Courtesy Independence Tourism
“GIVE ME THE ELVIS.”
I hadn’t expected to encounter food fit for the King, within a wedge shot of so much history. But that’s what makes the journey so rewarding.
Earlier in the day, I had left Lamar hungry. Harry Truman’s birthplace is a wonderfully preserved little home on the prairie, but my lunch quest was for some place Truman may have dined, rather than where he lived in his first year of life.
Two hours later, I stood in a kitchen that’s a fitting tribute to its former owner. As a young adult, Harry spent nine years managing the Truman farm outside Grandview. Even though the current cooking area was added after Truman left the farm, the old cookstove stands as a reminder to visitors,
“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
Nevermind that Harry probably didn’t originate that quip; he made it famous. On this farm, Harry used some of the cooking skills his mother taught him to feed farmhands who worked the six hundred acres of backbreaking toil on the edge of the railroad tracks that snaked from nearby Grandview all the way to Kansas City. This was his second tour of duty on the farm. First time around, his mother encouraged his discovery of the world around him.
This time around, his mother credits the farm as the place “where he got all his common sense.” He was Grandview’s postmaster, he established Grandview’s Masonic Lodge, and he’d hold Saturday evening jam sessions on the front porch.
Locals didn’t think he’d survive as a farmer. His culinary skills never transformed his slight frame into a lumberjack’s build, but that didn’t stop him from hard labor. He couldn’t see particularly well either, but that didn’t stop him from reading voraciously.
There’s a pattern here. During his farming years, he overcame his shyness to court a young lady from Independence. He’d often hop the Frisco to Kansas City’s Union Station, where he’d take the streetcar to Independence. I’m only mildly resentful that I can’t retrace that rail journey. The Belton Grandview and Kansas City Railroad offers a nostalgic ride on the same Frisco line, albeit for only six miles. The $8.50 to $9.50 fare is probably at least a dozen times what Truman paid for his entire trip to Independence.
Bess Wallace liked Harry, but her folks didn’t think much of the relationship. After all, she was a Wallace, born to wealth and class. And he was a farmer. But that didn’t deter Harry.
There’s a pattern here. So I found myself in Independence, too, ready to retrace some of his steps in and around these old neighborhoods. But first I finished my Elvis, a peanut butter sandwich slathered with marshmallow crème and bolstered with bacon and bananas, served on grilled whole wheat.
It’s a big seller at Clinton’s Soda Fountain on the Independence square, although young Harry never sold one at his first job at what was then called Clinton’s Drug Store.
“Where’s the Harry Truman?” I asked my server across the counter. She pointed to the menu on the wall. “Right there: The chocolate sundae with butterscotch.” I had one, in due course. Thus fortified with the favorites of the King and the leader of the free world, I set out to scratch the surface of this historic town.
Crisscrossing downtown, my guide must’ve run a dozen stop signs, smiling broadly as he crossed each intersection. “The mules are immune” to things like stop signs and traffic tickets, my guide told me as he held the covered wagon’s reins to Harry and Ed, named for two partners in a haberdashery.
Ralph Goldsmith was born for this job. He looks like he could be a member of the Cole Younger gang, whose ranks lived in this area, or maybe a wagon master among the millions of people who launched from here on the perilous journey to the western frontier. Ralph’s been guiding this tour long enough that the mules probably could haul the wagon along the tour without him, but it wouldn’t be the same.
The thirty-minute wagon tour, a bargain at fifty cents a minute, sets the scene for digging deeper into the many layers of history preserved in Independence. As Ralph talked about the pioneers and the Mormons and Truman and Frank James and the origin of Bill
Hickok’s “Wild” nickname, we rode in the very ruts—swales, they’re called—formed by tens of thousands of wagons headed west.
With a firm foundation in tales about the town, I thanked Ralph Goldsmith and set out on a path of discovery. The Bingham Waggoner Estate is almost perfectly preserved, a peek into nineteenth-century opulence.
The home is rare in that almost all of the original furnishings are still inside and intact. The kitchen has a window that opens into a phone booth-sized room, where the cold butler opens a door to get perishables from the walk-in ice box.
On the courthouse square, Truman shares the grounds with the county’s namesake, Andrew Jackson. There are more Jackson Counties than there are rabbits, or zucchinis. This Jackson County has a wild history, most of it missed by Old Hickory, who sits slim and grim on a horse on the west side of the courthouse; Harry’s statue walks from the east.
As Ralph pointed out, Harry’s not wearing a hat. That’s something locals wouldn’t be accustomed to seeing outside, and locals saw a lot of Harry. They saw him across the street during the centennial year of the old 1859 jail, its future looking squarely into a wrecking ball. Truman helped save the structure, raising money and getting the building on the National Register of Historic Places.
The jail’s most infamous resident was so popular among townsfolk that the jailer never locked his cell. He was wanted for robbery and murder, but in 1882 when Frank James turned himself in to Governor Crittenden and rode the train from Jefferson City to Independence, the arrival was more like a homecoming than a surrender. For six months, inmate James came and went as he pleased, before he was shipped off to trial—and acquitted—at Gallatin.
During his post-presidency, locals saw Truman almost every day, often during his legendary walks from his house. What a house. By the dumb luck I liken to winning the lottery, I melded into a media tour at the moment of the house’s reopening, after it had been closed for months of extensive rehab. My fortunate timing, aided by Janeen Aggen, Independence’s public relations expert extraordinaire who steers media types, afforded me a behind-the-scenes look at crannies in the fourteen room Victorian home even Independence natives haven’t seen—the attic, the basement, the bedrooms upstairs.
The National Park Service, with very urgent reasons to be a leader in conservation techniques, poured its heart into rehabbing this house. I saw four floors of expert stabilization in a home menaced by age, and the fact that most of the Trumans’ belongings still sit where Harry and Bess left them, right down to Mr. Truman’s overcoat, hat, and cane in an alcove. In the parlor, Bess’s official First Lady portrait watches over the Steinway piano. When officials asked for the portrait to return to the White House, they promised a copy for the Truman home. Bess and Harry had another idea: The copy hangs in Washington.
The kitchen is farmhouse-functional. On the back porch, two common aluminum lawn chairs with vinyl seats sit lonely for their owners. The warmest room in the house is the library, where Harry surrounded his recliner with piles of books, themselves surrounded by shelves of books. Harry read them all.
There’s a bigger Truman library just over the hill. The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum is comprehensive. It’s inspirational. And unlike other presidential libraries, this one was his working office, where he spent hours nearly every day until his health declined. He and Bess, and now daughter Margaret and her husband, Clifton Daniel, are buried in the courtyard, in view of Harry’s office window.
A walk through the museum brings history alive. One cold passageway greets visitors with the gray desperation of Berliners, broken and starving, in the winter after World War II. In another wing of the museum, I found myself in the position of first Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington as the White House launched the Berlin Airlift. The library’s White House Decision Center allows scheduled groups to assume the realistic roles of Truman advisors—and the president—using copies of the real documents associated with one of four scenarios: the desegregation of the armed forces, the invasion of South Korea, the end of the war with Japan, or the blockade of Berlin.
Library director Mike Devine says, “People have to work together when they come to the White House Decision Center, and this will help an organization’s staff or membership get to know one another and work together better.”
Indeed. In a special exhibit, Memories of Korea takes center stage through the rest of this year. Timely. And yes, it includes nasty letters from supporters of General Douglas MacArthur, who was fired by Truman for insubordination. That heat didn’t drive Truman from his kitchen. He told advisors, “The truth is all I want for history.”
The Truman Library deserves two days of discovery ... maybe a week, so does the whole town of Independence, with the National Frontier Trails Museum, the Mormon Visitors Center, a wonderful old restored Chicago& Alton Railroad Station, and a stop at Dixon’s Famous Chili, “the oldest continuously operated family-owned restaurant in Kansas City.”
My head swimming with Trumanity, something persuaded me to motor up Route 291 and across Route H to Excelsior Springs and the soothing waters of the Elms Hotel.