The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri
Independence, Missouri is just a short drive out of Kansas City. But aside from just having a cool name, it’s also the birthplace of former president Harry S. Truman. Day 3 was supposed to start off with a quick visit to Truman’s grave, and then we’d head up the street to the Hair Museum. However, we didn’t realize that Truman’s tomb was smack-dab in the middle of a pretty interesting museum. So we scrapped our date with the hair sculptures and just spent the first part of the morning at the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum.
Truman, our 33rd president, presided over many of our country’s most infamous historical events: the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the beginning of the Cold War, and the Korean War. He did actually do some good things, too, like helping found the United Nations and NATO. He kind of lucked into the presidential office, as the order of power shoved him out of his vice-presidential seat and into Franklin D. Roosevelt’s very big shoes in 1945. So it goes, right?
The museum itself was set up much like the Abraham Lincoln museum in Springfield, Illinois—flashy informational exhibits and famous artifacts all over the place, with little movie clips and interactive displays sprinkled about. Some of the more notable artifacts included: Truman’s "The Buck Stops Here" paperweight, a copy of the newspaper headlined "Dewey Defeats Truman" from the 1948 election in which Dewey did not actually defeat Truman, and a couple of the automobiles used by the president during the ‘40s and ‘50s.
The tombs of Truman and his wife were in the central courtyard, and believe me, it took every ounce of respect we could muster to keep ourselves from making jokes about a woman named "Bess," but we got through it okay. Several statues, pictures, and an eternal flame later, we found ourselves in the Presidential Basement for what would be the most interesting part of this particular stop: The White Doll House.
Basically, it’s just a great big doll house replica of the White House. Millions of dollars and thousands ofman hours went into creating this (it takes months just to move the traveling exhibit), and every precaution is taken to insure the house’s authenticity. Even the tiny books have writing in them. I tried not to imagine the nerd with the time and money to arrange something so awe-inspiring, but the possibilities had too much potential for humor to ignore.
At that point, we wrapped things up there (even though we probably could’ve stayed for several more hours), and got back on the road to find St. Joseph, Missouri, which would prove to be one of the strangest towns on our trip.
The Jesse James Home & Patee Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri
It’s where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended. So what would a road trip be without stopping through to see what kinds of crazy attractions the city of St. Joseph, Missouri might have constructed to commemorate these two events?
For us, the adventure started at the home of famous outlaw Jesse James, where he was shot in the back of the noggin by his buddy, Bob Ford. What makes this story even more interesting is that Ford was found guilty for the murder of Jesse James and sentenced to hang, but he was promptly pardoned by the governor, leading many to believe that the ol’ governor had commissioned Ford to pop a cap in Jesse’s dome. I could be entirely wrong about this, but that seems to be at least mildly illegal. Them was tougher times, though. Manlier. Our justice system has lost some of its zip since then. First they invent that confounded telephone, and then they take away our right to shoot someone in the name of justice. It’s inhumanity, I tells ya!
Anyway, James’s unfair death still angers the little turtle-shaped curator, who walks several miles to and from the house museum every day to work several hours on end for literally no wages. Seriously, he makes zero dollars an hour. But the poor guy loves his history—he wouldn’t shut up from the time we got there until the time we told him to "Quick, look over there!" so we could sneak out. Sucker.
Keeping that in mind, we were given plenty of time to peruse the tiny house, which included the type of gun used to shoot James, the real skull of the famous outlaw (complete with gaping cranial loss in the back), and the uncovered bullet hole still in the wall after all these years. A little disturbing, but well worth the four dollars.
Right next door is the Patee House Museum, which was the home of the very first Pony Express headquarters. This building has gone through an abundance of incarnations over the years, starting with a hotel and ending with the museum it is today. But somewhere in there it also acted as a women’s college, a garment factory, and an epileptic sanitarium.
Today, however, it’s a hodgepodge collection of turn-of-the-century trinkets, carousel horses, railroad memorabilia, and authentic St. Joseph town artifacts. We visited the recreation of the Pony Express station, but the really cool part of this particular stop was the saloon, equipped with player piano, hella cool cowboy doors, and sweet, sweet sasparilla. There was even a wonderful bartender fellow there to complete the cowboy ambiance. It made me want to fire my six-shooter in the air, but these things are frowned upon indoors. Yipee Ky-Yi-Yay, boys and girls!
The Glore Psychiatric Museum, St. Joseph, Missouri, & The World's Biggest Ball of Stamps, Omaha, Nebraska
If Jesse James and the Pony Express aren’t enough to make St. Joseph interesting, it’s pretty easy to drive just a couple miles up the road to visit the Glore Psychiatric Museum, which houses a whole lot of strange, creepy stuff.
The museum was started in 1967 by a former state mental health employee named George Glore, and the exhibits used to be kept in the old mental ward of the St. Joseph State Hosptial (known as "State Lunatic Asylum" in the 19th Century). Now, since most of the hospital’s patients have benefited from more effective, modern medicine, the building’s been turned into a prison, and the museum sits right next door.
Inside lie some exceptionally interesting case studies, like the obsessive swallower who died during stomach surgery because she had swallowed hundreds of miscellaneous objects (buttons, nails, salt and pepper lids, thimbles, etc.). Or, the guy who got a metal fence rail accidentally shoved through his brain and survived, but with an entirely different personality. Or the guy that saved up thousands of cigarette cartons to get a free wheelchair for the ward (an offer that never actually existed), or the guy that put over 500 pieces of paper into the back of a television. I’m telling you—the place was eerie.
Of course, we couldn’t stay in St. Joseph all day long, mostly because despite its novelty charm, it was kind of a gross, congested little town. So we drove to Omaha, Nebraska to see the World’s Biggest Ball of Stamps.
The Ball is the prized piece of a collection started by one Father Flanagan, but now it’s just tucked away in the back of a little gift shop. Last year, we were able to add a layer to the World’s Biggest Ball of Paint, but the rules surrounding the Stamp Ball are not so liberal. The only interactive activity we could do here was pay pennies for old stamps in a small display off the side of The Ball. This seemed just freakishly lame to me, but Kyle and Kevin really got into it, arguing over stamps featuring the likes of Hitler and Crime Dog McGruff (among others). They were peddling stamps between the two of them like it was the New York freaking Stock Exchange. Nerds.
Back to The Ball: It weighs over 600 pounds, is 32 inches in diameter, and includes exactly 4,655,000 stamps. Ripley’s Believe it or Not even featured it in one of their publications. This, of course, means that The World’s Biggest Ball of Stamps is an entirely reputable tourist stop. But so is the Glore Museum, if you’re crazy enough.
Next Installment, Coming Soon: Day 3, Part 2, Now Entering Iowa...