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.