Fear and Loafing in St. Joseph
Open Monday through Saturday 10 am - 5pm and Sunday 1 - 5 pm. The museum is closed New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Day, President's Day, Easter Sunday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year's Eve.
My progress stopped abruptly. A bridge was out, closed for repairs.
Backtracking to pick a detour, I smacked into a torrential downpour. My car skidded through a curve, but we stayed on the pavement. I spent an hour compensating for two wrong turns, and by the time I rejoined my intended route, daylight yielded to dusk, then to darkness. I could only catch strobe-like glimpses of my surroundings through flashes of lightning. It was a rough day, driving the back roads of north Missouri.
I retreated toward my bed for the night, still hours away. With every passing neon diner sign, my chances dwindled for a sit-down dinner. I pressed on toward St. Joseph, reaching town before midnight.Thunderstorms raged around me as my car pointed up a steep hill, the kind of incline that’s unavoidable in river towns. Ahead of me, backlit by lightning strikes, sat my destination, the mansion atop Museum Hill.
Beth Courter loves her work. And it shows in every corner, every comfort of the Museum Hill Bed & Breakfast. She and her husband, John, pour heart and soul—not to mention mucho dinero—into this house. John is a retired navy chef with a moniker right out of Hollywood: Cookie Courter. Late as it was, Beth showed me the house and fed me leftovers that easily eclipsed anything I would have found under a neon sign. We talked late into the night about the history in this town and the challenges. “Tomorrow, you’ll see scores of wonderful old homes in these surrounding neighborhoods,” she promised.
She wasn’t exaggerating. I came to town with the goal of visiting eleven museums. Next morning, early in my wandering, I realized that the entirety of old St. Jo is a museum. I got my exercise following the walking tours around the historic districts of Museum Hill, and Robidoux Hill and Hall Street. The homes shout their character. Italianate delights stand next to gingerbread Queen Annes, Greek revivals, and federal revivals. Victorian eclectics provide a bridge to a Golden Age when St. Jo fed the insatiable hunger of westward expansion.
Some homes revel in their restoration. Others stand waiting, in peril of the capital punishment that comes from years of neglect. It’s a scary prospect for these old neighborhoods, their individual treasures standing together like teeth, some strong, some gone. And the tweeners beg for salvation.
The museums awaited with an unexpected surprise. A theme emerged as I visited each successive gallery. One by one, the museums unfolded like a celluloid suspense thriller, ratcheting up a tension that eventually exploded in outright fear.
Think I’m kidding?
Come along for the ride.
The arrow smashed into his jaw, knocking out five teeth. He kept riding. It was his second wound delivered from his pursuers. He had jerked the first arrow out of his shoulder and kept riding. Now Pony Bob’s mouth had an extra opening, and his shoulder was in pain. But he was young—a teenager—and his horse was fast. He rode for the Pony Express.
Hey, this job wasn’t as romantic as I thought.
Cindy Daffron, curator of the Pony Express Museum, smiled as I shook my head. Probably couldn’t find many people today who would work in those conditions. Pony Bob’s ride happened a little more than 150 years ago. I walked outside and saluted an old friend clinging to a galloping horse stuck atop a 10-foot pole. A giant neon arrow underscores his horse’s hooves and aims at the museum stables.
Appropriate, I thought. It’s the Pony Express Motel neon sign, lovingly transplanted to the museum’s parking lot. Years ago, in one of my first jobs—conducting surveys for the highway department—I stayed many nights bathed in the glow of that old sign.