The town became nationally known for the murder of a bully. But the people who call it home know what it’s really like.

Even now, all these years later, it’s not unusual for strangers to appear in downtown Skidmore, population 284, seeking the place where it happened. Was it there—that tall brick building with arched windows? Or maybe there—this empty lot where something once stood? Or here—this squat metal structure that could have been the old D&G Tavern?

For the record, the latter would be right. That metal building was the D&G Tavern, the place where a hated man was famously killed by gunshot in front of 45 witnesses, none of whom has ever named the shooter.

And if you’re tempted to stop and ask a resident about that July day in 1981, or about him—the thief, the rapist, that wicked Ken Rex McElroy who forever duped the law—you’d probably hear one of two responses: “I wasn’t there,” or “Read the book,” by which they mean In Broad Daylight by Harry N. MacLean. And then, they’d change the subject to something more pleasant, like the weather or the new restaurant downtown.

If you visit modern-day Skidmore hoping for insight into McElroy and the vigilante town that shot him, you won’t find anything that hasn’t already been covered in the book, the movie, or the hundreds of newspaper articles and magazine profiles. Although McElroy is long gone, his reputation looms ever-present, even over a series of nonrelated disturbing events, including the death of Wendy Gillenwater, stomped to death by her boyfriend in 2000, the disappearance of Branson Perry in 2001, and the brutal 2004 murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, whose live baby was carved from her body. The northwest Missouri town has a grisly reputation that just won’t fade.

Notorious bully Ken McElroy cast a long shadow over Skidmore. He died in front of this building, the former D&G Tavern.

But crime, perhaps ironically, seldom concerns Skidmore residents. Most locals don’t bother locking their doors. The town’s biggest problem echoes those of most small, rural communities. Its once-vibrant downtown is shuttered and dark. Houses stand empty. The school is long gone. The post office teeters on closure.

Anyone who has read MacLean’s bestselling book won’t find this desolate scene particularly surprising. In its early pages, the writer paints Skidmore as a place trapped between two strange tensions:

“Despite the commonality of values and the similarity of life experiences of most of the residents, Skidmore does not have a strong sense of community. Partly because the values themselves—independence, self-sufficiency, dislike of outside authority—and partly because of the economic decline of the community and the continuing loss of the young people, the community doesn’t steer a strong course; it seems, instead, to maintain barely enough momentum to avoid losing steerageway altogether.”

The book was published in 1988, and downtown’s still-vacant buildings appear to reaffirm MacLean’s initial observations. At least, that’s how it seems if you’re just passing through, if you’re just a tourist chasing grim stories.

But Skidmore is more than its single narrative of tragedy. No one understands this better than its own residents.To locals, their hometown is a complicated place and far from bleak. In recent years, a few citizens have dedicated themselves to reviving the community and building a better future, a more hopeful future—one in which the goal isn’t just to survive, but to thrive.

Sandy Wright’s memories of a Skidmore childhood invoke all the sweetness of small-town life: a place where kids played freely in unsupervised yards while their parents ran simple errands such as cashing checks and buying groceries in the cozy but bustling downtown.

“We had a grocery store, hairdresser, Masonic lodge, two gas stations, tax office, the fertilizer company, a café called Mom’s. There was always traffic on the road,” she recalls. “We had everything to sustain. You didn’t have to go to Maryville to get basic items.” Sandy finished high school in 1984, then left town for college and eventually joined the military. When she returned in 2011 to be near her mother again, she was stunned by the town’s transformation. “It was … desolate. There was nothing there anymore. It was depressing. So many of my childhood memories of places I used to go were either torn down or shut down.”

Instead of tossing her hands in helpless despair, she ran for mayor. And though she’d been absent from Skidmore for more than 25 years, she won. Once in office, Sandy decided to focus on the city’s most obvious source of population drain: economic stagnation.

Perched on the Nodaway River in northwest
Missouri, the small community that has suffered so many tragedies is home to fewer than 300 residents.

Surrounded by rippling fields of soybeans and corn, Skidmore has been a farming community since its founding in 1880. In the preceding decades, its downtown bustled with hotels, pharmacies, restaurants, banks, grocery stores, an opera hall, hardware stores, and more. Trains passed through town as often as six times a day, carrying everything from people to produce to livestock. When the school was torn down after consolidating with schools in other towns into the Nodaway-Holt R-VII School District in 1964, downtown traffic began to slow.

Many locals point to the railroad’s 1977 closure as the trigger to Skidmore’s biggest decline. Business owners eventually retired or relocated, and laborers followed opportunities into places such as nearby Maryville, just 19 miles away, or St. Joseph, an hour to the south.

“No one could stay local,” Sandy says. “There were no jobs. So between the youth leaving when they graduated and the older generations dying off, there just has not been a reason for more people to come to town.”

Lacking specific business plans to entice commercial investors who were busy figuring out the best UK stocks to buy now, Sandy decided to become an investor herself, buying cheap commercial properties that had long stood empty. As mayor, she joined a regional council of governments and networked with other town leaders, learning the aspects of promoting economic growth. She revived and became president of the Skidmore Community Betterment group.

Her goals are to pretty up the town, improve the city park, install walking trails, restart flag ceremonies at the cemetery, and bring back the Punkin Show, an annual fall festival that began in 1899 but died in the early 2000s. Ultimately, Sandy wants to rebrand Skidmore as a nice place to live—an even better place to live than Maryville. And she isn’t the only one who sees the potential in her hometown.

“You could market this as a little bedroom town where you drive 15 miles to work,” says Russ Wetzel, a Skidmore resident who works for a geographic information system company in Maryville. “Some of these little houses you can get for $10,000 to $20,000. Yes, you might have to fix them up. But if you had the means to spend $150,000 on a house in Maryville, it’d be fairly small and maybe not as nice as if you spent $30,000 on a house here and put $100,000 into it. As a geographer, I am convinced you could increase the size of these towns. I’m convinced a single mother in Cleveland wants to get out of the city and crime and have a nice place, fairly inexpensively, where a bus driver comes to the front yard and picks kids up and takes them to a nice school. On a Sunday, you won’t hardly see a car go through the entire day. I personally like that.”

Ask anyone why they like living here and you’ll receive an endless list of its  positive qualities:

In Skidmore, trash collectors leave treats for dogs.

In Skidmore, neighbors mow each other’s yards without asking.

In Skidmore, children can bicycle in the road without dodging traffic.

In Skidmore, news travels fast—a blessing when someone falls ill and needs a ride to the hospital or a freshly baked pie to brighten hard times.

And once you start actually looking around Skidmore, it’s easy to start seeing the same potential its residents see. The streets are wide and flanked by leafy trees. Many of the charming homes are easily more than a century old, with lovely broad porches and original window glass. The Nodaway River south of town meanders peacefully around the bend, and at the height of summer, the surrounding countryside is a green, dizzying quilt of lush crops. There’s an easy charm about it all that suddenly makes the slow pace of good country living seem wholesome and possible.

“It’s peaceful here. Nobody ever messes with you,” says Jim Blessington, a tattooed retired marine who volunteers with Skidmore Community Betterment. With a chuckle he adds, “Our reputation as a bad place keeps us safe.”

It could be Skidmore’s greatest irony. In spite of its reputation, dangers rarely come from within. There hasn’t been a murder in Nodaway County since 2012. But ever since Ken McElroy’s sensational death, every negative occurrence proves irresistible to national news outlets. Meanwhile, all the quiet positives of an otherwise normal community get overshadowed.

A former service station stands empty at the main intersection of downtown Skidmore. Residents hope that services like this could one day come back.

Sandy’s initial push toward Skidmore’s revival was cut short when a family health crisis called her to New Mexico, splitting her time between there and Missouri. But she still owns many downtown buildings, and her ambitious vision has left a lasting impact that mobilized her neighbors. She instilled in them the hope that Skidmore could be more than a dried-up place where only bad things seemed to happen. If Skidmore’s future lies in drawing newcomers to town, Tim and Annie Slagle are a perfect fit. They moved to Skidmore just two years ago but are already fierce defenders of the community. Tim even serves on the city council.

“People are super nice here. They truly are. Friends back in St. Joe say, ‘I can’t believe you moved to Skidmore. They kill people up there!’ ” Annie says with a laugh. “I’m like, have you not read your paper? You guys have shootings every day! We haven’t had anything happen in 12 years.”

On weekdays, Annie commutes 50 miles to St. Joseph, where she’s worked as a nurse in the Buchanan County Jail for the past 15 years. She met Tim there, while he was working as a sergeant for the Missouri Department of Corrections. It was love at first sight; they married 10 weeks from the moment they met.

Tim’s family is from Nodaway County. One day, driving home from Maryville, he detoured through Skidmore to show Annie his grandmother’s old house. A block off downtown, they also spotted one of the oldest homes in Skidmore, a grand, two-story Victorian with pocket doors and a beautiful garden. It reminded Annie of the home where she’d grown up. They moved in on a snowy day in January.

From their front porch, the Slagles can see the main intersection of Elm Street and Route 113 as the state highway turns south, passing in front of a block of empty buildings owned by Sandy Wright. As a city council member, Tim became acquainted with Sandy and was impressed with her commitment to improve the town.

When Skidmore’s only café went out of business three years ago, Sandy offered the empty building to Annie and Tim, who once ran a bar and grill in Forest City. They initially declined. But after a year, Tim started to reconsider. He had loved running his restaurant, but hated day-to-day logistics such as meeting vendors and bookkeeping. Sandy, however, had a knack for just that sort of thing. They agreed to a partnership, and a restaurant—Good Time Charlie’s of Skidmore—was planned for downtown. “Sandy says, ‘If you plan small, you’re only going to be small. Let’s go big,’ ” Tim says. “This is never going to be a booming metropolis. Let’s face it. But we’re trying to get a little bit of something going on.”

Good Time Charlie’s of Skidmore has built plenty of supportive buzz among the neighbors. The only place to get a cup of coffee in town before it opened was at the fertilizer plant, where farmers gather on rainy mornings and throw money into a shared pot while they wait out the weather. The nearest place to buy a soda was in Maitland, some seven slow miles away down a country road.

“You couldn’t even buy a cookie in town. That bothered me,” says Bruce Roberts, Tim’s uncle. He’s 82. He holds the keys to the town’s museum in the old train depot and has lived in Skidmore since graduating from high school. His hopes for the restaurant are cautiously optimistic: “Got to give an E for effort.”

Bruce’s hesitation proved apt. In August, health problems interfered with Tim’s ability to manage the restaurant, and he eventually bowed out. It was a disappointing strike against the town’s hopes for a restaurant, but like so many setbacks Skidmore has endured—that’s just life. In the following months, Sandy returned to town and readied Good Time Charlie’s for its opening earlier this year.

Newcomers Tim and Annie Slagle moved to Skidmore two years ago. Tim’s family was from Nodaway County, and he now serves on the city council. Annie commutes to St. Joseph to work.

“It went slower—a lot slower than I thought it would be,” she admits. Still, progress creeps forward. The plumbing and sinks were installed in November, and a ribbon-cutting for the restaurant with the Maryville Chamber of Commerce took place January 4.

Although the path toward opening wasn’t perfect, Sandy remains hopeful. In addition to a family-friendly atmosphere and live music, she envisions the space as a catch-all for community. There will be an ATM and a dry-goods section with items like soda and chips. “I’m trying to get stuff in there so that we don’t have to run to Maryville for those things,” she says. “It’s not far, but when you have people with limited incomes and who are elderly, it’s nice to have those services in town so they don’t have to try to get someone to go get something for them. It’s a way to maintain autonomy.”

Standing on the sidewalk outside of Good Time Charlie’s, Bruce can identify the long-gone businesses of each downtown building in Skidmore: a grocery store sat on that corner, and then the old movie theater, and then the Legion hall, and then the produce house. That blue building was once orange and housed a store called the Peter Punkin, which sold the first television Bruce ever saw. It was broadcasting a baseball game. He remembers Saturday nights, when everyone came to town to go to the theater and get a haircut and then pick up groceries.

“It was a lively town,” he recalls. “And then guess what came along? Television. Gunsmoke. And people started staying home to watch their movies. That was the beginning of the end.”

The train depot museum is cluttered with yellowed newspapers, community awards, typewriters, photographs of local boys who never returned from wars. Bruce’s favorite artifact is a note that dates back to a 19th-century robbery: “I want one thousand dollars or I will shoot you.” Buffered by time, that particular crime amuses him, a call back to the town’s past.

Bruce knew Ken McElroy, whom he calls Ken Rex, as a teenager. “He was in trouble so many times,” he recalls. Of the shooting, Bruce says he wasn’t there. But in the years after, he attended church with Ken’s sister. “Nobody ever held any of that against the rest of the family,” he says. Such is the easy nature of Skidmore—then and now.

The walk from the museum to the restaurant passes an alley that runs along the backside of Good Time Charlie’s. On the building’s loading dock is where Ken McElroy shot Bo Bowenkamp, a 70-year-old grocer, in the jaw. Bullet holes from the confrontation still pepper the ceiling. The whole event was something that Bruce quietly calls “a heck of a deal.”

A dog barks in the distance, and another answers. A turquoise pickup rumbles down the street. Warm rain begins falling. Then Bruce starts describing how he passes the time these days—mainly delivering Meals on Wheels and playing horseshoes—and that summation  feels just as significant to understanding Skidmore’s story as does talking about a bully who’s been dead for more than 36 years.