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Missouri Theatre St Jo
The beautifully restored Missouri Theater, owned by the City of St. Joseph, is rented to arts organizations as a performance venue as well as to the public.
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Courtesy of the Missouri Department of Tourism
Patee House St Jo
The 151-year-old Patee House has a rich history that includes the Civil War, the Pony Express, and the Jesse James Gang.
Fear and Loafing in St. Joseph
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.
A block away sits the Fire Museum in St. Joseph Fire Station #5. Okay, there wasn’t anything really scary about the museum, until you start thinking about the stories this old WPA building could tell, adding a new tale of terror every time the doors opened, and the old LaFrance pumper’s siren would scream toward another distress call.
I walked up the hill to the Patee House, possibly the best museum ever. Surrounding the centerpiece 1860 Hannibal & St. Joseph locomotive, thousands of artifacts depict every aspect of life over the hotel’s 151-year history. At the beginning of the Civil War, the Union tried the hotel’s owner for treason and convicted him. The trial was held in his own ballroom.
Later, it was called the World’s Hotel and Epileptic Sanitarium when the widow of America’s most notorious outlaw was interviewed there, a block from the spot where Robert Ford’s bullet had lodged on the previous day.
Oh, and it served as the headquarters for the Pony Express. The museum has a sense of humor, poking fun at itself with a game you can play called “What’s Wrong With This Display?” Hint: The old covered wagon bears a Missouri license plate. But chuckles turned to shivers when I entered the St. Jo police exhibit and saw a century’s worth of actual murder weapons, including a drill with hair and skin still wrapped around it. Yikes.
The museums were just warming me up for the big scare. Next door to Patee is a little house where Dingus, alias Mr. Howard, alias Jesse James, died. Dingus is his nickname, although brother Frank probably was one of the few to call him that to his face. Among the displays of exhumations and bullet holes in walls and heads, one small exhibit gives insight into the madness of the James Gang.
In a frame on the living room wall, a tiny patch of the room’s original wallpaper may reveal the single-most scary background since The Pit & the Pendulum. I believe those ugly walls pushed Robert Ford over the edge to murder his host. Some St. Jo folks believe the only shot more unsettling than Ford’s bullet was a recent movie about the murder ... produced by a Missourian but shot in Canada! It appears the producer had the same motive as the original James Gang: money.
By this time, walking toward downtown, I peeked into the Society of Memories Doll Museum, expecting to get a good boo from Chucky. More than six hundred dolls line the walls. But no Chucky. Down the hill, a Vietnam-era helicopter stands guard outside the National Military Heritage Museum. The museum saved the building in which it sits—the old jail—from the scary fate of the wrecking ball. In my humble view, it’s time for patriots to pay the museum back. Like all museums everywhere, the National Military Heritage Museum would benefit from the generosity of red-blooded American greenbacks.
Easier said than done, I suppose. Fact is, that’s the scariest thing about St. Joseph. There are more historic buildings in downtown St. Jo than Rome, I do believe. Many are abandoned. The good news is that they’re still standing. Some get a facelift. Up the hill from the stunningly restored Moorish architecture of the old Missouri Theater, the Tootle Mansion shed decades of shrouds to reveal the original beauty of its parquet floors, ornate fixtures, and elaborate ceilings. Within it, there are exhibits on natural history and, of course, Jesse James. True to the 2.2 billion legends of his exploits, that man was everywhere.
I drove down Frederick Boulevard to the second cluster of museums. On my first stop, an old familiar face surprised me. Oh, I see him every time I fish a dollar from my pocket. But this time, big as life, he gazed at me from Rembrandt Peale’s canvas. The father of our country sits in goodcompany at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, along with canvases by Mary Cassatt, Albert Bierstadt, and Wayne Thiebaud. Hopper. Stuart. Wyeth.
In a front room of this magnificent mansion museum, visages penned by Thomas Hart Benton peer from the walls. But in a side gallery I was greeted by a sight scarier than Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgment. Glaring at me with a stare summoned from his vengeful God was John Brown, the stridently violent abolitionist. The tornadic portrait instilled a fear that would only be crowned by a succession of displays at my next stop.
In the Black Archives Museum down the street, I was horrified by the graphic story of a lynching in downtown St. Joseph. Back in 1933, a crowd of thousands watched as a mob laid siege to the jail for hours, finally dragging young Lloyd Warner out where they beat, hanged, and burned him. He had been accused of rape. Many people maintain his innocence. Regardless, it’s a horrific chapter in the town’s history.
To the museum’s credit, it doesn’t hold back or whitewash the display. (The Patee House museum also recounts this story.) Newspaper accounts and photos detail the gruesome event. The presentation overwhelms other great exhibits in the Black Archives, such as the Mathew Brady photographs of Abraham Lincoln and his generals on Civil War battlefields.
Next door in the St. Joseph Museum, I was grateful to see the amazing sophistication of American Indian cultures, but saddened that for the most part, native art and inventionare relegated to displays. What did I expect? The Sac and Fox, Algonquin, and Osage peoples no longer roam the Missouri Plains. But no unsettling emotion compared to the final stop on my self-guided tour.
The Glore Psychiatric Museum is America’s most straightforward presentation of the relics of past treatment of the mentally ill. At once disturbing and enlightening, the museum probes the dark recesses of imagination. The first thing I saw set the mood: 1,446 items swallowed by a patient, including nails and screws, bolts and bobby pins, and thimbles. Yes, the patient eventually died of his self-inflicted torment.
Down the hall is a human treadmill resembling a giant gerbil wheel made of wood, with no windows. Near the tranquilizer chair was a revolving swing, a box that swiveled up to one hundred revolutions per minute, causing anxiety and vertigo, not to mention release of bodily fluids. One after another, the displays showed evidence of man’s inhumanity to man: a pillory and several coffin-like cages with names like the Utica crib and the lunatic box. There’s even a boob tube version of a message in a bottle: 525 notes scribbled secretly and stuffed into the back of a television set by a resident who believed his mind was trapped in a pair of boxcars outside.
The Glore sits in a real-life setting, the former State Lunatic Asylum No. 2. Its rooms are stark, cold, and clinical, its doors reinforced, foreboding. The basement morgue peels away your defenses that this is just a representation. This stuff is real.
I asked Kathy Reno about the future of the Glore. She’s the public relations person for Saint Joseph Museums, Inc., the guts behind the Glore and three sister museums.
“We’ve heard from several museum consultants,” she said. “Some suggest cosmetic face-lifts, like, ‘Turn the entrance into a walk inside the brain.’ ”
Then I asked her, “What’s the most unique response you’ve heard from visitors to the Glore?”
She thought for a moment. “One lady said, ‘Why didn’t the doctors try these methods on themselves?’ ”
For more information, call 800-530-8866 or visit www.stjosephmuseum.org.
3406 Frederick Avenue, St. Joseph, Missouri 64508 View Map
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.