A getaway to Independence, MO provides a glimpse at history
By Jackie Tucker
“I feel like a kid again,” my husband, Harold, piped up from the passenger seat as he flipped through a book about the Gold Rush. We were driving to Independence, MO, as part of a birthday trip I’d planned for him, and the book was one of his gifts. We both love history, and Independence is chock full of it. It’s the home of Harry Truman, the Vaile Mansion and the 1859 Jail, to name a few sites.
But Harold and I have a particular fascination with the courageous pioneers who headed west in the 1800s. So, I thought a summer trip to Independence, where we could learn more about pioneer trails, would be a perfect birthday getaway.
Stepping into the past
We pulled into Independence, and like all good history buffs, headed right for the historic 1827 Log Courthouse. Harold had done some research and told me as we were walking in that for more than 40 years, this was the only courthouse between Independence and the Pacific Ocean. I started to imagine the things these walls would’ve heard, but I didn’t have to imagine for long. The 1800s town residents were gathered together in the courthouse discussing pioneer life and all the community’s hardships. How exciting to see the things we had just learned about being played out right in front of us!
At nearby Independence Square, the flashbacks continued. We spotted a covered wagon. People dressed in 19th century garb milled around town. And folk music filled the air with the sounds of harmonicas and fiddles. Harold and I had arrived to Independence’s Pioneering People, A Path to Progress experience, and we couldn’t wait to get started.
We walked near the Truman Statue and met townspeople from 1849. That was the year that Independence was founded, so Harold played along and asked them about what it was like living in the area back then. We were delighted by their tales of travelers passing through before setting off on their journeys westward. Without breaking character, they asked us to join them on the wagon ride west. We happily obliged, climbing into the covered wagon as it took a spin around the square. It was our chance to really immerse ourselves and see first-hand what it would have felt like more than 150 years ago.
I smiled at a young girl with pigtails sitting across from me, and I’m sure my face glowed with as much joy as hers.
National Frontier Trails Museum
The wagon ride took us to the National Frontier Trails Museum. Independence played a major role in the 1800s as many brave pioneers set out from the town headed for the American West to seek a better life. Five major trails are highlighted in the museum and showcase the rugged terrain and sometimes devastating hardships the travelers had to face on the Lewis and Clark Trail, Santa Fe Trail, Oregon Trail, California Trail and Mormon Trail.
The wagon ride had really set the mood and helped us retrace the steps of the pioneers. And the short film at the beginning of the museum tour, along with the interpretive exhibits, put things into an even clearer perspective. The explorers’ trail diaries brought the past to life for me similar to how the Little House books I was so fond of as a girl did, and Harold was inspired by the stories of new discoveries, dangers and adventure. After taking our time wandering through the exhibits and examining the pioneers’ tools and artifacts, it was easier to imagine what it would have been like to travel not only across town, but across half a country in a covered wagon. What a sense of adventure those pioneers had!
Bingham Waggoner Estate
Right across the street from the museum was another must-see on the list for both Harold and I: The Bingham Waggoner Estate. Early on, before any real roads were created, the estate grounds were thought of as a kind of short-cut, and eventually became part of the Santa Fe Trail. So, we were excited to literally walk in the footsteps of so many of those brave pioneers. Funnily enough, the Waggoner Gates Milling company, owned by the family who also owned the estate, was housed in the building that we had just toured, the National Frontier Trails Museum.
The house itself is beautifully preserved with nearly 95% of its furnishings original to the house—a perfect blend of history and romance. Walking through, I was so taken with the docents and their wealth of information. Their stories truly brought to life the experiences of the wealthier 1890s residents, and it was fun to see how the “other half” lived during this time.
We also learned about the most famous former resident of the Bingham Waggoner Estate, painter George Caleb Bingham. Outraged by a Civil War directive, Bingham created his famous painting, Order No. 11, as a protest against the same-named directive, which forced the evacuation of civilians in Western Missouri regardless of whether they were pro-North or pro-South. Bingham’s work remains an important example of political dissent.
After the tour, Harold and I took a stroll along a pathway on the grounds that led to an area where you could still see the trail swales, or wagon ruts, made by all those wagons that passed through. I looked at Harold and could tell he was thinking of those families and their adventures as the end of our own adventure drew near.
“How do you think they celebrated birthdays along the trail?” I asked with a grin. “Do you think they had birthday cake?”
“Probably not,” Harold said, laughing. “It would have been a little bit tough without an oven!”
I nodded my agreement. “Happy birthday, sweetheart,” I said as we got back into the car. “Have you enjoyed the trip?”
“You bet,” he replied. “I think we need to start planning a westward adventure of our own,” he added.
“As long as we don’t have to ride all that way in a covered wagon.” I grinned and adjusted the air conditioning.
Explore more pioneer heritage in Independence, MO.