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Greetings from Small-Town America: Hamilton, Missouri

This quiet locale is a hub for quilters, with a number of shops and a museum about the founder of JCPenney.

Jenny Doan of Hamilton's Missouri Star Quilting Company; photo by Dean Curtis

“I love small town life,” says Jenny Doan about her Ham­ilton, Missouri, community. “Sometimes I feel as if I’m in a Norman Rockwell painting.” One hour northeast of Kansas City, this one-stoplight town has some 1,700 residents. Though it may be small and quaint, thanks to Jenny, it’s no longer sleepy.

In November 2008, Jenny and her family started the Missouri Star Quilt Company on a shoestring budget. Now up to 8,000 visitors make the pilgrimage to Hamilton each month to shop at one of the company’s 13 stores, take a quilting class, attend a retreat and commune with other sewing enthusiasts. “I try to go out to the shops every day to talk with our customers,” Jenny says.

Each shop has its own focus. There is one for florals, one for kids, one for “primitives and wool”—and the popular Man’s Land, a cozy hangout where anyone can relax on leather couches, watch TV or play a game of pool. A couple homey restaurants, including a breakfast place, serve hungry shoppers.

Jenny, who rose to fame with her folksy weekly quilting YouTube videos, is still amazed to see busloads of quilters descending on downtown. “It feels like a little miracle. When we moved here in 1995, everything was boarded up. If we hadn’t been led to do something, the town would be gone.”

Founded in 1855, Hamilton was originally a stop on the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad. Decades later, another retailer put the town on the map. James Cash Penney, born on a local farm in 1875, went on to found what became JCPenney, one of the nation’s leading department store chains of the 20th century. Penney visited his hometown frequently and, in 1924, proudly opened the chain’s 500th store on the main street.

The J. C. Penney Library and Museum features memorabilia from the long, fascinating life of Hamilton’s most famous son. “He grew up poor and became a true American success story,” says curator Bob Lund, a Hamilton native who worked for JCPenney for 37 years. “People love learning more about him, his philanthropy, his commitment to the Golden Rule.”

Quilt-crazy visitors will want to stop by the Missouri Quilt Museum, in the town’s historic high school building. It showcases hundreds of quilts from local and international designers; it’s also home to the world’s largest toy sewing machine collection on public display. A partnership with the National Quilt Museum ensures there’s a rotating exhibit of the country’s most famous quilts.

“The innovative programming—we’ve had a show about quilts related to the singer Prince—takes people by surprise,” says co-founder Dakota Redford. Don’t forget to take your picture outside with the world’s largest spool of thread. After all, you’ll want to show everyone that you’ve been to Quilt Town, USA.

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