May 30--Breeze across these rolling hills can play tricks with sound, but Buddie Boswell locked the back door of his theater about 2 a.m., and he could swear he heard ... was that someone singing?
Hours had passed since the Wilburn Brothers finished their Saturday night performance at the Union Mill Opry. The brothers, Teddy and Doyle, who had a syndicated television show and earlier nurtured the careers of future stars like Loretta Lynn, drew a good crowd to the country-music hall north of Edgerton, Mo.
After paying the act and securing the rest of the night's take and cleaning up for the Sunday show, Mr. Boswell headed for home but noticed music coming from the campground he kept for customers. He walked there and found the Wilburn boys eating hot dogs and entertaining the campers.
"I sat there with them another hour, and they sang all the old Grand Ole Opry songs," he remembers.
Such surprises forge good memories for Mr. Boswell, who realized a dream shaped by a metal building and songs about real life.
Between 1973 and 1996, the Union Mill Opry featured big-name acts and offered family-focused entertainment. Along the way, the rural theater cultivated a generation of local musicians who would hone their craft, rub shoulders with Nashville's elite and grow close during winter-month tours.
The Boswells, Buddie, Gini and their four children, ran the business as a family, working the brooms and playing the fiddles.
"I grew up different from anyone else I know," says Kandi Stephens, born a year after her parents opened the theater and then growing up on stage. "They did something pretty amazing in the middle of a cornfield."
The Boswells, many now residents of Texas, will return to the area this weekend for a 40th reunion celebration of their Opry. An open house will be held Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Stoney Creek Inn in St. Joseph.
Buddie and Gini grew up about a mile apart, and they went to school together in Gower, Mo. When in high school, Mr. Boswell performed for the Brush Creek Follies, a Saturday night music program on KMBC radio in Kansas City.
He farmed to pay the bills, but the couple's first daughter, SuLin, showed a real aptitude for singing at church. The family did some festivals and fairs in Northwest Missouri towns. The Boswells took inspiration from the music scene forming in Branson, Mo.
The leap of faith came at the expense of several acres of cropland.
"I told Gini, I wonder what would happen if we put a little theater up here on the corner of our farm," Mr. Boswell says.
Friends voiced doubts. Edgerton, population 477 back then, would be too far removed from St. Joseph and Kansas City to draw sufficient crowds, they said.
But a banker agreed, and the red metal building went up with Mr. Boswell and a local carpenter trimming the inside with barn wood. Opening night in the 660-seat venue had two shows, and both sold out.
Buddie felt like they had hit upon something.
Part of the family appeal grew from his own family. The kids proved an entertainment blessing. "The minute they could walk out on stage, we had them singing or doing something cute," Mr. Boswell says.
Kandi and Penni learned the fiddle. Son Randy played the drums. SuLin had "an unbelievable tone, right on key." Singing harmony became a childhood rite.
"When he married my mom and they started having kids, they just kind of raised us to sing and play instruments and entertain people," Mrs. Stephens says.
Along with the family and other local performers, acts from Nashville found the way to Edgerton. The big names rolled through ... Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Dolly Parton, Jim Ed Brown, Barbara Mandrell, Hank Thompson, Kitty Wells.
Mr. Boswell remembers standout shows being given by Tammy Wynette, who brought a band of 10 people with her, and Mel Tillis, just ahead of him being named country music's Entertainer of the Year.
"They were just plain and down to earth," he says. "They would look at our antiques and our kids' pictures, and you just felt like you've known them forever."
The theater owner, who worked the phones in arranging the bookings, never saw an ounce of ego in any of the singers and musicians. The only thing close to a run-in came when a member of Johnny Rodriguez's band walked in the theater with a Budweiser in hand.
"I said no beer comes in this back door, and I don't want any in your belly when you're on stage," Mr. Boswell remembers saying. "Johnny came in and I told him, and he said, 'Boys, put it back in the cooler.' He came out and did one of the best shows we ever had."
One thing the visitors always remembered: no Union Mill performance ever took place without a live hen on the stage, a part of the motif, "sitting up there on a nest ... laying eggs some time," he recalls.
Winter weather proved too unpredictable to keep the theater open. So the Boswells hit the road, touring in California, Florida and Texas until the spring. Warmer months also sent the local act on the road, playing in 36 states over the years; once the musicians performed for 10,000 people at a Winnebago rally in Iowa.
By the mid-1990s, gas prices had risen, liability and building insurance rates had climbed and some of the loyal supporters had aged. He packed up the Opry in 1996.
"It got to where the numbers weren't there," the theater owner says. "The time had run out."
Buddie and Gini moved to Idalou, Texas, a suburb of Lubbock, to be around their children and grandchildren. At the reunion, they hope to connect with old friends, fellow musicians and anyone who just enjoyed the theater.
Mr. Boswell believes he got the best end of the deal.
"It was the most rewarding thing I ever could have dreamed of," he says. "I still can't believe it was anything other than a miracle the way it worked."
Ken Newton can be reached
Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPNewton.
(c)2013 the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Mo.)
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