Day 96/ June 2nd – Independence, MO to North Kansas City, MO: The Truman Show

“It is strange that so many of all kinds and classes of people should sell out comfortable homes in Missouri and elsewhere, pack up and start across such an immense, barren waste to settle in some new place of which they have at most so uncertain information, but this is the character of my countrymen.” – James Clyman, California emigrant, June 24th 1846

‘Two thousand miles of dirt and mud,’ intoned the voice. ‘Fifteen to twenty miles a day.  They endured burning sun and driving rain, and the tensions of close living quarters.  Five months to the Pacific…’

We were at the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, watching a scratchy documentary film and feeling even more than our usual affinity with the early American pioneers.  Granted, we haven’t had to deal with quite as much dirt and mud as they did, but then they didn’t have to eat at Arby’s or watch Fox News, so we’re probably about even.

In its heyday, Independence was nicknamed ‘The Queen City of the Trails’, and with good reason – it was at various times the starting-point for the Santa Fe, Oregon and California Trails.  It was the furthest point west on the Missouri that could be reached by steamboats, and thus an important trade centre in its own right, but its heyday came in the 1840s when it became the main outfitting centre and starting-point for emigrants on the Oregon Trail.  Later in the decade, it served the stampede of fortune-seekers who headed for California after gold was discovered there in 1848.

On the way into town this morning we had turned right onto Hardy Street, an anonymous suburban thoroughfare, but which represented for us, after 300 westward miles across Missouri, a swing to the north to continue following Lewis & Clark’s route up the Missouri River to Omaha.  We’ll be following the Oregon Trail from there across Nebraska, and the California Trail for more or less the whole of the 2,000 miles from Independence to the coast, so we had a vested interest in poking around the pleasant little museum for a couple of hours, trying to ignore the graphic accounts of starvation, thirst, exposure and death in the mountains and deserts that lay ahead of us.

Poster in Clinton's Soda Fountain in Independence, Missouri

Customer pins at Clinton's Soda Fountain

As we left the museum, we passed a boy of about eighteen, cutting the grass in a small park, standing by his mower and poking dejectedly with his foot at a few damp lumps of fur on the ground.

“It’s a little rabbit,” he announced to us sadly. “I try to avoid ‘em, really.  I feel terrible!”

In addition to its critical role in the pioneering westward migrations, Independence had a separate claim to historical fame, of which it seemed rather prouder.  We got our first taste of it this morning, walking through the suburbs, when we caught sight of a white car with ‘Independence Fire’ emblazoned on its side, above the slogan ‘We Protect Harry S. Truman’s Home Town’.  It’s hard to spend any time in Independence and avoid Truman.  His statue stood in front of the brick courthouse in the town’s handsome square, and we had lunch at Clinton’s Soda Fountain, where he had his first job (earning three dollars a week as a ‘soda jerk’), next door to a Forties and Fifties memorabilia shop called ‘Wild About Harry’.

Courthouse square in Independence, Missouri

The county courthouse, and Harry Truman, in Independence

We went to see the Truman Home, where he lived before and after his presidency, a solid clapboard Victorian house near the middle of town, of a type that an affluent doctor or lawyer might own.  There was a long screen porch at the back, with a view across the back yard to the Truman Garage, where his last car, a 1972 Chrysler, was still parked, slowly becoming one with the cement floor.  Inside, the house was a monument to the crushing dinginess of Sixties décor, all crepuscular living rooms and a tiny formica kitchen, but it did, at least, make Truman’s oft-professed small-town humility seem genuine.

The Truman Home in Independence, Missouri

Harry Truman's house in Independence

We were given an excellent tour by a smartly uniformed park ranger, who evidently venerated Truman as a kind of secular saint.

“That’s his coat, hanging right on the back of the door under the stairs.  End of the tour, you can touch it if you like.  Neat, huh?”

Truman had died in 1972, and the town had clearly had its eye on converting his house into a museum long before that.  His widow, Bess, clung on for ten more years, helpfully forbidding any changes to the house, before dying at the age of 97.  We got the strong sense that the curators had come in through the back door even as she was being wheeled out of the front.

“We hit the jackpot, I mean big time.  Everything – jewelry, clothing, furnishings, everything they had.”

The sum of our pooled knowledge of Truman before our visit was that he had unexpectedly succeeded FDR and then nuked Japan, but this did scant justice to a remarkable life and presidency.  He was born in 1884, and moved to Independence when he was six.  His father lost the family savings in bad investments, leaving Truman unable to afford college, so he went to work instead as a bank clerk and a farmer.  The humdrum direction of his life was changed by World War I, in which he served with sufficient distinction to win the hand of the previously immovable Bess and to move into politics with a successful run for district judge.

In his first few months as President, he declared victory in Europe and authorised the nuclear bombing of Japan, but later found time in his two terms to desegregate the armed forces, recognise Israel, begin the Berlin Airlift, help found the UN, establish the CIA, oversee the Marshall Plan and send troops into Korea.  In 1953, no doubt rather exhausted, he retired with Bess to Independence, to live out his life as an ordinary citizen, entirely without the modern hoopla of protection and security.  The older residents could still remember him ambling around town on his morning constitutional.

“I have had all of Washington I want,” he wrote, “and I prefer my life in Missouri.”

View from Independence to Kansas City

Looking west to Kansas City from Independence

One Response to “Day 96/ June 2nd – Independence, MO to North Kansas City, MO: The Truman Show”

  1. Days 100-101/ June 6th-7th – North Kansas City, MO to Plattsburg, MO: The Latter-Day Saint ‘Hood « The Walkover States Says:

    […] Truman may have loved his hometown of Independence, which we visited last week, but not nearly as much as the early Mormons did.  They believed it was Zion, where Christ would […]

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