ways to connect
past with present in Independence, Missouri
Article and Photos by Christine Tibbetts
(unless otherwise noted)
Off they went from
Independence, Missouri in 1845, heading west, and I imagined myself
going along, blazing a trail west from Independence, Missouri.
My journey? A holiday next door
to Kansas City.
For 250,000 people, those 170
or so years ago, seeking a new life was the plan. Pioneers and gold
seekers. Missionaries and Mormons.
|Kids studying the mural at National
Frontier Trails Museum
Credit Independence Tourism
I learned that and more in the
National Frontier Trails Museum
where curator and administrator David Aamodt bubbles over with facts
and admiration for the people equipping wagons and themselves for
900 miles on the Santa Fe Trail, or 2,000 miles on the Oregon Trail.
Detours too for gold seekers
forging the California Trail.
“Maybe 400,000 people headed
west from Independence,” Aamodt suggests. “A numbered list? Hardly.
They just went—didn’t have to declare anything to anyone.”
Bustling 1840s frontier city then, devoted to western
departures. Middle of America destination now, offering context to
history, enthusiasm for historic preservation and plenty of culinary
|Unique sign at Ophelia's
restaurant on the Square
Contrast too. Stay in a stylish
Ophelia’s on the downtown
square and in the morning, after a sumptuous breakfast, hop on a
covered wagon drawn by mules.
Start that narrated ride in
front of the 1859 Jail where legendary bank robber Frank James
stayed in 1882, around the corner from Clinton’s Drug Store where
Harry S. Truman earned $3.00 a week sweeping the floor. Age 13 and
his first job.
That’s how I found Independence
non-stop for two days: familiar history enriched by enthusiastic
historians—scholars and hobbyists, passionate advocates and
delighted local residents.
I expected a simple side trip
with Kansas City my real vacation. I discovered a wealth of
Curious isn’t it? Thousands came to Independence to leave
and I discovered abundance for staying.
Harry Truman weaves in and out
of everything because he was a walker, and Independence his
|The Truman Presidential Library
You could start with a visit to
the home he and Bess loved, or to the
Presidential Library and Museum,
but I’d recommend the
Frontier Trails Museum
Get a perspective here. This is
not a story of immigration and settling; people transported their
life’s possessions to Independence to move onward.
reality-of-it-all exhibit in the Trails Museum: heirlooms families
held on to along the Allegheny Trail, jettisoned on the Oregon Trail
when harsh conditions forced load lightening.
I choked in front of the
abandoned tall clock in the museum, knowing how dear my
grandfather’s clock is to me, easily moved in a truck from New
Take a moment, or more, next
door because the
Chicago & Alton 1879 Depot
tells interesting stories, and the restoration and furnishings are
Were some railroad depots
classier than others in their hey days? Apparently so considering
the design details in this two-story yellow and green depot master’s
home, office and train-waiting rooms.
Connections to history happen all around
Independence. On the same block as my stylish overnight Inn, I
boarded Ralph Goldsmith’s mule-drawn covered wagon to hear trail
is on the corner of Main and Maple and the covered wagon crosses
Liberty Street where western pioneers crossed too.
Startling opportunity to
reflect about the vast differences of their life journeys, and my
|Wagonmaster Ralph Goldsmith Credit Independence Tourism
Wagon master Goldsmith is a
fine storyteller, clearly delighting in the details of the
Independence era when 24,000 mules and horses needed new shoes to
Retrace his Missouri mules’
steps to return on your own to the
Bingham Waggoner Estate where docents say 95 percent
of the furnishings, chandeliers, art and carpets are original.
How often is that ever the case
when you visit historic preservations? Elegant and ornate these
rooms, master millwork, four-foot long Swiss music box, rare Currier
and Ives clock, handcrafted mantles and tile for all the fireplaces.
The home depicts the Victorian
opulence of the wealthy Queen of the Pantry flour-milling Waggoner
Genre artist and politician George Caleb Bingham lived here from 1864-1870 when
he painted “Order No. 11” protesting displacement of 20,000 area
residents by government troops and declaring, “Injustice does not
always pass unnoticed.”
|The art of genre artist
George Caleb Bingham
The home was built in 1852
along the Santa Fe Trail. Stroll a quarter mile along wagon paths
where swales are undisturbed.
Leila’s Hair Museum on a busy Independence thoroughfare named
South Noland connected me to family records of western-heading
families.Talk about an unlikely location for a stellar
experience. Leila Cahoon is a teacher of hairdressing students---
and artisans of the ancient art of human hair weaving.
Her hairdressing school is 53
years old and she traces to the 15th century “the art of creating
wreaths and jewelry from human hair.”
They are complicated art and
meaningful family records. “I’ve identified 30 techniques and
of them,” Leila says, “all by carefully taking apart hair designs
and building them back.
As the only hair museum in the
world, she says, preserving and teaching these techniques is vitally
Leila’s collection includes 500
human hair wreaths, and cases full of intricately shaped hair
brooches, chains, watchbands, earrings and neckpieces.
Some framed hair designs are
horseshoe shaped; Leila says that’s so families could add to them as
the family grew. I counted 86 names on one and 156 names on tiny
bits of paper pinned to bits of artfully placed hair on another.
Others include carefully
lettered identifications---whose hair with a birth date, and
sometimes a death.
“Genealogy before the camera
was invented,” she says.
A handsome hair wreath hangs in
the Second Empire home known in Independence as the
Credit Independence Tourism Department
Thirty one rooms enjoyed by
Sophia and Harvey Vaile, moving to Missouri from New York and
amassing more than 2,000 acres. He founded the Star Mail routes,
contracting with the U. S. government to deliver mail between
Independence and Santa Fe.Thirty one rooms enjoyed by Sophia and
Harvey Vaile, moving to Missouri from New York and amassing more
than 2,000 acres. He founded the Star Mail routes, contracting with
the U. S. government to deliver mail between Independence and Santa
The home is included in
National Geographic’s Guide to America’s Great Homes.
Family furnishings were sold at
auction after he died in 1894 so period pieces and reproductions
have been gathered since the city acquired the house in 1984 and the
Vaile Victorian Society embraced its care.
Second Empire is the Vaile
Mansion’s French Revival style and simply entering the massive front
door framed with 10-foot windows to the vestibule with 13-foot
ceiling could be tour enough.
|Community of Christ Church skyline
Stay longer for four more big experiences
You’ll need two more days to
experience President Truman’s home and library, half a dozen fine
restaurants, the faith explorations possible at the Community of
Christ Temple and Latter Day Saints Visitor Center.
| Puppetry Arts Institute
Save an hour or two for sheer
delight at the Puppetry Arts Institute in the Englewood
For more info:o:
Ophelia’s Restaurant & Inn
Frontier Trails Museum
Bingham Waggoner Estate
Pioneer Trails Adventures
Lelia's Hair Museum