red oak ii, missouri
Restored antique buildings reflect off the pond at Red Oak II. | BD Images/Shutterstock
Restored antique buildings reflect off the pond at Red Oak II. | BD Images/Shutterstock

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

Finding his rural hometown abandoned, one Missouri artist set out to recreate it—brick by brick.

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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 even houses its own cemetery—itself a 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 rural settlement, an art installation, and a roadside attraction all at once. It could be succinctly dubbed 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 countryside where he was raised. He and his first wife bought a rundown farm near town for $18,000 with no expectations as to what would happen next.

Davis was raised in the small community of Red Oak, Missouri, about 20 miles east of the couple's new farm. When he stopped by his childhood neighborhood to reminisce, he found it deserted, a victim of widespread 20th-century migration to larger urban centers. And Red Oak wasn't the only ghost town he came across. Many former outposts along Route 66 had been abandoned while he was away, their buildings withering and histories fading into the cornfields.

Unwilling to let his own story vanish into thin air, Davis began moving some of these marooned structures to his farm and restoring them—some from Red Oak, some from other forgotten nearby towns. Using his newly acquired acreage as an unlikely canvas, Davis grew his collection. Soon, he realized he was onto something incredible.

blacksmith shop, red oak ii, missouri
Davis' early restorations included his Grandpa Weber's Blacksmith Shop. | Red Oak II

Davis' farm slowly transformed into a miniature city in its own right, and he dubbed it Red Oak II. Here, fragments of nearby ghost towns would be immortalized, living on together in an ever-evolving exhibition.

"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 stated 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 two particularly sentimental pieces salvaged from 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.

gas station at Red Oak II, missouri
A transplanted Phillips 66 gas station at Red Oak II beckons passersby. | BD Images/Shutterstock

Today, Red Oak II is a full-blown faux town. Open to the pubic, it was owned and operated by Davis alongside his wife Rose and a few neighbors until the artist's death at the age of 83 in November, 2020. Lowell was buried in Red Oak II's onsite cemetery, as per his wishes. His wife continues to helm the project, accompanied by former Carthage mayor Jim Woestman, now a fellow Red Oak II resident and its unofficial mayor, plus several other longtime neighbors. 

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 family with a seasoned understanding of the late founder's philosophy, Sernyk plans to keep growing Red Oak II, armed with a whole new pasture to develop should they ever run out of space.

Marshall's Office, red oak ii, missouri
The office of Red Oak II lawman, Marshal Ralph Hooker. | BD Images/Shutterstock

Despite sharing space with private residences, Red Oak II's grounds are open to the public from 7 am to 9pm an admission is free (a donation box is affixed to the right side of the General Store, just in case you're feeling generous). 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 to Red Oak II, he plans to furnish the train station as well.

Even buildings closed to the public are worth exploring from the outside. While Davis' primary goal was to maintain the original structures' integrity, he admittedly took 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, innovator that he was, believed that art is what happens when you break straight lines. Imperfections were always welcome, and 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," adds Sernyk. "They make it into Lowell's art."

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

Davis' other art, which includes handmade sculptures and smaller structures like a windmill and water tower, can be viewed by touring the grounds on foot. There's talk of adding a rideable train to the development so visitors can cruise around the property via locomotive. Rumor has it, they've already snagged an old railroad track from an amusement park.

“There are places where they have living history, where people [re-enact] things from the era—we don’t really do that part,” Sernyk says. And it's true. Red Oak II doesn’t need costumes or actors to paint a vivid picture of days gone by, because, put simply, 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.