For most passersby, and even some of its natives, Missouri is nothing more than its flyover state label. The more I explore Missouri, the more I come to realize the state was deemed the Gateway to the Midwest for a reason. It is a central treasure chest of tiny towns, surrounded by slightly bigger towns on the fringes of suburbia, finally reaching cities like Kansas City and Saint Louis. It has charms hidden away in it that could easily be left undiscovered if you let them.
The tiny towns especially, are often gems you’ll miss unless you happen upon them by accident. New Haven is one of those towns. Sandwiched between Washington and Herman, MO, just on the outskirts of Missouri wine country, New Haven is an unsuspecting community on the edge of the Missouri River. And it was a place I definitely never expected to visit.
The first time I visited New Haven, it was early November. A best friend of mine had recently moved to that area with her husband and invited me to tag along to New Haven’s Fire Fest, a fall festival held in the rural town each year.
I have a soft spot for quirky festivals. The Bacon Fest held in my college’s town (until 2015) was a bigger deciding factor for me when choosing my alma mater than I care to admit. So, when I was told there was a festival dedicated to fire in this tiny place I’d never heard of, I couldn’t pass it up.
…my internal pretentious poetry nerd was more than happy…
I walked in to Fire Fest, and New Haven, with little expectation. The first spectacle we saw turned that indifference into excitement. We were walking around, checking out the different food options, when we saw a massive bonfire surrounded by an intricately constructed fortress of ice. No matter how hard I tried, I could not capture the fire and ice bonfire in a picture, but seeing as I spent a semester in college studying Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice,” my internal pretentious poetry nerd was more than happy when I saw the two elements at work together in real life.
Once we had ogled the fire for a minute or two, we headed back towards the food and alcohol. New Haven is the home of Pinckney Bend Distillery, a quaint distillery that makes some seriously high-quality gin, vodka, and whiskey. As should be expected, the buzz of the festival was centered around the distillery. The owners had set up a pavilion that became home to a makeshift bar and a bluegrass band.
They had a wide array of drinks to choose from that were great for a chilly fall night. Some of these drinks included a hot apple cider featuring their Apple Ambush whiskey and an Irish Coffee that was more Irish than coffee.
They were also serving their house special, the Perfect Gin and Tonic. My friend’s husband has lived in the New Haven area for most of his life and insisted I try some of his gin and tonic even though I told him I wasn’t a gin fan.
I’m still not a fan of gin, and probably never will be, but I would drink a Gin and Tonic from Pinckney Bend any day. Their secret is a homemade tonic syrup that highlights the sweeter notes in the gin and hides the more offensive floral notes I can’t stand. Plus, it turns the Gin and Tonic pink, which is fun.
The distillery was just the start of the local talent we found at the festival while we were waiting for the fiery festivities to begin. From locally made brat burgers to handmade pottery, there was a ton of hidden skill in this small town.
As the sun set and the night got colder, the fire fest officially began. Everyone started to make their way down to the Missouri River, and we followed suit. At first, we weren’t sure what could be down there; then we realized there was something out in the water. I jokingly asked my friend if we were about to see a Viking funeral as we got closer. Suddenly, flames started to spit out of the boat into the darkness and we finally realized it was a dragon. Oos and awes filled the air as we all followed the dragon down to a clearing where fire dancers were performing.
My friend and I were too obsessed with seeing the dragon up close and personal to really notice what the dancers were circling something huge. Finally, my friend’s husband interrupted our excited chatter about the paper boat dragon with a quizzical, “Is that a burning man?”
Sure enough, that’s exactly what it was.
I can say with complete honesty that I never thought I would witness a scaled down version of Burning Man in the middle of Missouri, but New Haven delivered.
After my experience at Fire Fest, I decided I needed to go back to this slightly wacky town during the daytime. I returned to New Haven with my parents and brother right before the holidays. While there, I was given the opportunity to actually see the town. We ventured back into the distillery (which is when I got the picture of the gin and tonic featured above). We also went into the shops and talked with a few local business owners.
The city, though quiet on a typical Saturday, has a lot to offer. There’s a shop that makes custom ukuleles and a small store/cafe combo that sells the cutest felt gnome I’ve ever seen (have I mentioned how much I love quirky things?)
One of the town’s largest attractions during the holiday season has to be Astral Glass Studio. The studio’s gallery features some stunning glass work, from jewelry to dishwasher-safe glassware. The coolest part of this small studio has to be the fact that they have classes during the holidays where families can make their own glassblown ornaments for their Christmas trees.
These sessions are booked months in advance, often filling up in February, according to one of the glassblowers. My family and I simply watched as a group created their ornaments. The glassblowers are not only knowledgeable but really fun guys that make the experience entertaining for the people watching as well as the people creating the ornaments. I hope to go back some day and participate in this small tradition myself.
As can probably be gathered from some of my other posts, I love cities. Millions of people shoved into one place. You can get food from every nation within blocks of each other. I like places where you’re surrounded by strangers. People that don’t know your baggage or your insecurities. It gives you freedom to do something out of character. It gives you the opportunity to be completely, independently you.
With that said, I have a weak spot for small towns, too. There’s a comfort in a small town that you can’t get in a city filled with bright lights and constant movement. When you go somewhere that has one main street and a pizza place that’s only open from 5:00 till 10:00 p.m., you know you’re somewhere where everyone’s going to know your name and have your back.
Towns like New Haven are wonderful when you just need a moment to appreciate life. They’re a reminder that life is simple, beautiful, and sometimes kind of weird. It’s all simply what you make of it.