The Spirit Of Independence

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The James Gang had managed to avoid the law for years, according to the museum’s director, Joe KeIley, with the help of town residents who were frustrated by what they saw as Radical Republicanism run amok in the years after the Civil War. But by 1879 the gang’s luck was beginning to wear thin because, in Kelley’s words, “it was no longer a revolution anymore, but simply crime.”

For all its other charms, Independence is of course most closely associated with Harry S. Truman. He made so many references to his hometown and its practical Midwestern values that the press took to calling him “The Man from Independence.” Truman himself said, “I tried never to forget who I was and where I’d come from and where I was going back to,” and explained that because one day he would be out of office and back in Independence, he had to make sure he did his best and made his neighbors proud.

Truman was born in Lamar, in southern Missouri, and moved with his family to Independence in 1890, when he was six. Around then he met Bess Wallace, whom he married in 1919 after what was essentially a twentynine-year courtship. One of the nicest exhibits at the Truman Library, dedicated in 1957, is a display of some of the hundreds of letters Harry wrote to his beloved Bess over the years.

The library, which greets visitors with a Thomas Hart Benton mural titled Independence and the Opening of the West , is a fine starting point for learning about Truman the President, but his home at 219 North Delaware Street, the house where his wife grew up, offers intimate glimpses of his-life in Independence. “It seems like a hollow week,” Truman wrote to Bess Wallace in 1913, “if I don’t arrive at 219 North Delaware at least one day in it.” After their marriage they moved into the two-and-a-half-story structure, which Bess’s grandfather had built in 1867. By the time she died, in 1982, she had lived in the house for seventyeight years. Even when Truman was in the White House, she had rarely stayed away from 219 North Delaware for more than a few months at a time.

When Truman was courting her, the Wallace home was considered one of the finest mansions in Independence, though by today’s standards it looks rather plain. The bedrooms are not open to view, since she stipulated in her will that though the house was to be given to the public, her daughter, Margaret, must be permitted to spend the night whenever she chose. Still, you can stand on the porch where Truman pored over his newspaper and where, during his Presidency, he sought moments of solitude, and feel you are beginning to know the man who so dearly loved the simple pleasures of life. A piano stands in the parlor, along with a television that Truman refused to watch, preferring instead to read. The walls of his study are lined with books, and his worn blue reading chair looks as inviting today as it must have when he would snatch some free time there.

President or private citizen, Truman wanted his life in Independence to remain unchanged. Much to his chagrin, the Secret Service erected an iron fence around the lot in 1948 to protect the lawn from the increasingly large crowds that gathered to catch a glimpse of him at the “Summer White House.” Bess Truman, tired of having her flowers tramped upon, had no such objections. Still, the Trumans were disappointed when they moved home after his final term as President and their neighbors couldn’t bring themselves to treat them as regular folks. As one park ranger put it, “People wouldn’t just drop by anymore, and if they did come over, they were very formal and never stayed more than half an hour. They figured the former President had better things to do with his time. Harry didn’t see it that way, but there was nothing he could do to convince his guests of that.”

During the years between his return to Independence and his death in 1972, Truman’s daily routine included grabbing his hat, coat, and cane —his wife insisted after his death that they remain hanging where he’d left them—and walking the short mile to his library (he and Bess are buried on the library grounds). He was notorious among his Secret Servicemen for walking everywhere, and he especially enjoyed striding through town. A statue of him erected outside the Jackson County Courthouse after his death shows him moving purposefully forward, as if marching into history.

Truman so loved Independence that in 1971 he approved having the Department of the Interior make the twelve blocks around his home a National Historic District. As you stroll past the storefronts and through the quiet leafy neighborhoods, it’s not hard to understand why the place meant so much to him.

—Linda Barth TO PLAN A TRIP