ABOVE PHOTO: 1827 Log Courthouse.
By Renée S. Gordon
“The president is the representative of the whole nation and he’s the only lobbyist that all the one hundred and sixty million people in the country have.”
—Pres. Harry Truman
Though Independence, Missouri was officially established on March 29, 1827 its settlement predates that by hundreds of years. The land, on the southern shore of the Missouri River, was the homeland of the Missouri, Osage and Kanza Indians when the first white man, Daniel Morgan Boone, son of the more famous Daniel, entered the area in 1795. By the mid-1820s both the Santa Fe Trail trade route and a village existed. Eventually the five major westward trails, the Lewis & Clark, Santa Fe, Oregon, California and Mormon passed through here and Independence flourished as a supply point for those migrating west.
The National Frontier Trails Museum (NFTM) is the only museum in the nation to interpret the history of the pioneers who made the 2,000-mile journey. It is estimated that 400,000 people traveled the trails between 1840 and the onset of the Civil War. Their stories are told through journals, diaries, newspaper accounts, artifacts and displays. A Conestoga wagon is one of the highlights of the exhibitions as well as an exhibit of correspondence between African Americans David and Rachel Brown after David left Ohio to seek their fortune in California. Her letters are poignant, made all the more so when one learns that he never returned.
Tours begin with a 17-minute orientation film, “West.” There is an additional 24-minute film, “More Precious Than Gold: Contributions of the Mormon Battalion,” that is shown on request. www.frontiertrailsmuseum.org
Sharing the complex with the NFTM is the two-story 1879 Chicago and Alton Depot. The depot was relocated and restored in 1996. Self-guided tours include the waiting room, stationmaster’s office and baggage room on the lower level and the stationmaster’s residence above. Artifacts are also on display. www.chicagoalton1879depot.org
Independence was the absolute edge of the civilized world and one of the last vestiges of that world was the First Log Courthouse, the last courthouse between Independence and the Pacific Ocean. It was built in 1827 and functioned until the 1930s. Sam Shepherd, an enslaved man, built the structure. Harry Truman held court there.
The 1859 Federal-style Jail and Marshal’s Home & Museum is a definite “must see” as one of the most storied sites in the city. Built by several black stonemasons with only exterior stairs, several famous people were incarcerated in the 16 limestone cells there, prominent Mormons, guerilla leader William Quantrill and outlaw Frank James. Brick cells were added in 1907 to house chain gang members.
Frank James languished there for 5 months after turning himself in to be pardoned. He was such a celebrity that the local residents brought him steak dinners and furniture and his cell was never locked because he was there for his own protection. Frank is buried in Hill Park Cemetery in Independence.
The jail is one of the most haunted places in the state and it is believed that no less than 30 spirits inhabit the building. Harry Truman initiated the fundraising to restore the facility. www.jchs.org
The Mormon Visitor Center interprets the history of the Mormons with an emphasis on their experience in Missouri. Showcased are a 1830s cabin and the first printing press east of the Mississippi River. A one-mile Missouri Mormon Walking Trail includes fourteen sites with interpretive plaques. www.ldschurch.org
The Mormons first arrived in 1831 with the intent of settling in the area Joseph Smith, their leader, declared Zion, the City of God. Many of the settlers already in the region took issue with the religious, economic and cultural differences the Mormons represented, they were forced out and founded Nauvoo, Illinois. After Smith’s murder in Carthage, Illinois Brigham Young led the Mormons to Utah.
Two Mormon groups returned to Independence, the Church of Christ Temple Lot in 1867 and in the 1880s the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In 1920 Independence became the headquarters of what is now known as The Community of Christ.
Several African Americans made their fortunes in Independence prior to the Civil War. The most renowned were Hiram Young and Emily Fisher.
Hiram was a wagon maker and blacksmith in the 1850s. He started life as a slave but worked and purchased freedom for both himself and his wife. He ultimately owned a farm over 400-acres and made more than 300 wagons annually. He purchased slaves and allowed them to work in his business and buy their freedom. He also established a public school for black children. The school building, though unused, still stands.
Emily Fisher owned a hotel noted for its hospitality and she was equally known for a healing ointment she created and sold. Emily purchased bricks for the Second Baptist Church, the oldest African American church in the state, organized in 1864.
The Bingham-Waggoner Estate was constructed along the Santa Fe Trail in 1852. The 3-story mansion has 26 rooms and was home to Civil War artist George Caleb Bingham. The house contains 90 percent of its original furnishings and artwork.
Wagons passed over the Santa Fe Trail on the south side of the estate and certified ruts, or swales, cut into the road are so deep that some can still be seen today. The quarter-mile Swales Walking Trail is marked with interpretive signs. www.bwestate.org
The Vaile Estate has been featured on “America’s Castles,” “HGTV” and in “USA Today,” as a Second Empire Victorian treasure. The 31-room mansion was constructed in 1881 with state-of-the-art amenities including flush toilets, an indoor 6,000-gallon water tower and a 48,000-gallon wine cellar. The home is furnished with period items. www.vailemansion.org
Independence has more than its share of unique attractions but there are two that definitely merit a visit.
The Puppetry Arts Institute is home to a collection from the Hazelle Rollins manufacturer as well as everything from finger puppets to marionettes. The Rollins Company began in the 1930s making puppets and grew into the largest company of its kind in the world. Workshops, demonstrations and performances are part of the interactive experience in the museum. Children of all ages will love it. www.hazelle.org
Leila’s Hair Museum provides another special treat. The museum showcases more than 2,000 pieces of hair jewelry and 300 hair wreaths dating from the 1800s as well as locks of hair from the likes of Elvis, Jackson, Lennon and Monroe. Items made from the hair of deceased loved ones were very popular pre-photography because it was a personal memento. www.leilashairmuseum.com
Many noted individuals are linked with Independence but there is none more popular than Missouri’s native son, Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States. The Truman Historic Walking Trail, created in the 1990s, is a path that encompasses 43 sites connected to Truman’s life and career. Brochures are detailed, contain a map and are available throughout the city.
Plan to spend several hours at the Truman Presidential Museum & Library. It is one of 13 presidential libraries built with private funding and then turned over to the federal government. The Truman Library was erected in 1957 and tells his story through use of memorabilia, gifts, documents, photographs, artifacts and personal items. There are 15 million document pages and more than 30,000 artifacts.
The lobby of the museum showcases “The Opening of the West,” a multi-paneled mural by Thomas Hart Benton. It depicts the Independence in the 1840s. When entering the exhibit the first object on display is the original “The Buck Stops Here” sign.
Tours proceed into a gallery featuring an exact replica of Truman’s Oval Office in August of 1950 and proceed through the 11,000-sq. ft. “The Presidential Years” gallery. His personal life is explored on the lower level in interactive and child friendly displays. The burial site of Harry and Bess Truman is on the grounds as is the office he worked in daily when he visited the library. www.trumanlibrary.org
The Harry S. Truman National Historic Site is the 2-story, 14 room, home in which he lived from 1919 until his death in 1972. Bess, his wife, continued to live there until her death in 1982. The Queen Anne house served as the Summer White House during his presidency. The home contains all original furniture and personal items including the plants. The home is reflective of their personalities and love for one another. After his death Bess never moved his coat and hat from the rack and it remains on view for visitors. Guided tours are limited to eight people at a time. www.nps.gov/hstr
First Presbyterian Church was established in 1826 and this is the place where Harry met Bess. They met in Sunday school and a great love story began.
You must stop at Clinton’s Soda Fountain the location of Harry’s first job. It continues to serve great sodas, phosphates and other goodies and you can pick up a souvenir here. www.clintonssodafountain.com
Directly across the street is Ophelia’s Restaurant and Inn. Visitors can dine on delicious American cuisine and book a room for the night within walking distance of the treasures of Independence. www.opheliasind.com
Obviously Independence is a superb destination, a small package stuffed with special treats. It becomes particularly exciting during the “Heritage Holiday Hometown” celebration when the 25 buildings in 1855 Missouri Town positively shimmer with the joy of Christmas. There are numerous activities, candlelit tours and costumed interpreters to bring the era to life.
Everything Independence has to offer may be checked out on the web. The time is now to book a winter adventure. www.VisitIndependence.com.
I wish you smooth travels!
New York’s Grand Central Terminal Holiday Fair opened November 12th and will run until December 24th featuring more than 70 craftspeople and businesses. The New York Transit Museum Holiday Train Show at Grand Central will open on Nov. 19th and close on Feb 10, 2013. This popular train display has been remodeled and is even more exciting this year. Both 30-minute and one hour self-guided audio-tours of the station are offered daily. www.grandcentralterminal.com
A little closer to home the Amish Village in Lancaster has begun to offer a 90-minute, narrated, Backroads Bus Tour designed to give visitors a closer look at the Amish culture. Tours are scheduled three times a day and a variety of options are available for added experiences. www.theamishvillage.net