The Missouri Times is visiting lawmakers across the state to bring you an insider’s look at the district and the legislator. This article is just one in our new series, Show Me Districts.
Bolivar, Mo. — If you ask Rep. Mike Stephens, growing up in Bolivar, Missouri, was idyllic, tantamount even, to the all-American fictional town of Mayberry, North Carolina.
Although it now boasts more than 10,000 people, Bolivar still has that small town feel. But when Stephens was growing up, the southwestern town had less than half that many residents. Everyone knew their neighbors, children rode bicycles around town, and people walked to school, church, and work.
“You always idealize your childhood in certain ways, and all of us think we grew up in the perfect place at the perfect time,” Stephens said over a late lunch at the family-owned Smith’s Restaurant Sunday. “But when you talk about ‘it takes a village,’ it was really like that growing up. If you had a bicycle, everyone knew you. You weren’t going to get away with anything, and you were perfectly safe.”
Now that ambiance isn’t as prevalent as it once was, Stephens and his wife, Nancy, said. There are more concerns about safety and vulnerabilities in the world and not everyone knows his neighbor.
Still, the Stephens frequently interrupted their dining to wave at friends or say hello to other state officials in town for Gov. Mike Parson’s gubernatorial campaign announcement.
But that’s how it is at Smith’s Restaurant. Part country store, part comfort food restaurant, Smith’s is a family staple in southwestern Missouri since 1966 with locations in Bolivar, Clinton, Springfield, and Collins (the original). It’s known for its gargantuan pork tenderloin sandwich — which comes in a half order for those with less adventurous appetites.
The breaded and fried delicacy is Stephen’s go-to order at Smith’s, but on Sunday he decided to try something new and devoured the BLT sandwich with chips.
Aside from Smith’s, the Stephens recommended The Mediterranean and Savour in Bolivar for dinner.
Stephens noted Bolivar — about 30 miles north of Springfield — is home to a few other staples: Southwest Baptist University, Citizens Memorial Hospital, Dunnegan Memorial Park, and the Bolivar Golf Course.
Stephens, who was part of the group that got the center off the ground, said the hospital is leading the way for rural healthcare and is a major economic driver for Bolivar.
As for the issues facing those in HD 128, Stephens again came back to that small town, amiable atmosphere.
“It just seems a particularly deeply ingrained part of living in a small town is neighborly harmony. Political turmoil is such an anathema to that; it’s deeply disturbing to watch the vitriol and acrimony,” Stephens said of the people in his district.
And with that, the meal was finished. But the Stephens, who have been married for 23 years, needed to make the rounds and greet friends seated around Smith’s before heading home for the evening.
Check out the last installment in our Show Me Districts series with House Speaker Elijah Haahr.
Kaitlyn Schallhorn is a reporter with The Missouri Times. She joined the newspaper in March 2019 after working as a reporter for Fox News in New York City. Throughout her career, Kaitlyn has covered political campaigns across the U.S. and humanitarian aid efforts in Africa. She is a native of Missouri who studied journalism at Winthrop University in South Carolina. Contact Kaitlyn at email@example.com.