Tightwad, Missouri, needs a tightwad.

Its eponymous tightwad apparently left behind no money-grubbing descendants in the village of 69 residents. I recently went looking for the tightwads in Tightwad, which I believed would abound as plentifully as ever in a slumped economy. The hunt was challenging from the start: Tightwad is only one square mile.

But the harder I hunted, the more helpful the what can only be called “loosewads” of Tightwad grew. Their devotion to facilitating my hunt became so omnipresent, so unshakeable, I finally found only one tightwad in Tightwad.

But before that, about that name.

Original Tightwad

Tightwad takes its name from a Scrooge-like mythical character who stars in at least four legends. The most popular tale—the one that locals tell over and over—pegs him as a watermelon farmer who lived many more than 75 years ago (that’s the most concrete dating locals could do). Back then, Tightwad was Edgewood.

One day an Edgewood postmaster asked the farmer to set aside one watermelon, which the postmaster intended to pick up after his route. The farmer agreed. But when the postmaster returned, the melon had vanished, taken by a customer who had offered 50 cents more.

“Tightwad!” the postmaster called the farmer.

Some say he repeated “Tightwad!” every day thereafter.

Postmasters have a history of sharp tongues. Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, and William Faulkner all served as postmasters. In the early days of the United States, postmasters could freely submit place-name suggestions to the government. Names had to be short, easy to read and write, and not copycats of other places in the state, according to Robert Lee Ramsay’s Our Storehouse of Missouri Place Names.

So the fruitless mailman suggested Edgewood’s new name: Tightwad.

Carrie Fields owns Tightwad Cafe, one of several businesses in the perfectly square-shaped town.

Tightwad At The Shops

Tightwad Cafe owner Carrie Fields lifts a washcloth from a table and points a finger out the window to where she says the watermelon cart once stood. “It was right there,” she says, pointing across the street. “Or else it was down by the church.”

In a field across the street, where the legendary watermelon cart used to sit, junk is rusting in piles. But in the summer, farmers come back here to set up a produce market. You can still buy a Tightwad watermelon.

For less than $10, you can buy coffee and a meal at the Tightwad Cafe, too, where the stories are free along with smells of hot biscuits and burgers, photos of John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe, and a constant stream of jokes.

“We have live entertainment,” Carrie says, looking at her chef and a few customers, who grin. “But the bar is closed.”

Carrie bought the cafe from her aunt four years ago and closed its adjoining bar. A few lines deepen when she smiles big, which happens often. Her raspy, deep voice often escapes through a smile. Carrie says she had to buy the cafe when her aunt retired because “nobody would hire a mouthy waitress.”

She and her chef sometimes wear matching T-shirts that read, “Tightwad Bad Girls Club.” They cuss. Nobody objects, or they don’t today. As Carrie zips from kitchen to register to dining room and back, she’s always between telling a story or grinning at one of the customers. The stories are communal, like a big dish in the center of the table.

One story about a derelict and a deer lick has hijacked the conversation. A customer raps his cane fast on the wooden floor while a smile overcomes his face. Carrie’s black eyeliner scrunches into the corners, and the chef slaps her hand hard on a counter dividing kitchen and dining room. The cafe, which could seat about 50, bursts with laughter from about seven people.

“You won’t be able to print half of this,” one customer says. As he taps his cane again, a fire-engine red truck rolls by the window.

“Finally, that’s my truck!” Carrie points. When her truck brakes broke, Carrie tossed the keys to Tightwad mechanic Sterling Franklin Albin, who’s parking the truck in her lot right now.

Frank, a 75-year-old who’s lived his life in Tightwad, walks into the cafe from a back door and drops the keys into Carrie’s hands. Carrie, with a huge smile, gives me the first omen: She puts a free lunch into Frank’s hands.

A pitiful tightwad, her, I think.

Not only is Carrie giving away this lunch, but she regularly gives the fire department half-price lunches when its firefighters have a big call.

An inconceivably free-spending tightwad. Frank takes the lunch. Rain seems to have wrestled his hair into a nest of salt and pepper.

“He’s too cheap for a comb,” Carrie says. But Frank pulls one out of his pocket. Alas!

By the time Frank offers to show me to the Tightwad convenience store, Carrie has already pulled out a phone book and an old-fashioned cord phone and arranged for me to meet the Tightwad fire chief. The black eyeliner is scrunching again, the lines running deep, and I think, This hunt could be hopeless.

A half mile down the road, Frank stands in the rain to meet me, an eave from the Tightwad convenience store partially covering him. He’s soaked through.

Shelves inside glisten like a toy factory, full of green and purple plastic piggy banks, cork quarters, travel and coffee mugs, and rainbows of T-shirts. “Tightwad” brands everything, and nothing costs more than $10.

“I heard you were coming,” Tightwad C Store co-owner Wendy Huey says, closing a phone, extending a hand, and slipping me a debriefing called “Tightwad, Missouri.” She hands the flier to customers who ask about the name, which a lot do. Wendy researched the town’s history so her husband and store co-owner Mark Huey would have something to say to inquiring customers.

For 20 minutes, Wendy, Mark, and Mike Huey (Mark’s brother) turn away from their business, which serves hundreds of customers daily in the off-season and up to thousands during summer, to talk to me. They give me one postcard, and Frank buys me another. This happens too fast for me to object.

Maybe Tightwad doesn’t know we’re in a recession, I think.

Retired nurse Willie Houk taught her husband, the fire chief, CPR at a bad crash scene.

Tightwad In The Fire Department

The Tightwad Fire Department sits about a mile down the road from the convenience store.

“We’re a volunteer fire department,” says Willie Houk, a retired nurse.

But of course.

Willie works as an RN for the department. Her husband, Milton Houk, says the fire department has existed since the 1960s.

The tiny red shed housing its equipment doesn’t look like more than a bread box from the outside, but it opens into a monstrous garage on the inside, packed with five flashy fire trucks, some splashed in flames and including retired military vehicles. They all read, “Tightwad Fire Dept.” and have been collected over the decades with grants from conservation and homeland security departments and from donations. Crossing the doorway inside feels like going to a child’s piano concert and realizing the child is Mozart.

The Houks and about eight other full-time volunteer firefighters wear giant radios, like old brick cell phones, on their belts 24/7. When a call comes in, as many volunteers respond to the emergency scene as possible. A few days ago, the Houks had had dinner and gone to bed when the radio went off for a heart-attack call. They climbed out from the covers, threw on heavy yellow refl ective coats, and raced a truck to the scene. They went home after placing the patient in an ambulance that arrived later.

Milton does this—climbs out of bed for emergency calls — at age 80, all for free.

Tightwad’s volunteer firefighters supply victims with water, oxygen, and blankets on site.

“We can get there faster than the ambulance,” Willie says, as if volunteering their golden years—their time in a ratio of 24/7—is the natural human way. The tone she uses would be the same one you’d use to say, “Well we had bandages and were going that way anyway…” Except Willie and Milton hadn’t been “going that way anyway.” They’d been sleeping.

The Tightwad Fire Department once responded to a car crash scene while the Houks were out of town. The car had gone off-road, and the volunteers gave aid on the spot. But the crash took a life. Milton and Willie remember missing the call. When they got back in town, they gathered the volunteers at their house. Willie had worked in a psychology ward before retiring. They talked, cried, and re-clipped the radios to their belts, the heavy yellow coats lingering nearby.

Some of those yellow coats the Houks paid for out of pocket. Willie has also gathered a giant plastic bag of stuffed toys she gives to kids at emergency scenes. One of the toys, a plush red stegosaurus with blue spikes, looks like a hundred kids have squeezed it. It looks loved.

The hunt for tightwads can hardly be said to be fruitful at this point, I think.

If you want to open an account with Tightwad Bank, make sure to have at least $500 to avoid a monthly fee.

Tight Wad At The Bank

Willie and Milton—and Frank, Carrie, and the Hueys—have bank accounts at Tightwad Bank, which faces the firehouse.

But bank manager Ellen Lindsey can’t let any of them inside.

Ellen, who says she’s held “the most coveted job in Tightwad” since the bank opened in March 2008, works at a building notorious for being robbed. (Carrie mentioned the robberies unprompted at the cafe.)

Before Tightwad Bank was Tightwad Bank in a town seemingly bereft of tightwads, it was UMB bank and, previously, Windsor Bank. The building has served as a bank since 1900. Tightwad Bank chairman Donald Higdon chuckles as he notes the town’s size compared to how many times the bank has been robbed.

So Ellen serves her customers through a drive-through window and snail mail. Her voice lacks the New York accent that would betray her origins. In fact, it sounds as if it might fit a dozen Mother Goose-story mothers— and it is reaching me through a drive through speaker, where I’ve parked my car backward. (My driver-side window doesn’t roll down.)

As we talk, a truck pulls up facing the direction in which vehicles traditionally pass through this drive-through and stops. I try to wave it forward.

“I hope I’m not scaring off your business,” I say. (The truck finally pulled through once I left.)

“I think you are,” Ellen says.

You are my last hope for finding a tightwad, I think.

Tightwad Bank has opened accounts with residents of all 50 states. Ellen handles snailmail banking from clients who want the privilege of paying the electric bill with checks that say, “Tightwad Bank.”

The checks fly the bank’s logo, a moneybag. The first picture on the bank’s website is a fist clutching money. Donald has raised the bank’s checking deposits to about $13 million dollars since opening. And his bank gives customers higher CD rates, as of February 2012, than Bank of America.

“You can’t compare us to other small-town banks,” Ellen says.

When you open an account at Tightwad, you’re offered a travel or coffee mug, baseball cap, or other trinket with the bank’s logo. I’m deciding which I want when a raspy voice says something from the drive-through next to mine. I wave vigorously to Carrie and her chef, who cranes over the passenger seat in the drive-through lane beside mine and waves vigorously back. Ellen sends a travel mug through the drive-thru machine. It gets added to the pile of postcards while Carrie takes off.

And this is when I shriek. Repeatedly. Through a smile that is rapidly flattening.

Distractedly, I tell Ellen, “Goodbye,” but as she tells me to drive safely in that Mother Goose voice, all I can think is, I forgot to pay Carrie for the coffee.

So I’ve found Tightwad’s tightwad after all.

She’s sitting next to free Tightwad souvenirs, enjoying free coffee, and just passing through.

Legacy of the Lake: Truman Lake Today

Truman Lake: The View from 1973