How Northwest Missouri's "Quilt Town" Has Survived Since The Pandemic Kept Its 32,000 Monthly Tourists Away
Hamilton, Missouri, is seeking to diversify its attractions, even as it eagerly awaits the return of visitors to its popular fabric shops.
Over the past 11 years, Hamilton, Missouri, has generated a list of nicknames: the Disneyland of Quilting, the Quilting Capital of the World, and Quilt Town, USA. That last one is on a giant mural in the middle of town.
Missouri Star Quilt Company, founded by the Doan family in 2008, regularly drew 8,000 tourists a week — all eager to shop in the 13 stores owned by Missouri Star and dedicated to the art of quilting.
Then the COVID-19 virus appeared. The town’s survival appeared threatened after the Doans last March taped signs on all 13 of their doors. “All shops closed until spring 2021,” they said.
But, it turns out, Hamilton has held its own without the tourists.
“What was really interesting was that when COVID hit, and we shut down the shops, our online business picked up by 40%,” says Jenny Doan, the matriarch and quilting celebrity of Missouri Star.
Though the town won’t see the revenue from online sales, Doan says the company didn’t have to lay off even one person; all of the 400 plus employees not already working in the warehouse transferred there to fill orders. “It was like a miracle to me,” Doan says.
The presence of the Missouri Star employees, in addition to a generous dose of CARES Act money and a strong push to get people to buy local, kept the town's businesses afloat, says Mayor Kristopher Bruce.
“Maybe they’re eating at Subway, maybe they’re at Dollar General. Or Casey’s is a way to get a slice of pizza and something. That’s kind of helped maintain through it,” he says.
While the small number of non-quilting stores and handful of restaurants in Hamilton benefited from the tourist traffic, Missouri Star Quilt Company’s brick and mortar sales have never accounted for more than 20% of its total revenue, estimated at $40 million by Forbes in 2019.
Doan’s weekly YouTube tutorials have created a massive online presence for the company — just one part of the nation’s $4.2 billion quilting industry. Doan says she receives mail saying that her YouTube videos have helped fans through the hard times.
“For people who are under a lot of stress, which all of us have been during COVID, creating is very calming and soothing,” Doan says. “Nurses and doctors, loads of them are quilters because it’s something they can do in their spare time.”
But Doan and many others in Hamilton know that not every visitor is interested in quilting. Because the majority of quilters are women, Missouri Star opened a living room-style storefront geared toward male companions in 2016. It's called Man’s Land.
Around that same time, the city’s business leaders starting having serious talks about diversifying Hamilton's attractions for visitors and residents of any gender.
Bob Hughes, a retired nonprofit consultant, is a member of the chamber of commerce and various boards around town. In his 40-year career, his niche has been small town development—mostly towns with fewer than 10,000 residents. Hamilton clocks in at 1,809.
So, when Hughes and his wife moved to Hamilton from Colorado in late 2016 after she took at job at Missouri Star, he started brainstorming ways to strengthen the tax base.
He says the pandemic highlighted the importance of that effort.
“We want to expand our offerings to tourists as part of our marketing plan. To grow a tourist economy you either, one, attract more tourists, or, two, you get them coming back more often,” Hughes says.
The economic development board has developed a list of 32 projects that aim to attract more tourists, inspire return trips, and tempt people to stay longer.
Many of the ideas are not related to quilting, though at the top of the list is the Missouri Quilt Museum, which is partnering with the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, Kentucky — a rival to Hamilton's “Quilt Town” status.
Other projects include a 10-acre butterfly park that’ll act as the north anchor for the under-construction Highway 13 Butterfly Trail between Branson, Missouri, and Bethany, Missouri; a 355-acre Little Otter Creek Recreational Lake; a visitors center; new businesses like a veterinary clinic and an insurance office; and more restaurants.
A new diner called Eggo’s opened last week. Claudia and Jose Dominguez from Lawson, Missouri, say they saw an opportunity when the space became available.
Jose Dominguez says that because they’re a small, family-owned business, he thinks the people of the town might be enough to sustain them without the tourists.
But, he admits, they did want the location because of the town’s quilting industry, which is set to reopen the first week of May.
Dominguez says, “We’re putting all our money on that.”
If and when the development board succeeds in creating other tourist draws, Hughes says Hamilton will still be the Disneyland of Quilting. And that's just fine.