Independence, MO: September 30 – October 2, 2010


On our way to eastern Missouri to pick up a new rescue Schipperke, we stopped long enough to visit Independence. We wanted to have a chance to visit President Truman’s birthplace and library, and we wanted to add to our Mormon education.

We selected a campground which turned out to be right in town. It was a series of driveways on the edge of a city park and amphitheater, with easy back-in sites. It was perfect for us, because the dogs had the park to play in and we were close to the history we were looking for. In fact, there was a trolley just down the hill that made loops of the city every hour.

The Favorite Son

Our first destination was the Truman Library and Museum. Unfortunately, we wee camera-poor.  Dot didn’t bring hers, and my memory card was back in the Big Horn, where I’d been downloading.  (Editors note:  we re-visited Independence later in the trip and had cameras in hand!)

The museum is divided into two sections, one dealing with Citizen Harry and the other with President Harry. Of course we knew when and why he became president, in part because we had visited FDR’s Little White House in Georgia several years earlier. But we focused on the extent of the burden he carried in first few months. The Bomb, of course was only part of the picture; The Potsdam Conference and the United Nations charter all fell in that period. And like Hubert Humphrey in the LBJ presidency, Truman was very much on the outside of FDR’s circle. He had to deal with the massive postwar re-conversion of the US, reconstruction in Europe, the Truman Doctrine/Marshall Plan, and recognition of the new state of Israel — all before he stood his own election in 1948.  He attacked his critics head on and took his case to the people in a 30,000 mile whistle stop tour – much as he had done on a smaller scale in Missouri to achieve his re-election to the Senate in 1940.  Thanks to an aggregation of support from farmers, unions and minorities, he squeaked by Tom Dewey — without a popular majority.  This brought him to the new set of challenges: the red scares, the Cold War, and the “Hot” War in Korea.  Despite his lack of success in carrying out his domestic programs of “21 Points” and “Fair Deal,” the nation had made it to peacetime conversion and was prosperous.  Then he declined to run again.

The other side of the museum charts the development of his character. A farm boy at first, he graduated from high school in 1901, at which time he was already head over heels in love with Bess. He began his serious courtship at age 24, feeling until that time that he wasn’t worthy of her attention. She turned him down once, but they were secretly engaged in 1913 and married in 1919 upon his return from the war. He tried numerous employment and entrepreneurial ventures with more failure than success. His military success in WW I was far greater, however. He commanded Battery B and led them into fierce combat. Not a man was lost, credited by all to Captain Harry’s leadership. Post war personal success was much better, and he ran for Judge in Jackson County at the invitation of an Army friend, Jim Prendergast, heir to the machine that ran the county for many years. Rising to Presiding Judge, a role similar to county commissioner, he proved to be a powerful administrator and brought much improvement to the County. Despite his loyalty to the Prendergasts, a scandal-ridden machine, he was able to stay under the radar and moved on to the US Senate after winning a four-way primary in 1934. Harry loved his ten years in the Senate more than any part of his life. He also loved Bess and Margaret with all his being.

The facility would not be complete, of course, without the mandatory reproduction of the Oval Office.  In addition, one can pass by the graves of Harry, Bess, Margaret and her husband, Clifton Daniel. The office that Truman used following his retirement from Washington is also on view. A mural by Thomas Hart Benton dominates the lobby, and I have appropriated a picture to show you.

Other Truman exhibits are nearby: his boyhood home, the family farm in Grandview, site of his first job in Clinton’s Soda Fountain, the Courthouse where he served his judgeships, and the Depot where he ended his 1948 whistle-stop tour and to which he returned in January, 1953.

The Missouri Mormons

A review of the preceding blog, our experiences in Omaha, will give you insight on what we know about the Mormons that pushed west from Illinois.  By far the largest group followed Brigham Young to Salt Lake City, and they are the LDS: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But many, including the remnants of founder Smith’s family, didn’t head that way. Instead, they returned to western Missouri, where they had tried to settle earlier.  Joseph Smith, Jr. designated this area as the New Jerusalem and declared that when Jesus Christ returns to build the new Zion, it will be to Independence.

Several groups are headquartered here. The major one is the schism that was originally called RLDS, or Reorganized Latter Day Saints. Today they are the Community of Christ, and their church with its spiral tower dominates the landscape. It is a beautiful church with an emphasis on Peace.  In fact, they hold a peace vigil daily in the early afternoon. Portraits of the entire lineage of this division are included in the gallery.

Joseph Smith III became the first head of the RLDS in 1860 and held that post for 54 years. In 1996, W. Grant McMurray became the first president not related to the Smith family.  Shunning the concept of “prophet, seer, and revelator,” McMurray says that the RLDS church needs to move from being “a people with a prophet” to being a “prophetic people.”

Also located in Independence is the Church of Christ (Temple Lot), the Remnant Church of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and other minor sects, all of which, like the LDS and RLDS, are now monogamous. However, other spinoff groups still practice polygamy. Members of the LDS Church still use the appellation “Mormons,” while members of the RLDS/Community of Christ prefer not to be referred to as Mormons.

If you follow any of this, I’m grateful.  If you a Mormon of any stripe, I sincerely apologize for what continues to be an oversimplification.

Independence also offers a Mormon Walking Trail. It covers about a dozen sites that were associated with the original settlement led by Joseph Smith Jr. in the late 1820’s.

The Vaile Mansion

Dot and I split efforts to see more. She headed off to the Vaile Mansion. Here’s her report:

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, The Vaile Mansion is cited as one of two outstanding examples of a Gothic adaptation of true Victorian architecture. Built in 1881 at a cost of $150,000, the structure has a tower soaring 80 feet, roofed in Virginia blue slate, two feet thick walls, 112 limestone trimmed windows and bay windows so the view over the 55 acre grounds can be clear.

A visit to the Vaile Mansion allows you to step back in time to 1880 for a visit to one of the city’s pioneer millionaires, Colonel Harvey Merick Vaile. Colonel Vaile was a native of Vermont. He was never satisfied with anything but the most magnificent. Thus he designed and built the “Crown Jewel of Independence,” the Vaile Mansion. Always well-dressed, the townspeople knew him as a lobbyist with a national reputation. Much of his time was spent in Washington. Senators and Representatives, whenever in this part of the country made the Vaile Mansion their headquarters and enjoyed the hospitality of the Colonel and Mrs. Vaile.

Colonel Vaile was a contractor for mail leaving Independence and a partner in the operation of “Star” routes throughout the Midwest. He was indicted for defrauding the government in the operation of these routes, but was acquitted after a second trial in 1883 in Washington. Upon return to Independence, he sold his interest in the mail routes. He lived in the mansion until his death in 1894. Mrs. Vaile preceded her husband in death in 1883.

From the impressive outside, the visitor passes through ten foot ornate carved doors trimmed in solid bronze, across a Dutch tiled entry, and through a second set of great carved doors framed by etched glass panels and transom. All of the woodwork in the mansion except the walnut staircase, is solid white pine devoid of knots and hand grained to look like walnut, maple, oak and butternut.

The thirteen foot ceilings bring your eyes to hand decorated motifs painted by Italian, French and German artists. Some of the cultural tastes of Colonel Vaile were depicted in the library ceiling – palette, harp, book and globe. He was a patron of all fine arts.

National Frontier Trails Museum

Not far from the campground was the National Frontier Trails Museum, a modest but comprehensive display of the perils and promises of the trek westward.  It bills itself as the gateway for all three of the trails used from about the 1830’s until the 1870’s, when the railroad eased and sped up the trip. Approximately 400,000 souls attempted the three trails: Oregon, California and Santa Fe.  About ten percent perished along the way.  Probably the best known of the calamities was the Donner Party (aka Donner-Reed Party), which started out at the rear of a wagon train in May, 1846 but took a detour reputed to knock 200-300 miles off the journey.  It delayed them, and they arrived too late to cross the Sierra Nevada. Over the winter they suffered unspeakable horrors, including cannibalism, that have been documented in great detail in diaries of many and in the narratives of survivors. Of the 87 in the party, only 48 reached California.

Each of the trails is well described, and a combination of historical narrative and first person accounts, along with photographs and artifacts, tell of the challenge of the courageous people of many nations who made the journey.

Francis Parkman, a Boston gentleman whose The California and Oregon Trails became a school primer, traveled only the first third of the journey – the easy part over flatlands. He also did extensive research into Native Americans and diverted from the prevailing noble savage view, espousing that their displacement was a victory of civility over savagery. The efforts of Senator Thomas Hart Benton to encourage western expansion in Congress are also well-covered.

Lewis and Clark spent several outbound nights in the region, principally near the junction of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers. They spent a single night on their return trip. In 1808, two years after their successful return, Clark built Fort Osage in nearby Sibley.

Adjacent to the museum is the restored Chicago & Alton 1879 train station. And in the field across the street, actual ruts and swales from wagons heading west nearly 200 years ago can still be seen.

Finally, historical myth busters have determined that “Go West, Young Man” did not originate with Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune. It was first voiced by John Soule, an Indiana newspaperman!

We didn’t have enough time on this visit to explore Independence to he depth it deserved.


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