Wilda Moses (left) and Betty Henson conduct business at Champion’s Henson Store, a rural business that’s been around since at least 1928.
CHAMPION – The pavement ends just as the tiny town of Champion begins. Buried deep in Douglas County, the settlement — originally known as Goose Nibble — isn’t large. In fact, if a road sign didn’t mark its presence, outsiders might miss it altogether.
And although times have changed since its start in the 1800s, the church-and-store town still plays a big role in life for some. After all, its Henson Store is the closest place to shop without trekking to Mountain Grove or Ava, each about 30 minutes away. “It depends on how much you push it and if there’s a train on the track,” says Betty Henson, the store’s proprietor, regarding the distance.
The store, however, does more than sell supplies. “It’s a meeting place,” says community member Wilda Moses. “An old timer … used to tell me when he was a kid, during in the ‘30s, Saturday the whole place would be full of cars and wagons. People just come and gather and get acquainted.”
Just as they still do.
A map shows Champion’s location. No one quite knows how the town earned its name, although an account ties it to champion marksmen who met there for rifle shoots. (Courtesy of “Searching for Booger County”)
In the winter, a pot belly stove draws locals. On golden-warm days, however, out front is the place to be. A spell of porch sitting with Moses shows a steady stream of folks who all know each other: Technically they’re customers, but reality shows them friends. And soon Henson comes out, too, newspaper and phone in hand in case a customer calls with a question.
There’s talk of tomatoes, and a conversation on the challenges of getting a dog to take its medicine. “He’s dumb as a rock, but he’s pretty smart,” the owner remarks. Later, a local chicken farmer — who sells his birds’ eggs to the store — ambles up. “I’m coming to get some corn,” he says. “I figure if my chickens ain’t laying, I’m going to fatten them up and eat ‘em.”
That corn is only one thing that folks can shop for at the store. “She’s got everything we need, and if she doesn’t have it, she’ll get it for you,” says Moses, noting that nothing at the rural store is significantly more expensive than it is in town. And some things, like fresh produce from Henson’s garden, are simply given away. “People bring their extra stuff here and share it,” says Moses.
Other goods include food stuffs, household items, nails, ice cream, cigarettes, candy and — unlike many remaining rural stores — gasoline and diesel.
“People call it the Champion Mall,” says Henson.
The store is ready for cold-weather visitors.
Despite its longevity, the current facility is relatively new: It was built in 2010 after the former store’s foundation began to fall apart.
“There was a lot of heartbreak over losing the old store because people had grown up with it,” says Moses. “It was a big thrill to come and have an ice cream or a soda. It’s some of the early childhood memories for a lot of people that are now old.”
But elements of the business harken to days gone by, beginning with Henson allowing her customers to operate on credit. “It’s just a tradition,” she says. “And if they keep their word, it’s a good thing.”
A wooden cash register and vintage scale are two old-time aspects of shoppers’ trips to the store.
Another throwback is the wooden register, used to ring up every cash sale. And then there’s the old-fashioned scale, which weighs primarily two things these days. “Nails and babies,” says Henson.
You read that right. “A few people have had their kids at home and brought their babies here to have them weighed, or if they didn’t have a scale,” explains Henson. It’s a perk of the job: “I get to be the first one to see a kid in a few cases.”
It’s likely that news of those births is spread another way, too: Through The Champion News, a blog about the town that triple-threat Moses oversees as editor, reporter and photographer.
“Some people clam up when they see her coming,” notes Henson. But despite those sealed lips, Moses still finds enough info to update the space regularly. “A lot of our hillbilly friends are on Facebook,” notes Moses. “You can get a lot of news on Facebook.”
That online presence has actually netted the community an (albeit unintentional) international following. According to Moses, there is a similarly named publication that covers soccer and rugby in England. “So people are looking for the Champion News about their soccer and they stumble across us,” says Moses. “We’ve had some Facebook likes (that way).”
Champion Church of Christ
The Champion Church of Christ still holds two services every Sunday.
Across a grassy patch from the “historic emporium on the north side of the square,” as Moses puts it, lies another community cornerstone: the Champion Church of Christ, where two services are held each week.
“At 10 o’clock Sunday morning and at 3 in the afternoon to accommodate the dairy farmers,” says Moses, explaining that they choose those times so farmers can milk at the best times for their cows. “If they have to milk real early in the day it’s hard on the cows, particularly in the summer, in the heat. So after church they can milk and it would be cooler in the evening.”
And during each of those services, they go through one book of the New Testament.
“Each service is one chapter,” she says. After they study the entire thing, they go back to one of the Gospels, followed by the book of Acts before rereading through the rest of it. How long does that take to complete?
“It takes about two and a half years,” says Moses. “I’m on my fourth trip through it.”
That church building is where students used to attend school. The building was built in 1933, after the previous one burned to the ground. According to “Douglas County, Missouri: History and Families,” “the school board contracted with the Henleys of Ava to build the new school on the same location and it was noted that no lumber with knots was to be used. When school board member Otis Krider found a defective board he asked it to be replaced and it was.”
Students brought their books up until 1959, when several smaller schools consolidated into the nearby Skyline R-2 district. According to Moses, Skyline currently has less than 100 students, and educates kids kindergarten through eighth grade. (And most of those kids’ birthdays make their way into the Champion News because the school sends them to Moses to include.)
But the students who attended the one-room Champion school haven’t forgotten it. Each year, there’s a reunion that draws back memories and the people who lived them. “I don’t know why it holds on except,” pauses Moses, “People just love it.”
Seeing the store
A building, built next to the store, was originally a garage. However, at one time it also housed a flour mill, says Henson.
As the sun sets, the fading light makes the yellow-tipped leaves glow golden. The far-off putter of an engine sings alongside late summer bugs and birds, chattering and chirping in the distance. A pickup truck drives up to the store, its owner’s shoes softly crunching gravel in a hurry to pick up some necessary supply.
In her time at the store, Henson has seen many faces come and go. “We’ve had a lot of new people come in, but there’s still some of the same people,” she says. “The young people then, now they’re the wise, old people.”
Seeing the youngest faces grow up is one of the perks of the job — or way of life, as it seems with Henson, who spends six days a week at the store. And for Moses, who moved away for a period some years ago, living in such a place seems a great privilege.
“…This is like Narnia to me,” she says.
Want to drop by (or learn more)?
The Henson Store is generally open from 8 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday (call 417-948-2259 for directions or search Champion, Mo., on Google Maps). One of the best days to visit is Wednesday afternoons, when locals gather there to sit, visit and have a jam session. “People come all the time and sit out here and talk, visit,” says Moses. “There are a number of people who come every Wednesday. Sit and spin old yarns.”