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Pump lighting and parade unites La Russell every year

La Russell pump lighting 2020
Kaitlyn McConnell
Pump lighting in La Russell, Missouri in 2020

In this edition of OATC, Kaitlyn McConnell takes us to a small town in Jasper County, Missouri.

For 364 days of the year, an old-fashioned hand-operated water pump divides the town of La Russell, a small stop in Jasper County. But not on Thanksgiving. That day, the pump – which divides a road, rather than emotions – brings hundreds of people together for an annual pump lighting and parade.

"Actually, we have Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and Christmas all in about 45 minutes," says Tammy Moenkhoff, who is a longtime employee at the local Whitehead Farm Supply. She speaks of the fact that the celebration showcases an unusual number of features, including fireworks and Santa in the same place.

The store where she works sits a few steps from the pump and adjacent to the town’s post office. It’s one of very few businesses in the tiny town nowadays, where hustle and bustle have largely faded into history.

But the 120-or-so-person community still has spirit and a need to exist. One example is the fact that when the mill burned a few months ago, Chris Chapman, who owns it and the farm supply store, didn’t hesitate to rebuild.

"We're an agriculture community, and we need it in the community. We service a lot of people, lot of cattle," says Chapman.

Another way is through the annual pump parade, which began around 12 years ago. I first learned of it around three years ago, when a friend of mine mentioned it. I’ve attended every year since. With tractors and floats and politicians and a kazoo band (more on that in a minute) and Santa and the aforementioned pump, it is one of the most unusual events I’ve been to in the Ozarks. And that all ties to Linda Heman, who lives right up the road from the pump and has lived in La Russell most of her life.

At her kitchen table, Heman talks about how the old-fashioned pump has been around since the early 1900s. It was a gathering spot for locals to get their water for many years, and even after water was disconnected in the late 20th century, it remained a beloved part of the town’s history. The pump was so important, in fact, that after a vehicle hit it one too many times and MoDOT removed it, locals did their part to make sure it was put back in place.

"So it just spread like wildfire," recalls Heman. "That was when the internet was really just getting started and people were emailing all over the country, and they were getting all these calls, and finally they (MoDOT) called and said, 'Please have people quit calling us. We're going to put it back.'”

That affection eventually led Heman and her family to put lights on the pump one holiday season.

“We put the lights on it, and we had sparklers for everybody, and I think we did small fireworks," she says. "Well, the next year, I was like, ‘We really need to have a parade.’ And so that’s how it all started.”

One element is the kazoo band, which is called the Humdingers and marches in the parade while playing Christmas songs.

“It was all pretty much my family," says Heman. "And so I laughed about it, and said, ‘You can only get out of this by death or divorce.’

"One year, it was cold and so we practiced in here – we pushed all the furniture aside and were lined up from the front to the back."

It all leads up to the event on Thanksgiving night, which begins around 5 p.m. After the short parade makes its way down the road -- which has been closed down for the occasion – folks gather around the pump and wait. At the key moment, everyone joins together to say “Light that pump!” which leads to illuminating the sky and continuing tradition for another year.

In 2021, the event’s theme is Still Standing. It represents triumph over the variety of challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the fire that destroyed the mill, which is being rebuilt in the background. Those sentiments, and ones tied to why the event happens in the first place, may continue far longer than the parade, which generally lasts a few minutes.

"There’s not that many traditions left anymore," says Heman. "Landscape’s changing. Little towns are drying up. And I think the reason we draw so many people is because everybody remembers their childhood. The small towns and the small town celebrations are kind of fading, I think. For everybody, it’s kind of that they like to keep it going."

And those feelings also bring about support from unexpected places.

"A fellow over by Avilla said, 'I want to donate to the pump lighting,' and gave us a check for $200," says Heman, noting that last year was his first to attend. "He just said, ‘This cost somebody a lot of money. I want to help.’"

As traditions have faded in some places, the pump parade is one that offers a new sense of community for the future – and reminds that new traditions aren’t limited to the past. In fact, they can start anytime we want.

"Oh, I just think it’s good to have traditions," says Heman. "And a lot of the kids, people’s families, they don’t remember a time when we didn’t have it. Several years ago, we had one family, and they were going to go to Texas. The kids said, ‘Leave us with Grandma and Grandpa, we don’t want to miss the parade.’"

And that tradition can ring true in Heman's own family. She holds her six-month-old granddaughter Eliza, who hasn't attended a pump lighting before because of her age.

But soon she can be there, officially passing on that tradition to a new generation.

Kaitlyn McConnell is the founder of Ozarks Alive, a website that is dedicated to the preservation and documentation of local culture and history. To visit the site, click here. And to listen to the audio essay of "Ozarks Alive: Time Capsule," click the "play" icon below.