This Colorful Midwestern 'Ghost Town' Has Never Been More Alive

How one artist used his farm to resurrect lost pieces of Americana.

The Phillips 66 Gas Station in Red Oak II, Missouri
The Phillips 66 Gas Station in Red Oak II, Missouri | Nick Fox/Shutterstock
The Phillips 66 Gas Station in Red Oak II, Missouri | Nick Fox/Shutterstock

The most awe-inspiring ghost town in Missouri isn't a ghost town at all. It checks most of the boxes, sure. It's barely inhabited, positioned along Route 66, and contains its own cemetery—a rural fossil of another era—but it was never exactly abandoned. In fact, it's still peaking.

Red Oak II sits northeast of Carthage, and describing it accurately requires effort. It's an old-fashioned country settlement, an art installation, and a roadside attraction. It could be succinctly called an outdoor ghost town museum. Don't worry, this will all make sense in a moment.

In 1974, artist Lowell Davis left his big-city job in Dallas to return to the bucolic southwestern Missouri landscape where he was raised. He and his first wife bought a rundown farm near Carthage for $18,000 with no expectation of what would happen next.

Davis was raised in the small community of Red Oak, about 20 miles east of the new farm. When he stopped by his childhood township to reminisce, he found it deserted, a victim of widespread 20th-century migrations to larger cities. And Red Oak wasn't the only ghost town he came across. Many settlements along Route 66 had been abandoned while he was away, their buildings withering and stories fading into the countryside.

Unwilling to let history die, Davis began moving some of these marooned structures to his farm and restoring them—some from Red Oak, some from nearby. Using his cornfield as an unlikely canvas, Davis grew his collection. Soon, he realized he was onto something incredible.

Lowell Davis' early building restorations on his Missouri farm
Lowell Davis' early restorations included (from left to right) the Red Oak General Store, Phillips 66 Gas Station, Salem Church, Belle Starr House, and Grandpa Weber's Blacksmith Shop. | Photo courtesy of Red Oak II

Davis' farm slowly became its own miniature city, which he dubbed Red Oak II. Here, fragments of nearby ghost towns would be immortalized together in an ever-evolving collection.

"I don't believe that an artist should be restricted to use only paint or clay. It can be anything including junk, wood, even an old building," Davis wrote on the attraction's website. "To me, Red Oak II is a combination of a painting and a sculpture, and it is just made from things that someone else threw away."

Among the early additions to Red Oak II were particularly sentimental pieces of Davis' youth: the Red Oak General Store—formerly run by his father, and where the young Davis learned to sculpt and paint—and Grandpa Weber's Blacksmith Shop, where his own great-grandfather worked.

Today, Red Oak II is a full-blown faux town owned and operated by Davis, his wife, Rose, and a few neighbors. Encompassing 11 acres of land, the town itself has a population of 12.

Town Hall in Red Oak II, Missouri
A building trucked over from the original Red Oak became a town hall for Red Oak II. | Nick Fox/Shutterstock

One of the current part-owners is Larry Sernyk, who bought a stake in the project in 2004 after finding Davis through his art. Now a good friend of the Davises with a seasoned understanding of the founder's philosophy, Sernyk has plans to keep growing Red Oak II—and a whole pasture to develop on should they ever run out of space.

Despite housing private residences, the Red Oak II grounds are open to the public from dawn till dusk. Some structures—like the General Store, Fort Hooker, and a cabin on the lake—can be toured inside and out, while others are admired solely from the outside. Once Sernyk, who currently lives out of state, retires at Red Oak II, he plans to furnish the train station as well.

Even buildings that are closed to the public are worth passing through to see. While Davis' primary goal was to maintain the buildings' integrity, he's taken a few creative liberties.

"Red Oak II is trying to preserve the past, so [Davis] always tried to keep the character of the building as true as possible," says Sernyk.

But Davis—who could not speak to Thrillist due to health reasons—believes that art happens when you break straight lines. Imperfections are welcome. So too are color changes, resulting in a bright landscape that's equal parts rustic and refined.

"Those might not be the original colors, but they do add some character," says Sernyk. "They make it into Lowell's art."

Lowell Davis sitting in Red Oak II, Missouri, enjoying a smoke
Lowell Davis sitting on his property enjoying a smoke in 2015. | Photos BrianScantlebury/Shutterstock

Davis' other art, which includes handmade sculptures and smaller structures like a windmill and water tower, can be seen by touring the grounds on foot. In the next couple of years, one of the property owners plans to add a rideable train to the development so visitors can ride around the property via locomotive. He already acquired a railroad track from an amusement park.

“There’s places where they have living history, where people [re-enact] things from the era. We don’t really do that part,” Sernyk says. Red Oak II doesn’t need costumes or shows to paint a vivid picture of days gone by. Its history is its present. “I look at it as going back to the past.”

The story of Lowell Davis' life and art is detailed in his autobiography, There Ain't No Memories in First Class.

Kyler Alvord is a staff writer at Thrillist. Find him on Twitter and Instagram. Or don't. It's really up to you.