Heritage in Independence
Checking off history-related bucket list items together
By Jackie Tucker
"I can't believe you put this trip together," my husband, George, said with a grin as we walked into the Truman Library and Museum. This visit to Independence, MO was my surprise gift to him for his 68th birthday. It was something on his bucket list, and I wanted to make it special. George is a history buff, and Harry Truman has always been one of his heroes.
I think it was Truman's no-nonsense manner or maybe his modest background that drew my husband to him. And George and I both respect the fact that Truman never let his power cause him to forget where he came from. We were excited to retrace his steps and get a closer view into the personal and political life of the 33rd President of the United States as part of our exploration of Independence.
Truman brought to life
I'm not as big of a history fan as George, but the way the Truman Library and Museum told the story of Truman's life-from early years all the way to his ascension to the presidency-had me in awe every step of the tour. The short films and interactive exhibits transported us back in time, highlighting how Truman's life lessons prepared him for his presidency.
We were both enamored with the letters that Harry and Bess sent each other over the years, giving us a unique and intimate insight into the lives of the Trumans. George was like a kid in a toy store as we explored the museum's collection of memorabilia, examining objects like a safety plug from the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki and the original "The Buck Stops Here" sign from Truman's Oval Office.
We admired the replica of the Oval Office as it was furnished in Truman's time, as well as the very office that Truman used after he returned to Independence following his presidency. After the tour, George and I took a few moments of quiet reflection in the serene courtyard where the graves of Harry and Bess Truman lay.
At home with the Trumans
In researching the trip, I learned that Truman's family home was only a short drive from the museum. So, we hopped in the car and headed over to continue our in-depth journey into the life and times of Harry Truman. I couldn't wait to see where Harry and his beloved Bess made their life together, especially now that I had more knowledge as to who they were.
I was impressed with the beautiful simplicity of the Truman family home. It was regal without being pretentious, much like what I imagine the Trumans' life was like there. I could picture family picnics on the sprawling lawn, the Trumans' only daughter, Margaret, playing on the porch, and Bess reading her favorite mystery novels from her private collection on display. As a pianist myself, the Steinway piano displayed on the ground floor took my breath away. It was purchased as a Christmas gift for little Margaret, but Truman played it in the White House!
It was hard to pull ourselves away from this charming residence, but we had more to see in Independence. Next up-another home with a darker past.
Unlocking criminal history
George was excited to see the cell where outlaw Frank James, older brother of Jesse, was held at the 1859 Old Jail & Marshal's Home. Personally, I wanted to learn more about law and order back in the frontier days (I'm known to watch dramatic TV shows debating guilt and innocence).
At first glance, the Marshal's home is a plain and modest two-story house that would be easy to overlook were it not for the imposing brick-and-limestone building that contains 12 jail cells right next door. The home and jail were almost demolished in 1958 before Truman and the Jackson County Historical Society stepped in and made it a historic landmark.
Walking through the prison's old "lock down," I ran my hands over the cold iron cell doors as our tour guide regaled us with the fascinating and sometimes tragic stories that took place inside the walls. In addition to Frank James, other residents of the jail included Missouri-Kansas Border War guerilla raider William Quantrill, and hundreds of women and children who were detained under Order Number 11 during that same war. My, how times have changed.
From wagon rides to grand estates
We continued to dive into the frontier history of Independence with a delightful mule-drawn covered-wagon ride starting at the town square. Reenactors dressed in period costumes took us back to the 1840s when pioneers dreamed of gold and adventure, risking it all as they headed west. The exciting stories they told as we rolled along the street made it very easy to imagine the dangers they would have faced back then. But it also made it easy to imagine their motivation for making the journey-the hope they held for riches and rewards when they finally arrived.
The end of our wagon ride that afternoon may not have been the gold mines of the Frontier West, but we found our own little treasure at the Bingham-Waggoner Estate. George Caleb Bingham was the artist who created the famous painting depicting the Order Number 11 that we had just learned about at the jail, and we wanted to see where this talented man lived.
The home itself gave us a unique glimpse into an era of 19th-century wealth in Independence. The restorations of the original furnishings and decor are meticulous, making it feel as if the family could have just stepped out of the room before we entered. Our guide walked us through the house, showing us where the original six-room house stood and how all of the additions were created to flow seamlessly into one beautiful estate. I especially liked seeing the progression from gas lighting and fireplaces to electricity and steam heating.
Across the street from the Bingham-Waggoner Estate is the National Frontier Trails Museum. Independence was a crucial hub in the 1800s, as scores of pioneers ventured into the American West. Five major trails are highlighted in the museum and showcase the rugged terrain and sometimes devastating hardships the travelers had to face on the Lewis and Clark Trail, Santa Fe Trail, Oregon Trail, California Trail and Mormon Trail.
The short film at the beginning of the tour was our first glimpse at life back then, with each exhibit further putting us into the shoes of the pioneers. The covered wagons brought to life for me the Little House books I was so fond of as a girl, and George was inspired by the explorers' trail diaries as they told of new discoveries, dangers and adventure. We ended our visit by examining the pioneers' tools and artifacts, fascinated by the glimpse back in time.
George and I walked back to our car with a new appreciation of the brave souls who risked it all on those trails for a better life out West. I had planned this trip for George, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I had learned along the way. I looked at George as we were about to turn onto the highway to head back home. "So, what's next on our bucket list?"
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