By Sarah Alban
Friends of the James Farm keep the grounds young.
Not all kids are glued to their cell phones. At the Jesse James Farm in Kearney, at least one embraces history by retracing Jesse’s steps on his old stomping grounds.
At the Black Powder Shoot last summer, thirteen-year-old Nathan Rozzel stepped up to a ten-pace line and pulled back the hammer on a .45 Long Colt Bisley, ready to take his shot. Forty others had gathered for the shoot sponsored by Friends of the James Farm. By paying a $20 contest fee, the Friends help preserve the home. Contributions go to Clay County, which bought the farm in 1978 and runs the daily upkeep. Friends, who ebb and flow in the hundreds, add charm to the farm. They restore artifacts such as Frank’s wife’s diploma. They bring Civil War historians on site to speak and promote research.
Vince Powers, a member, is an actual James relative. A recently discovered James cousin, Vince drove eight hundred miles from Texas to learn about his relatives. Just a year ago, Vince didn't even know about the Jameses.
That all changed after Vince used an online ancestry service, and he learned about his roots. Then he went to track them down. A Friends docent gave him a house tour for free, after which he veered off on the property to explore on his own, at one point knocking on the house as if to test its durability. Vince left no rock unturned in his quest to explore his roots.
Thirty-five years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible. Owned by descendants, the James Farm lay in disrepair.
“I can’t even describe how derelict it was,” former Friends President Christie Kennard says. “The roof had completely collapsed on the west side. There was a mildewy smell. Everything was overgrown. ”
In 1978, Clay County opened the house to tourists, many wondering how they could help. Thus began the Friends of the Jameses.
Despite being experts on the past, the Friends are unsure about the future.
“Most of us grew up knowing who Jesse James was,” says Kevin Mackel, Black Powder Shoot co-organizer. “But if you’re a video-game kid,” he trails off. “How do you reach that next generation?”
Nathan might know how. But he couldn’t be bothered. He was too busy shooting his gun under the sun, as Jesse had done, to ask.
This story originally ran in the February 2013 issue of Missouri Life. For more stories like this, subscribe to Missouri Life.