won’t find Springfield-style cashew chicken in any Chinatown, and certainly not a Beijing lunch counter, but you can’t go a block here without spotting a restaurant that serves it. You could spend a lifetime hunting for duplicates or imitations elsewhere and come up empty handed.

And more than a few people have.

You won’t find Springfield-style cashew chicken in any Chinatown, and certainly not a Beijing lunch counter, but you can’t go a block here without spotting a restaurant that serves it.

Foon and Maggie Wong, owners of Springfield’s Canton Inn, tell stories about people, people from Springfield, who’ve left town for one reason or another but have come back with a craving for that signature dish. There was the guy down in Florida who froze it and brought it south with him. The grads from Missouri State who make regular pilgrimages back for a taste. The pregnant Springfield-native living out in California who forced her husband to call and ask for the recipe because she was craving that cashew chicken that only exists out here in the Ozarks.

“This is Springfield’s Chinese, not the original Chinese,” as Maggie says.

“It’s a southern style,” says Foon, “Fried with gravy on the top, that’s with the southern style.” [2]

For a town that’s so overwhelmingly monochromatic — the city is 88.7 percent white, according to the latest census — to see the wide-ranging spectrum of Asian fare throughout town is a bit startling when you first arrive. Entrenched firmly on every corner are all these Chinese food places that might as well have dropped out of the sky.

But they are there, dozens of them across the city. You cannot talk about Springfield without mentioning this chicken.

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This deserves a mention, too: The politics. The state of Missouri is many colors, though most frequently purple. It splits the divide and mirrors the nation, supplying a reliable bellwether and predictor for most every election since 1900. To be fair, it’s not perfect. It didn’t get 1956 — Adelai Stevenson never made it to the West Wing. Neither did John McCain, who won Missouri in 2008.

But at its core, Missouri is a swing state. Here’s how the Chicago Tribune once described the Show-Me-State:

Missouri is so often right in presidential elections because Missouri is so much like so many parts of America. It mirrors the nation–one part Dixie, one part industrial Detroit, a bit of Great Plains conservatism and a dash of the get-the-government-off-my-back-and-cut-my-taxes West. … Figuring out the fractured, shifting puzzle of Missouri is the political equivalent of nailing oatmeal to a tree.

But Springfield? There’s nothing undecided or fractured about this city: It’s red through and through. It’s the home of John Ashcroft, former Attorney General under President George W. Bush. Back in 2008, Greene County saw 136,665 voters turn out to the polls — just over 71 percent of the registered voters here. John McCain won the state by only 3,682 votes, but here in Greene County, he beat Barack Obama by 21,502 votes. When it came time for voters to head back to the polls in 2010, things weren’t much better for Dems.

And it is an especially big year for Democrats in Missouri. It’s an election year for Claire McCaskill, the Democratic senator from just up I-44 in Rolla. She won election by less than 50,000 votes in 2006 — out of more than 2.1 million ballots cast statewide. This year’s race should be just as close.

“We were always considered one of those swing states. But 2008 was tough. 2010 was very tough,” says Kellie Freeman-Rohrbaugh, executive director of the Greene County Democratic Central Committee.

Meanwhile, Missouri Republicans are still figuring out the top of their ticket. But that’s not stopping folks like Danette Proctor, chair of the Greene County Republicans. She says her fellow voters just have to do one thing come November.

“To get Republicans elected — that’s our job,” she says. “From the top down, from the White House to the courthouse.”

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The flagship location for Bass Pro Shops, near downtown Springfield.

The entrance to Bass Pro Shops’ flagship store, a 300,000 square foot sportsman’s paradise.

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But back to Springfield proper for a moment.

Driving north on Campbell, there’s a large sign greeting visitors to the landmark at the center of town. It feels like the kind of sign you’d see for a downtown area, or a water park.

Instead, it is the sign that greets people looking for a good deal on a speedboat or a hunting rifle.

“Welcome to Bass Pro Shops,” it reads.

Roadside signage isn’t typically devoted to sporting goods stores, but Bass Pro isn’t much of a sporting goods store.

This is no laughing matter: The Bass Pro in Springfield is one of the biggest tourist draws in the state, and the company employs the eighth highest number of people in town. This Bass Pro even has its own museum, devoted — of course — to Bass Pro.

The original Bass Pro Shops is more like the Cave of Wonders in “Aladdin.” It’s treasure at every turn, except instead of gold and rubies and jewelry, it’s camo and camo and fake goats standing on top of fake waterfalls next to an additional aisle of camo.

Bass Pro — the chain of outdoors and sporting goods stores that dot Middle America — is from Springfield. Home base for Bass Pro is a local business so big that it dwarfs even the most super-sized Walmart Supercenter. This place is 300,000 square feet, a place nearly as big as the outdoors its customers love so much.

And perhaps that’s the reason it draws so well.

It’s a place that’s totally and inextricably stitched into the fabric of this town. You’ve never heard of someone driving cross-country to visit the first Staples, or someone getting on a plane to shop at the first Best Buy. But people really do come all the way to Springfield to visit this Bass Pro. This is no laughing matter: Bass Pro in Springfield is one of the biggest tourist draws in the state, and the company employs the eighth highest number of people in town.

This Bass Pro even has its own museum, devoted — of course — to Bass Pro.

So there’s that.

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Understanding Springfield’s also going to require a bit of understanding about one local political shakeup that’s still reverberating throughout this town.

There were 67 items on the agenda at the May 7 City Council meeting, though you could probably argue that the better part of people present were interested less in amending a contract with a corporation “to provide services for Stage 3 of the development of the City’s Sanitary Sewer Overflow Control Program” than they were about the possible amendments to the city’s Smokefree Air Act of 2011.

It’d already been several hours. There was a crowd gathered at City Hall — and City Hall is not typically kind of place that attracts crowds. But they were there that night. Media and assorted cameras, too.

Eventually the amendments went through. Cameramen started to leave to file their tape for the 10 p.m. news. Locals started to file out. The meeting was entering its third hour.

Then mayor Jim O’Neal started to speak. [3]

He said he hadn’t been giving “what I should give. I haven’t been filling the job as it should be filled. I have an extreme amount of business pressure, as well as some business pressure, and I cannot …”

And this is the point where the mayor started to breathe deeply. A few cameramen lingered for a second. There was something in his voice that suggested that something was about to happen, a look on his face that seemed pained.

He pushed on.

“I can no longer serve as the mayor of this community, and I just … it’s really with a deep and broken heart that I say that I’ve got to resign as mayor effective immediately. The city is in great hands with [Councilman Robert] Stephens, as the Charter provides that he would become the mayor. …”

His face was going red, and he had his cheek pressed against his palm. O’Neal wears glasses and bears a certain resemblance to Warren Buffet and does not seem to be a man who gets easily flustered without reason. Yet here he was, in the third hour of a contentious City Council meeting, telling the remaining crowd that his time as mayor was up.

“I’ve been wrassling with this for weeks and weeks, and I have no other … I don’t have any other options. I have to protect the interests of my business and my family. It’s been a real honor being mayor and I’ll never forget it.”

“Now, this has nothing to do with the events of this evening whatsoever, it’s just I’m … I’ve been wrassling with this for weeks and weeks, and I have no other … I don’t have any other options. I have to protect the interests of my business and my family. And I can’t do that and honestly serve this community the way it should be served, and be at every event and do all the things I’m supposed to do. My time is conflicted and I can’t seem to be … I’m not doing my homework, I’m not able to do what I want to do to fulfill the duties of this office. It’s been a real honor being mayor and I’ll never forget it and [I] appreciate each and every one of you on this council and will always consider you dear friends.

“With that, the meeting’s adjourned.”

So you might want to keep that in mind, too.

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Springfield indie rockers Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin play for the crowd at the Mother's Day Festival on May 19, 2012.
Local indie rockers Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin play for the crowd at Springfield’s Mother’s Day Festival on May 19, 2012.

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The point is: This is not an any Anytown, U.S.A., kind of place. It’s the kind of place that tends to surprise and amuse and baffle to no end. It’s the kind of place where Chinese restaurants and fishing stores sit side by side, where feminist kitsch and Christian tattooists can exist a street apart. It’s the kind of place that can produce bands like Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin — poppy-sounding indie rockers with a name that turns a few heads — but also Big Smith, a family hillbilly band who once sang, “Don’t call me trash ‘till you’ve slept in my trailer.”

Springfield is a place of the unexpected, is what you’ll come to to understand.

This summer, here on, you’ll be learning more about this piece of land, where the Midwest meets the South, and about the people who live here. You’ll come to hear their voices, to hear their stories. You’ll learn what’s on their minds, and you’ll find that some of those things might very well be things on your minds, too, wherever you are.

There are many Springfields, but only one Springfield, Mo.