The lovely garden in the center of
Harry S Truman Museum
Some of the clichés about Kansas City are true. While there is no ‘yellow brick road’, little evidence of those sparkly red shoes or Dorothy and Toto, the fact is that “everything is indeed up to date in Kansas City”. This city in the “Show Me” State is so unexpectedly filled with history that I wanted to shout “Yes, Toto, we are in Kansas and I’m loving it.”
Why, I hear you ask, or is that a scream about my unlimited passion?
Well here are some of the facts. This city dates back to the late 1800s and straddles the border of Missouri (often pronounced Missoura by the locals) and the State of Kansas.
Once known for the stockyards, only second to Chicago, it acquired the moniker, Cow Town. Steak and ribs are still high on most menus. And one of the great and enduring evidence that this is a city with ‘chutzpah’ was their disregard in the early 1900s to adhere to prohibition. Naturally, KC boomed (KC as it’s referred to) and hence “dry” became very “wet” in this city and saw the proliferation of saloons, taverns and brothels which beckoned locals and visitors making this a first among ‘sin’ cities. And since clubs could stay open into the wee hours of the morning, jazz musicians gathered after their gigs ‘jammin’ the early morning hours away with clients who were able to obtain their booze, listen to their favorite music and as they say the rest is jazz history. This music scene is still one of the greatest in the USA. Renowned saxophonist, Charlie Parker, a native son, got his start here. Many made the move as did Walt Disney who brought his family to set up a home. Ernest Hemingway spend a lot of time in KC. Plus the fact that a very popular president is from the State – Harry S. Truman, giving credibility to Kansas’ uniqueness. The Halls of Hallmark Card fame continue to live here and have a major presence. It also has the great distinction of being second only to Rome, Italy as having the most fountains. There are 200.
The Blue Room, jazz club
A section of the Jazz Museum
It’s hard to imagine that so few of us know how many sights there are to see and visit. And depending on your stamina, there are days that could be filled just visiting museums and Art Deco buildings with some cultural events in the evening. And, of course, who wouldn’t want to try their trademark barbeques, onion rings and steaks? But let’s forget about our growling stomachs and go to more headier topics.
One essential visit is to The Harry S. Truman Library & Museum in Independence, Mo, which is just a few miles from the city centre (more of a suburb than another city). Here there are over 3 ½ million documents, important papers and letters from the 33rd president.
At first glance the building could easily have been a designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright with its horizontal shape and somewhat windowless design. But it was designed by architect Edward Neild, handpicked by Truman. Neild, unfortunately died before completion which was in 1957. Presumingly the final design would not be to the President’s liking since he is quoted as saying “It’s got too much of that fellow (Wright) in it to suit me”. One wonders how Mr. President would feel about the 2001 renovation with the extensive use of floor to ceiling windows in an area overlooking a lovely courtyard all overseen by a huge bronze of the smiling looking President.
Sitting on a hill overlooking a construction, my visit was an eye -opener seeing the now impressive skyline of sky scrapers. Amid these tall edifices is a soon to be complete The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts designed by Moshe Safdie .
Famous Kansas City ribs.
The glass walkway over the fields of poppies at
the WW 1 Museum
Truman’s museum entrance lobby has an expansive mural by Thomas Hart Benton which took over 3 years to complete. Impatient, Truman is said one day to have climbed a ladder and painted part of the sky in the upper right hand section.
Included in the museum is a splendid replica of the Oval Office. They are also two always filled interactive rooms on decision making if you held the president’s lofty position.
Independence, is where President Truman was born and at the end of his presidential term, where he and his wife Bess moved and lived with her parents . The salary for presidents at that time was meager and he left the White House with very little savings. The white shingled house is not of the size and importance one would expect today for a past president but it is stately. However, with the library/museum, Truman left a true gift to Americans.
Who hasn’t heard of the flamboyant train and bank robber, Jesse James, that desperado who was admired by some for his brazenness and despised by those he stole from. Although, a criminal, he was (and still is in some quarters) considered American’s Robin Hood since it is known that he helped save homes and farms and often paid taxes for widows , offering money to the less fortunate. Born in Kearney, Missouri in 1847,(again just a stone’s throw from KC) he died at 34. The Jesse James Farm and Museum is filled with mementos and the tour includes a walk through the log cabin which was eventually covered with wood shingles, the trend of the time. But there are sections in the older part that reveals the logs both inside and on the exterior.
President Harry S. Truman Museum
Jesse James’ home
The irony is that James’s father was a Baptist minister and Jesse was a religious man and considered to be a great father and husband to Zee, his cousin and wife. During his short but infamous life, he roamed many states for 15 years going from e.g. Nebraska and Iowa to the Dakotas to name a few, showing his and brother Frank’s ability to get in quickly, grab the cash or gold from trains and banks and disappear.
The 5thof nine children, James is noted as having performed the first successful peacetime daylight robbery which took place on February 13 1866 at the Clay County Savings Association (about 25 miles north east of Kansas City). Still a huge sum, he robbed the bank of almost $60,000. The bank and the huge safe which was too large to haul away, still stands as it was originally.
The end was unexpected. He died from a shot in the back of his head by his partner in crime, Bob Ford supposedly jealous of James’ fame.
The house is almost in the original shape. The older section has low ceilings, the wall paper is peeling but apparently “that’s how most visitors want it to stay”. In the parlor in the Eastlake Cottage addition added in 1935, the ceilings are higher, there’s a stove in front of a closet, a desk with some furniture from 1845. The kitchen again simple, had a very large fireplace. It’s here where the Pinkerton Raid (detectives from the Pinkerton Detective Agency trying to catch Jesse) took place killing his young half brother and severing his mother’s arm after throwing an explosive into the room. Two memorial plaques hang from the wall, one for Archie, the young sibling and the other for Jesse.
Although his body was moved to the town’s cemetery, there is a replica of the original headstone which can be seen from the bedroom window.
In 2007, Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck appeared in the movie, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Jesse James’ home
The original logs of the home of Jesse James
Another not to be missed museum is the Liberty Memorial -World War 1 Museum. Designed by Ralph Appelbaum, the architect who created the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., has the sensitivity that encompasses the theme. It’s an emotional experience that awaits the visitor and for those who fought in other wars or were war victims. This war museum probably brings back unsettling memories which still haunt. Here you’ll find a great collection of WW 1 artifacts. The impressive glass walkway entrance overlooks 9000 poppies which represents the 9 million who died in this war to end all wars. Also in the museum is Gary Cooper’s Oscar Award for his performance in, Sergeant York.
On a lighter note, Kansas is a city full of blues and jazz, there’s a throbbing American Jazz Museum at the legendary 18th Street & Vine Jazz District (this was the flourishing of the inner city neighborhood). Every aspect from the glitzy and sexy gowns that the legendary black female vocalists wore to the music men who made jammin’ a celebration. Every curved architectural structure and many niches hold a surprise -example is one for Ella. (Does she need her last name mentioned? Not in Kansas City or for anyone with the love of music). Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan are greatly honored as is Louis Armstrong et al. The background music as you go from one area to another, is so catchy that you find yourself snapping your fingers or tapping your toes. At a standing- room- only club off the main museum is, The Blue Room, a working jazz club and when I was there, performing were the excellent , TheKobe Watkins Quartet.
In the same complex is The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Bronze statues playing ball is only one of the great exhibits. There’s a case of autographed baseballs, an exhibit of The Golden Years and finally, black baseball players like Jackie Robinson and those who followed receive the respect and admiration long overdue.
So as the lyrics say, “Gotta find a friendly city, And that’s the reason why, I’m going to Kansas City.”