By Becky Cleveland
The rural communities of Marceline and Brookfield, both located in North Central Missouri’s Linn County, have teamed up to pilot Communities of Excellence 2026. We are hopeful that successful implementation of this approach will serve to align the leadership of our communities and county in such a way as to foster cooperation and serve to provide strategic decision-making across sectors, generations and local jurisdictions. Our goal is to restore economic vitality to our small towns and county by turning around the decades’ long population decline, out-migration of youth, and loss of businesses; all while preserving the rural quality of life that we treasure.
In our quest to work together toward a better future, let’s look at the histories of these communities, and a single tradition that would embolden them to create a team of rivals. During the great American expansion westward, two separate railroads laid track through the beautiful countryside of North Central Missouri’s Linn County. To service the needs of the railroads, new towns were established at fixed intervals so the locomotives could refuel and switch out crews. Thus were the births of Brookfield in 1859, as the Division Headquarters of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, and Marceline in 1887, the Division Headquarters for the Sante Fe Railroad. As the crow flies, only 8 miles of cropland and pastures separated the two towns. Although close by today’s measure of distance, the two towns began very separate, with each town having its own self-sustaining economy. In those days it was a day trip by horse and buggy to visit a relative in the neighboring town, that is, if you planned to make it back home before dark. So for most purposes, folks stayed put. With few exceptions, everything you wanted or needed could be obtained from your own town. Folks in rural places were self-sufficient and that belief spilled over into the social fabric and culture of rural community life.
Over the next several years both Marceline and Brookfield grew in size and prosperity, each becoming Saturday night shopping stops for the smaller towns and local farm families that dotted the countryside. The industrial age introduced factories and more off-farm jobs to both communities. It also ushered in the automobile and rural residents wasted no time trading in their buggies for the new horseless carriage. Travel from town to town was now faster and easier making the distance traveled less significant, and opening up opportunities to be found in other places. The world was getting smaller and more accessible. Even so, that strong rural culture and love for home continued to influence how each town kept its own distinct traditions and self-sufficient way of life.
A shared tradition between the two towns originated in 1909 when the high schools of Marceline and Brookfield played their first football game. From the beginning this game was a highlight of the season. The rivalry between the two acquired regional attention in 1936 when an old brass bell donated from a retired fire truck became the traveling trophy. The Bell Game, as it became known, soon escalated to a contest not only between two schools but also between two proud communities with the game’s winning team, and town, securing bragging rights until next year’s encounter on the grid iron.The week of the Bell Game grew to near holiday status, where hundreds of alumni from each town made their way back home to watch the game and relive their own contribution to games of the past. It was not uncommon for the number of spectators to exceed the entire population of the hosting town with 3, 4 or maybe even 5 thousand attendees.
From 1909 to 2004 the Bell Game tradition continued, rotating back and forth between these two towns, year after year, providing each community the opportunity for a victory, in an economic climate where wins of any type were becoming increasingly rare. The once growing communities had been losing population now since the Great Depression, with families—and especially their grown children—leaving for larger cities to find work. Small farms had transitioned into larger, technologically advanced operations, requiring fewer hands to operate. Competition overseas closed local factories forcing many families to relocate. Even the original economic engine, the railroads, had reduced or even eliminated stops in the two towns. It was a slow but steady drain of people, jobs, talent and, ultimately, a hopeful future for the two towns.
As you might guess, declining populations is followed by a decrease in school enrollments and in 2004 the two school districts found themselves in different size classification. Now what had begun in 1909 simply as two neighboring schools agreeing to play a football game had transitioned into a complicated state bureaucracy. The outcome: the schools of Brookfield and Marceline where notified by the state association governing high school activities that the two teams could not play each other the following season, thus the legendary Bell Game would cease to exist.
Even though, most would agree that a high school football game is not a community’s primary purpose for existence, this news just happened to serve as the final blow for two communities and schools who had experienced so much loss over the past 60 years. This decision could not stand. What could be done?
These two proud communities, once self-reliant and independent, needed a champion and, ironically, the only ally they each had to stand up in challenging this decision was their neighbor, competitor and 100 year rival. Brookfield needed Marceline and Marceline needed Brookfield.
I don’t want to keep you guessing…this part of the story has a happy ending, and the Bell Game was played the following fall season continuing the long standing tradition. I hope you have guessed that the real story has less to do with the game and more to do with what can be accomplished when leaders align and work together to achieve a common goal. The two schools and towns did something they had rarely done in the past; they came together across generations and city limits, and in spite of grudges and old worn-out local customs. Together, they developed a plan utilizing the collective resources of both communities, including thousands of alumni, enabling them to mount a successful communications and letter writing campaign that literally reached coast to coast.
In looking back, the collaborative victory of saving the Bell Game not only kept a community tradition alive, it opened the eyes of both communities to the fruits that can come to bare from working together. And because of that we are not ashamed to say that a high school football game did serve to lead the way to more and even greater shared projects including construction and operation of a new regional airport, public safety mutual-aid agreements between jurisdictions and shared curriculum between school districts in the form of summer school programs and career and technical training.
Today in Marceline and Brookfield we strongly believe that by demonstrating mutual respect, trust, and aligning our communities through system-based leadership and resource-sharing, we can affect positive change in our local economy and that of the entire Northwest Missouri region. We have chosen a proven set of leadership and management principles to help lead the way…Communities of Excellence 2026. We hope you stay tuned!
Read more about the Brookfield-Marceline Community here