Bingham's FootstepsThe County Election, Courtesy St. Louis Art Museum
By John Robinson
The fire consumed almost everything, including Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson, and the Father of our Country. Jefferson City was basking in an unusually warm 76-degree temperature on February 5, 1911, when an evening thunderstorm churned across town, sending lightning bolts into the capitol dome, the city’s centerpiece. Fire spread quickly, granting occupants only a few moments to grab treasures and escape the conflagration.
George Caleb Bingham’s portrait of Thomas Jefferson survived the firestorm that consumed Missouri’s capitol building. His portraits of Clay, Jackson, and George Washington perished. That may reflect the love for Jefferson in his namesake city. Or maybe it was the only painting Senator Michael Casey could reach on his way out the door.
Regardless, the story of the rescue of that Jefferson portrait kindled my interest in tracing Bingham’s steps, leading me on a lengthy journey with surprises around every corner.
It’s hard to keep up with George Caleb Bingham, even though I have a car and much better highways. You could start in a dozen cities to trace the trails of Bingham. My journey began in Columbia, where Bingham’s good friend Richard Henry Jesse named George the University of Missouri’s first art professor. Fitting, then, that on this campus, the State Historical Society of Missouri houses an Bingham collection, with 33 paintings, including the surviving Thomas Jefferson, and one of two versions of his most lasting political statement, Order No.11, depicting a Union move to banish Missourians from their homes in western Missouri during the Civil War.
From Columbia, I drove west, into the land where Bingham formed his first impressions. Unlike young George, who ferried across the Missouri River from his home at Franklin to a bustling Boonville, I drove across a modern span, complete with a walking and biking lane. The bridge may be modern, but downtown Boonville broadcasts its past like a living history channel. Here, Bingham got his start as a cabinetmaker, evolved into sign painting, then started painting portraits.
Retracing one of Bingham’s early trips to St. Louis, I was surprised to learn George would thumb a ride. Either unwilling or unable to pay for a stagecoach, he hitchhiked toward St. Louis along a trail that eventually would become Highway 40. He never made it to St. Louis, laid low somewhere along the way by a severe case of measles. For weeks, he barely survived in a rural shack, fed by a good Samaritan farmer. Measles made his hair fall out, and he wore a rug the rest of his life. When his fever subsided, he limped back to recuperate in Franklin. I turned around, too, stopping in historic Rocheport. I heard there was a big party there, when the Tyler party Whigs convened their state political convention in June 1840. According to Bingham biographer Lew Larkin, Rocheport was the spot where “A tall, Ichabod-like, 31-year-old named Abraham Lincoln gave a stirring speech that shaped Bingham’s political focus.” Bingham sketched many characters in the crowd, in various stages of speechifying and drunkenness over many days. He would use many of these characters in later genre paintings on politics.
There are at least three ways to access Rocheport: by river, by auto, or by cycle on the Katy Trail. Trail traffic has helped launch a resurgence at Rocheport, anchored by the School House Bed & Breakfast for the sleeper set and the Rocheport General Store for revelers. The general store purveys fun and food and some of the best blues on the river.
Back in Boonville, it’s a short drive—even shorter by river—to Arrow Rock, Bingham’s home after the 1829 flood washed Franklin away. From atop his house in Arrow Rock, Bingham could look across the river to the Boone brothers’ burgeoning salt business. The name of that business became the appellation for the whole region: Boonslick. Prevailing winds from the other direction may soon carry the unwelcome scent of manure from a barn containing thousands of hogs crammed together ham to ham. Folks in Arrow Rock—79 strong—are adamant that this tiny town, often called the “Williamsburg of the Midwest,” be spared the indignity of becoming known for stench.
The Arrow Rock Cemetery is where George Bingham buried his first wife and then his mother. A little further down Route TT, just around the corner from the beautifully restored Prairie Park plantation house, the Sappington Cemetery is the eternal resting ground for several of Bingham’s contemporaries. Buried there is physician John Sappington, a rare “outside-the-box” thinker who popularized quinine as a treatment for malaria. Nearby are the graves of his daughters and two sons-in-law, who became governors: the rotund Meredith Miles Marmaduke, who married one Sappington daughter; and wily Claiborne Fox Jackson, who married the other three. After Jackson outlived the first General by Governor Hardin. No idle general, Bingham ordered the Ripley County sheriff to quell Ku Klux Klan activities in the area. The sheriff balked, and Bingham swept down to Doniphan, staying several weeks until he oversaw the dispersal of the Klan. That’s not an easy task in rugged terrain where, with few exceptions, the back roads are the only roads.
Residents love Ripley’s remoteness. Especially the deer. Traveling along Route M, my car missed a 12-point buck by the hair on his bobtail when he jumped across the road. I hit the brakes and skidded. He dug as fast as he could go and polished my bumper. We both lived to remember the experience. Down the road, Route N thumbs its nose at wilderness with the loneliest four-way stop in Missouri. There, the highway bends sharply where two gravel roads intersect. Indeed, the road couldn’t have changed much since Bingham’s visit. It’s still in the middle of nowhere, but from four directions, cars must stop.
Anyway, the Ripley County sheriff probably knew he could count on Bingham to eradicate the bad guys. Just the year before, General Bingham traveled to Stone County to take on the Sons of Honor, a bunch of unbridled vigilantes. He brought those bald-knob terrorists to justice, with the help of death and taxes. One key ringleader, Jasper McKinney, died suddenly. And Bingham threatened to restore order by bringing in the state militia at taxpayer expense. Scared by higher taxes, the group disbanded.
Stone County’s history—and its roads—take travelers back in time. Route 413 undulates through ruggedness, along Railey Creek between Galena and Elsey. Ancient guardrails use wood from trees planted by Bingham, I suspect. A heavy wire threads through rounded wooden posts, squatty and silver. The guardrails guide the old roads through knobby beauty, cliffs, and precipices, punctuated by intriguing names like Secret Valley, Hooten Town, and my favorite school, Blue Eye High.
Following Bingham’s footsteps back through Jefferson City, I took the old Boonville Road, Bingham’s best route from the capitol back to his Boonslick home. It’s a delightful drive that sidles up to the Missouri River at Sandy Hook and Marion.
On the day before he succumbed to pneumonia, Bingham traveled from Arrow Rock back to Kansas City, where he had lived much of his life. He took the old Santa Fe Trail. Today that route goes through Marshall, to Grand Pass and Lexington, through the thematic villages of Napoleon, Waterloo, and Wellington. He passed for the last time through the territory of nemesis George Graham Vest, the author of “man’s best friend.” Even though they both loved dogs, Bingham disliked Vest for political reasons. Dogs? Bingham put a dog in every genre painting but one, The Jolly Flatboatmen. Asked why there’s no dog in that painting, Bingham replied, “He’s in the hold.”
Clever guy, that General Bingham. And whew, did he get around.