By Steve Bergsman
Independence, Missouri, is a pretty little place about 10 miles from Kansas City. With its town square and turn-of-the-20th-century buildings, it harkens back to a quieter time in American history.
Indeed, Independence is the kind of place a lot of people — such as Bess Wallace — don't want to leave. Her family had owned the local flour mill, were prosperous and were respected members of the town's oligarchy. Then she married a local up-and-comer named Harry Truman, whose gradual ever-more-successful political career took him to Washington, D.C., first as a senator, then vice president and with the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, president of the country.
Even with all that success, Bess yearned to come back to Independence, and when Harry Truman's last term as president ended with the election of Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, Bess and Harry returned to Independence to reside in the home that belonged to her mother and father. Although Bess had lived in that house all her life except for her Washington, D.C., years, the Trumans never owned the property until 1952.
To visit Independence today is to high-dive into the Truman legacy, which is looking increasing brilliant as the years speed past his time in the Oval Office. And since he was an Independence-centered citizen like his wife, this town celebrates with all things Truman.
However, as placid as Independence might be today, this is a town with a roaring past, and the person who would love to tell you all about the days of yore is local eccentric and entrepreneur Ralph Goldsmith, who runs Pioneer Trails Adventure, a covered-wagon tour of Independence.
Goldsmith, who looks old-timey and cowboyish, hooks up a couple of his favorite mules to his tour wagon and takes visitors on a journey back in time, when the place was overrun by pioneers heading west, when feuding Missourians and Jayhawks killed each in the name of slavery or abolition (a kind of run-up to the Civil War), to the Civil War itself (Missouri had more Civil War battles than any state except Virginia), and when Quantrill's Raiders and Jesse James roamed the state. To hear Goldsmith tell it, we're lucky Independence made it into the 20th century.
Toward the end of the Pioneer Trails Adventure, Goldsmith will point out a house built along the wagon swales that began the Santa Fe Trail. The residence was once owned by one of the premier American artists of the mid 19th century, George Caleb Bingham, then later bought by the Waggoner family, owners of the local Waggoner-Gates Mill. Alas, there is only one original Bingham painting in the house, a portrait. (The best Caleb Bingham paintings in the region can be found in Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Art Museum.)
As interesting as the Bingham-Waggoner estate is, it is architecturally not the most significant house in Independence. That distinction belongs to the Vaile Mansion, one of the country's finest examples of Second Empire Victorian Architecture. Built in 1859 by Henry Vaile, the high brick structure of many gables boasts 112 windows. It's hard to say how Vaile made his fortune. A lawyer by trade, he invested in real estate, brought Herefords from England to Missouri for breeding, built a winery and had the license for the U.S. Mail routes throughout the west. He died in 1894, and it is said he never quite finished building out the house now called one of "America's Castles."
Despite all that, people come to Independence for the Harry Truman experience - and the small town is a great place to tap into the psyche of the surprising politician who became one of America's great presidents.
One first meets Truman in front of the Old Jackson County Courthouse. The large bronze of the 33rd president shows him formidable and in midstride, but it is not without some controversy. Some purists object to the statute because the president isn't wearing a fedora. President Truman was known to wear a hat everywhere except indoors.
Today Independence is a town touched by the president almost everwhere, from the time he was a teenager and worked as a soda jerk in a local store (the building still stands) to a failed haberdashery and then as a successful county judge. While you are downtown, stop in for lunch at Ophelia's, which overlooks the town square. You will need the sustenance for a long day.
The two most important Truman sites are the Truman Library and Museum and the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, a compound of buildings including the home of Harry and Bess Truman, which was their residence before and after the Truman presidency.
The museum and library are one of the best in the country, encompassing the full life and times of Truman, with a wealth of personal memorabilia and a well-laid-out history. The Oval Office of the Truman years has been re-created here; most poignant, however, are the gravesites (on the grounds) of Harry and Bess Truman and their daughter, Margaret.
Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, which is run by the National Park Service, includes the Truman home, the house where he began the courtship of Bess Wallace, and the residences of his in-laws, Frank and Natalie Wallace and George and May Wallace.
What is amazing about the Truman house is its simplicity — the house is more like a typical middle-class residence than a grand abode fit for a president. One thing I learned here was that Truman was the first U.S. president to own a television set, which was a big deal in the early 1950s. How times have changed.
WHEN YOU GO
Pioneer Trails Adventures, www.pioneertrailsadventures.com
Bingham- Waggoner Estate, www.bwestate.org
Vaile Mansion, www.vailemansion.org
Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, www.trumanlibrary.org
Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, www.nps.gov/hstr
I stayed at the Ameristar Casino Hotel, www.ameristar.com/kansas-city.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.