May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
It was a town where the trails started and the buck stopped. Home to a President and an outlaw, it made room for both.
As you drive in from Kansas City, Independence doesn’t look as if it has much to offer. The two-lane highway rolls away from the interstate in gentle waves, but the landscape is littered with fast-food restaurants and discount stores. It isn’t until you’ve reached downtown Independence that you notice the change. The neat blocks of glass-fronted two-story buildings, the streets that seem to trail off into the Missouri prairie, and the orderly calmness bring on a sudden sense of nostalgia. It’s as if you’ve returned to a time when life revolved around the town square, which, as it happens, is the case with Independence.
The center of town looks much as it did around the turn of the century, when Harry S. Truman worked at the local drugstore. Back before the Civil War this was the spot where wagon trains would line up for their westward departure; it was also the site of the area’s slave auctions. The square is dominated by the Jackson County Courthouse, built in 1836, and there you can visit the office where Truman made the transition from bankrupt haberdasher to public servant when he was elected county judge in 1922. According to legend, it was at the courthouse that he picked up from another local politician what later became his famous catchphrase about heat and kitchens.
Independence has a surprisingly rich history for a place with such a smalltown feel. Founded in 1827, it soon became known as the Queen City of the Trails because of the throngs of people who arrived to join westward wagon trains. The National Frontier Trails Center, about a mile from downtown, stands on the site of the trailhead for three of the overland routes most vital to the settlement of the West: the Santa Fe, the Oregon, and the California. A short film gives a good overview of the history of the overland trails, and a comprehensive collection of period artifacts makes it all the more immediate. The exhibits quote extensively from trail diaries, offering modern visitors a chance to relive the arduous journey west through the words of those who made the trip.
Not everyone who went to Independence intended to keep moving. The founder of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith, arrived in 1831 while proselytizing in the Midwest. He declared the town the new promised land and selected a spot that is today known as the Temple Lot as the site of a new church. His followers began migrating to the area in such numbers that by 1833 the local residents were beginning to resent their presence, forcing them to relocate just north of Independence and then burning their homes. In 1838 Missouri’s governor, Lilburn Boggs, issued his “Extermination Order,” mandating that Mormons be driven from the state or killed.
Today a small memorial on the Temple Lot commemorates the moment when Smith declared this patch of Independence promised land. In fact, some followers of the church still believe that at the moment of the Apocalypse, Jesus Christ will appear simultaneously in Jerusalem and Independence. The church headquarters are certainly worth a visit. Helpful tour guides give you a quick history lesson, but the real interest lies in the building itself. It sits on the edge of town, rising three hundred feet above the lush Missouri plains, a polished silver-colored spiraling dome that looks almost like the top of a soft ice-cream cone.
Mormons were not the only source of controversy in Independence. The battle over slavery hit here with particular force. Under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Missouri was a slave state, but when Congress in 1854 decided to let Kansans vote on whether their state would be free or slave, many Missourians felt threatened. Pro-slavery forces rushed into Kansas from border towns like Independence to menace abolitionists and to elect a pro-slavery legislature. The 1859 Jail, Marshal’s Home and Museum, just off Independence Square, examines this grim chapter of Independence history. The brick compound has been restored to its Civil War-era appearance, when it housed abolitionist raiders (jayhawkers) from Kansas and occasionally an overzealous pro-slavery Missourian. During the Battle of Independence, in 1862, William Quantrill, who had already earned a name for himself leading raids into Kansas from Independence, stormed the prison and released all the Confederate prisoners in it.
After the war the jail mostly held petty criminals. Frank James, the brother of Jesse and erstwhile second-incommand of the by then defunct James Gang, who had also earned a reputation as a Border Ruffian, spent time at the jail in the winter of 1882–83 after turning himself in to authorities. His brother had been killed, and the popular press had gone from portraying the gang as folk heroes to calling them hardened criminals. Frank James turned in his gun belt, saying, “I’m handing you something no other man has touched in twenty years.” His cell has been restored, and it looks quite cozy, with a rug on the floor, a quilt on the bed, and a sampler on the wall that reads, “God is our Refuge and Strength.”
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.