Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 25, 2012

Independence, Mo. --- Head west or linger longer?


— Off they went, going west, and I imagined myself going along, blazing a trail west from Independence, Mo.

For me, this was a 2012 holiday next door to Kansas City.

For 250,000 people, the journey was a new life in 1845. Pioneers and gold seekers. Missionaries and Mormons.

Curious isn’t it since thousands came to Independence to leave and I discovered abundance for staying.

I learned that and more in the National Frontier Trails Museum where curator and administrator David Aamodt bubbles over with facts and admiration for the people equipping wagons and themselves for 900 miles on the Santa Fe Trail, or 2,000 miles on the Oregon Trail. Detours too for gold seekers forging the California Trail.

“Maybe 400,000 people headed west from Independence,” Aamodt suggests. “A numbered list? Hardly. They just went — didn’t have to declare anything to anyone.”

Bustling 1840s frontier city, devoted to departures. Middle of America destination now, offering context to history, enthusiasm for historic preservation and plenty of culinary pleasures.

Stay in a stylish inn named Ophelia’s on the downtown square and in the morning, after a sumptuous breakfast, hop on a covered wagon drawn by mules.

Start that narrated ride in front of the 1859 Jail where legendary bank robber Frank James stayed in 1882, around the corner from Clinton’s Drug Store where Harry S. Truman earned $3.00 a week sweeping the floor. Age 13 and his first job.

That’s how I found Independence non-stop for two days: familiar history enriched by enthusiastic historians—scholars and hobbyists, passionate advocates and delighted local residents.

Truman weaves in and out because he was a walker, and Independence is his hometown. You could start with a visit to the home he and Bess loved, or to the Presidential Library and Museum, but I’d recommend the Frontier Trails Museum first.

Perspective, not just to place but to character. Personality. Lingering pride.

This is not a story of immigration for settling; people transported their life’s possessions to Independence to move onward.

Heart-wrenching exhibit in the Trails Museum: heirlooms families held on to along the Allegheny, jettisoned on the Oregon Trail when harsh conditions forced load lightening.

Scholarly place this museum with what Curator Aamodt told me is the largest public library about America’s western trails.

Lovely large art too — paintings of the bustling departure days in Independence.

Take a moment, or more, next door because the Chicago & Alton 1879 Depot tells more interesting stories than I expected to find, and the restoration and furnishings are exquisite.

Were some railroad depots classier than others in their hey days? Apparently so considering the design details in this two-story yellow and green depot master’s home, office and train-waiting rooms.

Intersections like that happen all around Independence. On the same block as my stylish overnight Inn named Ophelia’s, I boarded Ralph Goldsmith’s mule-drawn covered wagon to hear trail stories.

Startling opportunity to reflect about the vast differences of their life journeys, and my own.

Wagon master Goldsmith is a fine storyteller, delighting in the details of the Independence era when 24,000 mules and horses needed new shoes to head west.

You’ll want to retrace his Missouri mules’ steps to return to the Bingham Waggoner Estate where docents say 95 percent of the furnishings, chandeliers, art and carpets are original.

Elegant and ornate these 26 rooms, master millwork, four-foot long Swiss music box, rare Currier and Ives clock, handcrafted mantles and tile for all the fireplaces.

The home was built in 1852 along the Santa Fe Trail and you can stroll a quarter mile along real-deal wagon paths where the swales are undisturbed since these acres were always a family estate.

Connections and intersections again, Independence, Mo., style.

You’ll need more than two days to be able to experience President Truman’s home and library, half a dozen fine restaurants, the faith explorations possible at the Community of Christ Temple and Latter Day Saints Visitor Center and the Second Empire Vaile Mansion.

Save an hour or two for sheer delight at the Puppetry Arts Institute in the Englewood neighborhood and Leila’s Hair Museum.

Really. Only one in the world Leila says.


Christine Tibbetts covers travel destinations for the Tifton, Ga., Gazette. Follow her at

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