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Day 43: Plowing Through Kansas and Nebraska
May 1, 2021
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Day 41: Mark Twain and the Gateway to the West
April 29, 2021

Day 42: Kansas City, Here We Come

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Most recently updated on May 8, 2022

Originally posted on April 30, 2021

A college town, a presidential library and an array of museums from jazz to baseball to war awaits us at our final destination today.

First, our virtual journey will take us to a place where nobody lives anymore.

So, we head west and a little south out of St. Louis on Interstate 44, a freeway that eventually takes you all the way to Oklahoma City.

After a half-hour, we pull into Route 66 State Park just east of the town of Eureka.

All that’s here in this 419-acre park is the Times Beach Museum. There used to be more than 2,000 residents in this locale, but a road repair job changed all that.

missouri map

Times Beach was founded in 1925 as part of a newspaper subscription promotion by the now-defunct St. Louis Star-Times. In its early years, it was primarily a summer resort town. During the Great Depression, Times Beach became a community of mostly low-income residents. There was a small grocery store and a gas station for Route 66 travelers.

As the population grew in the 1940s, the town developed into a commute alternative for people who worked in St. Louis.

In the 1960s, the Northeastern Pharmaceutical and Chemical Company began operating a facility in nearby Verona. The complex was owned by Hoffman-Taft, a company that manufactured the Agent Orange herbicide used during the Vietnam War. From 1970 to 1972, Northeastern began producing hexachlorophene, an anti-bacterial agent used in soap, toothpaste and household disinfectants.

At this point, Northeastern needed to dispose of the waste products from their facility. They decided against an incinerator and instead hired a subcontractor, Russell Martin Bliss.

Bliss mixed the waste products with used engine oil and began spraying the contaminated mixture on local farms to keep the dust down. It didn’t take long for birds to die and horses to become ill.

Then, in 1972, Times Beach officials hired Bliss to oil its 23 miles of dirt roads. Guess what he did. Bliss sprayed his waste product on those roads.

Northeastern went out of business in 1974, but the danger facing Times Beach didn’t go away.

Route 66 State Park is all that’s left of Times Beach, Missouri. Photo by St. Louis Public Radio.

In December 1982, Times Beach was flooded when the Meramec River overflowed its banks. Federal officials became concerned about the spread of contaminants. By now, the town had 2,200 residents.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan formed the Times Beach Dioxin Task Force. The federal government paid $32 million to purchase the 800 residential properties and 30 businesses in the community. The residents were evacuated between 1983 and 1985.

If this sounds familiar, you might be remembering the water pollution in the Love Canal neighborhood near Buffalo we examined on Day 33.

The state officially dis-incorporated Times Beach in 1985. The buildings were demolished in 1992. An incinerator was built in 1995 and officials burned 265,000 tons of dioxin-contaminated materials from across Missouri. The clean-up was finished in 1997 at a cost of $200 million. The area was taken off the Superfund list in 2001.

Years later, some residents complained that perhaps they shouldn’t have been forced to leave. Others said they weren’t compensated fairly.

Nonetheless, the contamination at Times Beach led to the passage of several environmental laws, including the Toxic Substance Control Act.

Dozens of lawsuits were filed against the companies involved. Settlements were reached in the 1990s.

All that’s left now is the Route 66 State Park along what has become a lonely stretch of I-44.

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We swing out of the Route 66 park and work our way north on Highway 109 and then catch Interstate 64 in a northwesterly direction. In a little more than a half-hour, we glide onto westbound Interstate 70, a road we’ll be on the rest of the day.

Interstate 70 is a major east-west freeway that travels 2,150 miles through 10 states. It starts near Interstate 15 in Cove Fort, Utah, and goes all the way to Interstate 695 in Baltimore, Maryland. Along the way, it runs through Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Construction on I-70 began in 1956 and the final section was completed in 1992.

The freeway includes the four-lane, 1.6-mile Eisenhower Tunnel 60 miles west of Denver that cuts through the Rocky Mountains at 11,158 feet. At one time, it was the highest elevation of any vehicular tunnel in the world. The tunnel makes it easier to transport goods. It also has increased tourism in that region.

The 1985 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals was dubbed the I-70 Series.

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After more than an hour on I-70 we reach the college town of Columbia.

The community of 125,000 people is the fourth most populous town in Missouri. It’s also halfway between St. Louis and Kansas City pretty close to the center of the state.

Columbia is slightly more than 2 hours north of Plato, Missouri, which is considered the population center of the continental United States.

The Columbia area was originally inhabited by the Osage and Missouri tribes before being founded by European settlers in 1821.

Columbia was the site of a well-known lynching in 1923. James Scott, an employee at the University of Missouri, was accused of raping a university professor’s daughter. He was killed by a mob and hung from a bridge.

This was not an isolated incident in Missouri. Between 1877 and 1950, there were 60 recorded incidents of lynching of African Americans in Missouri. That was the second highest among states outside of the South.

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Booches is a popular place to eat and drink in Columbia, Missouri. Photo by Inside Columbia.

In 2010, Columbia officials changed Scott’s death certificate to note he was the victim of a lynching. In 2012, a headstone was placed at his grave and in 2016 a marker was erected at the hanging site.

Columbia has never had a significant manufacturing industry. It was originally an agricultural town that developed into an education center.

The University of Missouri, which was founded in 1839, has always been the primary driver of that segment of the economy. The school is known as the “Athens of Missouri” as well as “CoMo.” Its presence gives Columbia its college town feel and its progressive politics.

The city is also home to the True/False Film Fest, a four-day festival for documentary films that is organized by the Ragtag Film Society. The festival is usually held in early March. In 2021, it was from May 5 to May 9 due to COVID-19 restrictions. In 2022, it was held from March 3 to March 6.

A favorite hangout of students is Booches. The pool hall and restaurant first opened in 1884. It’s been in six different locations, moving into its current home near the university in 1928. Women weren’t allowed inside the bar until the 1970s. Booches is known for its hamburgers served on wax paper. College students now mix with business owners and St. Louis Cardinal fans to round out the crowd.

Before we leave, we should that Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, graduated from Hickman High School in Columbia. Walton was a pretty big success even back then. He was the quarterback on the 1935 state championship football team as well as student body president.

All Trails Lead to Independence

President Harry Truman called it home.

So did people heading out on a number of frontier trails.

So do the members of a breakaway denomination of the Latter-Day Saints.

Independence, Missouri, is almost 2 hours west of Columbia on Interstate 70 just before you hit Kansas City. The community of 115,000 is the fifth most populous city in Missouri. It sits at an elevation of 1,037 feet with a grand view of the nearby Missouri River.

Europeans first settled the region in 1827 and named it after the Declaration of Independence. Prosperity came quickly to the town in the 1830s and 1840s due to its location just south of the Missouri River that allowed cargo to be shipped.

Many of the businesses also specialized in outfitting pioneers. Independence was known as “The Queen City of the Trails” because it was the departure point for the California, Oregon and Santa Fe trails.

Those days are remembered at the National Frontier Trails Museum, which is dedicated to the history of the pioneering paths that headed out from here as well as the settlement of the American West. More than 2,600 first-person accounts from people who traveled the westward trails are part of the collection. The museum also has exhibits on the Lewis and Clark expedition as well as the fur traders who first came to this region. An introductory film details the history of the country’s westward expansion. The historic Chicago & Alton Depot is on the property. It includes a re-creation of the train station on the first floor as well as the upstairs living quarters of the family that managed the depot.

Pioneers of another sort also have a place here.

Independence is sacred to many Latter-Day Saints because of the Temple Lot that Mormon founder Joseph Smith had built in 1831. It was the first such site to be dedicated for construction of a Latter-Day Saints temple. Smith said he had a revelation that this place would be the gathering place for the saints during the Second Coming of Christ.

The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. Photo by Wikipedia.

Today, the site is the home of the Community of Christ Temple Church, a 1,600-seat sanctuary on a 63-acre site. It’s the world headquarters for the Community of Christ, a sect that split from the Latter-Day Saints organization.

The site includes a United Nations Peace Plaza and Fountain as well as a Children’s Peace Pavilion.

It also contains the Truman Depot, a train station built in 1913 that was the final stop on Truman’s 1948 whistle stop presidential campaign. It was also the place where he disembarked after he returned home from Washington, D.C., in 1953 and was greeted by 8,500 admirers. The depot was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and now serves as an Amtrak station.

The nation’s 33rd president is also remembered in Independence at the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site. The site contains the long-time home of Truman, which houses historic items from the Truman family. Truman lived here from 1919 to his death in 1972. His wife, Bess, was born in Independence and lived in this home until her death in 1982. Her grandfather had built the residence in 1885.

Nearby is the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum. The facility has exhibits on Truman and his presidency. The library is situated on a hill that overlooks Kansas City. The museum was dedicated in 1957 and Truman used to walk to the complex every day from his home when it first opened. Both Truman and his wife, Bess, are buried here. A $25 million renovation of the complex that began in 2019 has been mostly completed. The various rooms take you from Truman’s childhood to his World War One service to his days as a county judge to his decade in the U.S. Senate to his selection as Vice President to his days as president. The rooms also provide history and perspective from the issues he faced as president from the Korean conflict to civil rights to recognizing the newly formed state of Israel in 1949.

Another house in town recognizes another Independence native.

The Owens-Rogers House is the childhood home of Ginger Rogers, the dancer who became famous for her duets with Fred Astaire. Rogers began her career as a teenager in vaudeville acts. She moved to New York City in 1929 and began starring in Broadway plays. She appeared in her first film in 1930. Her first film with Astaire was in 1933 and she did several more with him. Rogers eventually secured both dramatic and comedic roles in other movies. She won an Academy Award in 1940. Her last film was in 1965, but she continued to appear in stage plays on Broadway and elsewhere. Rogers died in 1995 at the age of 83. The museum closed in 2020 due to COVID-19 but does have a virtual museum tour available.

Cooking Up Some Jazz in K.C.

Barbecue. Jazz. War museums. Even an early studio by Walt Disney.

All part of the scene in Kansas City, just a 20-minute drive from downtown Independence.

This metropolis of 500,000 that bumps up against the Kansas border and another town of the same name is by far the most populous city in Missouri, outpacing St. Louis by more than 200,000 residents.

The city’s history includes westward expansion, racial violence and economic readjustment.

The first permanent European settlers were French fur traders who arrived in 1821. The community developed in the 1830s as a port on the Missouri River at its confluence with the Kansas River.

The American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo by Eyeflare.com.

Prior to the Civil War, racial animosity developed between folks in Missouri and Kansas. The state to Missouri’s west had petitioned to join the Union as a free state. Missouri was a slave state. Some Missourians took it upon themselves to cross over into Kansas to convince their neighbors to change their mind. That led to some violence that brought about the term “Bleeding Kansas.”

After the Civil War, Kansas City grew rapidly. The first railroad arrived in 1865. The Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad constructed a bridge over the Missouri River in 1869. A stockyard opened in 1870.

Irish immigrants began arriving in the mid-1800s. African Americans came in the late 1800s. The city’s population peaked at 500,000 in 1970, then decreased before bouncing back during the past two decades.

The city remains a major distribution center for the agricultural area that surrounds it. It also has large grain storage and food processing facilities.

The top employer, however, is government services as Kansas City is one of 10 regional office centers for the U.S. government. More than 140 federal agencies have offices in the city. The Internal Revenue Service has a 1.1 million square foot center with 2,700 employee work force that jumps to 4,000 during tax season. The Social Security Administration has nearly 1,400 workers in the area.

The Bannister Federal Complex is home to the Kansas City National Security Campus, where Honeywell employees manufacture and procure non-nuclear components for nuclear weapons.

The Ford Kansas City Assembly Plant has been here since 1951. It now manufactures F-150 trucks and employs 7,000 workers. Other manufacturing includes greeting cards and pharmaceuticals.

There’s even an underground industrial park called Subtropolis that was built in an old limestone mine. The complex includes offices, paintball arenas and vintage film storage areas.

The River Market district runs along the waterfront. There’s also the Country Club Plaza, a privately owned shopping center built in 1925.

The tourism industry centers on riverboat casinos and the city’s many museums.

One of the exhibits at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo by Negro Leagues Baseball Museum Inc.

One of the more prominent is the American Jazz Museum, which showcases the history, sights and sounds of jazz through interactive exhibits. Among the options are listening stations, touch screens and film. The collection includes Charlie Parker’s Grafton saxophone. Jazz began in Kansas City in the 1920s The museum is in the 18th and Vine District, which is a hotbed for jazz and contains many of the city’s 40 nightclubs that feature jazz music.

In the same building is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which was founded in 1990. The center has exhibits on the old Negro baseball leagues and the discrimination that surrounded them. There is a Hall of Lockers that feature Negro League players who have been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Negro Leagues gained furthered recognition in December 2020 when Major League Baseball officials announced that seven Negro Leagues would be given Major League status. That means that 3,400 Negro League players will now be considered MLB players with their career statistics included in Major League history.

There’s also a war-related museum in the downtown area.

The National World War I Museum and Memorial is located on Memorial Drive. Its origins go back to 1919 when The Liberty Memorial Association and Kansas City citizens raised $2.5 million to fund the memorial. The site was dedicated in 1921 by the five Supreme Allied commanders. The memorial was completed in 1926 and officially dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge in front of 150,000 spectators.

The museum opened in 2006. It contains exhibits that feature replicas of trenches, propaganda posters and weapons. A glass bridge spans a display of 9,000 poppies that symbolize the 9 million lives lost in the war.

There was no historical marker at the McConaughey Building on East 31st Street, but it does have some historical significance. It was the building where Walt Disney opened the Laugh-O-Gram Studios in 1922 when his family lived in Kansas City. Disney said he was inspired to draw Mickey Mouse by a tame mouse that used to visit his desk at night. This initial studio was not a success. It quickly went bankrupt. Walt Disney then moved to Los Angeles, where film and amusement park history was made.

President Barack Obama visited Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue in Kansas City in 2014. Photo by Daily Local News.

There’s no shortage of good food in Kansas City. In particular, the city is known for barbecue joints and steak houses. Here are a few of the more popular establishments.

Arthur Bryant’s Barbecue is in the 18th and Vine District. It’s known for its two signature sauce recipes created by Arthur Bryant, known around these parts as the King of Ribs. The restaurant has been visited by Presidents Harry Truman, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

There’s also the Golden Ox, renowned for its steaks. The restaurant closed in 2014 after 85 years of operation, but it was reopened under new management in 2018. Its steaks, which include a 24-ounce Porterhouse and a 34-ounce Drover ribeye, are cooked over an open fire of oak and pecan wood on a custom broiler.

For lunch, you can venture just west of downtown for the Jones Bar-B-Q restaurant in the other Kansas City. The eatery, owned by sisters Mary and Deborah Jones, was featured on a 2019 episode of the Netflix show “Queer Eye.” The restaurant’s hours are officially listed as 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (or sold out) Tuesday through Saturday.

Lot to chew on here as Day 42 comes to a conclusion.

Tomorrow, we’ll slice through two more states as we visit a town where school desegregation officially ended, a place where a program called the Orphan Train is remembered and a monument to a law that opened up the western United States to pioneers.

We’ll also stop by a museum dedicated to the Wizard of Oz. Where? In Kansas, of course.

 

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