Postal Updates

Tempestuous tornado tears through post office in Baring, Mo., sparks a Mennonite rebuild

Jun 6, 2024, 8 AM
In early August 2023, a tornado tore through Baring, Mo., and destroyed the town’s post office. Construction of the new post office began this spring. Top photo courtesy of the National Weather Service; bottom photo courtesy of Shannon Downing.

Delivering the Mail by Allen Abel

On Aug. 4, 2023, an EF-2 (Enhanced Fujita Scale 2) tornado barreled through Baring, Mo., at midnight.

Although some residents, in a manner similar to the opening lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, might have been moved to wail “Mercy on us!” and bid farewell to their spouse and children, nobody was killed.

Baring is an agricultural community with a population of 125 located in Knox County in what the locals call NEMO, northeast Missouri. Mark Twain’s Hannibal, Mo., lies on the Mississippi River about an hour’s drive to the southeast.

In a state where some of the highways are designated by letter, Baring is right on Highway K and south of Y.

“There were no storm warnings,” lifelong resident Shannon Downing, 38, proprietor and chef of Baring’s IDK Cafe, told Linn’s in a telephone interview. “It was raining nice and gentle. I stayed late making desserts for the next day. But then the rain got heavier.”

“When I got in bed, I heard a few loud bangs on the side of the house like somebody was throwing baseballs at it,” Downing recalled. “Then the power went out and I got out to the hallway just before the bedroom window blew out.”

“I was looking around with just the light on my phone,” Downing said. “For a few seconds, it was completely silent, then loud again. Most houses here don’t have a basement. There wasn’t really anywhere to go.”

This was on a Friday night.

“Every contractor, every person with a truck, a trailer, a tractor, a backhoe, a skid loader loaded up and went to Baring Saturday morning,” journalist Echo Menges reported on television station KTVI.

“It could have been much worse,” Downing said.

But Saturday’s sunrise revealed that the United States post office in Baring had been reduced to toothpicks; only the back wall remained. Within hours, thanks to volunteers whom Downing labeled “local boys with their big toys,” the splinters were swept away until only a bare square remained.

At the IDK Cafe — renowned for its pork fritter sandwiches, butterfly shrimp and strawberry fluff — part of the roof was gone, and the dining room took in 12 inches of rain. But those could be repaired.

To Downing, it was the loss of the post office that really touched the heart.

“I’d always been told and I had seen it happen to a few small towns around here that once a town loses its post office, it’s not really a town anymore,” Downing said. “My aunt was a mail carrier her entire life out of Baring, so there’s a little family history there as well.”

“I wanted us to hold on to those small-town values,” she said. “I don’t want Baring to fall off the map. It boils down to if you lose your post office, you lose your town.”

Downing offered to donate part of her restaurant to be Baring’s new mail room. It was then that she and her neighbors learned that the Baring post office building had been owned not by the U.S. Postal Service but by an investment trust in New York, N.Y.

“It was a whole big ‘wow’ to all of us,” Downing recalled. “Then we waited and we waited and we waited.”

On April 16, a committee of the U.S. Senate called Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to testify to the current state of the USPS. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., put up a photograph of the naked acreage where the Baring post office used to stand and demanded that DeJoy give him an exact timeline for its rebuilding.

“I do not have an update but I will get it to you,” DeJoy said.

“We’re not small-town hicks, we’re educated people who choose to live here,” Downing, who graduated from Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., with a bachelor’s degree in health science, told Linn’s.

“We just like it here,” she said.

As tangible proof of her attachment to Knox County, Downing agreed to buy the site of the once-and-future Baring post office. This is costing her “upwards of $50,000,” Menges reported. All that was left was to put up four walls and fill it with the required postal equipment.

An integral seam of the Knox County fabric is a community of Mennonite Christians whose church abstains from military service. However, the church requires that its members perform good works without compensation for neighbors in need, even if they are outside the faith. Raymond Burkholder, a northeast Missouri cattle and hog farmer, is a leader of these Mennonites.

By May 6, contractors hired by Downing had poured a foundation and dug the necessary conduits for electricity and running water.

Burkholder’s crew needed only two days to erect four exterior walls. Next will come the insulation, the drywall and the furnishings, and then Baring will have a post office again.

“We’re Christians and we’re just reaching out to help people,” Burkholder told Linn’s on May 20. “That’s what we’re on this earth for.”

By then he and his workers were already in Mayfield, Ky., where another tornado had struck.

“Before the tornado,” Downing said, “I might have a group of Mennonite girls come into the cafe on a Saturday. Since the tornado, I have lots and lots of them every day. They helped me rebuild, so maybe they feel they are part of it now.”

“Maybe it kind of broke the ice,” Downing suggested. “The churches are separate, but in daily life, we are family.”

“I buy my stamps at the Baring post office,” Downing said. “For 11 years, IDK has sent out more than 300 Christmas cards from the Baring post office. Last year, we didn’t. We will this year for sure.”

The inspiration flowing from Baring recalls to mind some famous last lines from The Tempest.

“O wonder!” cried the character Miranda in the play’s final act. “How many goodly creatures are there here!

“How beauteous mankind is!” Miranda exclaimed. “O brave new world, That has such people in’t.”

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