Fats Domino sang it best. “I’m going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come. They got some crazy little women there, and I’m going to get me one”. I had chosen Kansas City as a stopping place from the moment I began planning this trip. It’s a city I’d heard so much about and four years ago, we had close friends from Michigan move to a suburb north of the city and I had yet to visit them. Like us, they are empty-nesters and great travelers. I knew that we would have time to catch up, discuss our new phase of life and see the city; all in 36 hours. I was spend the day with my own ‘crazy little women’ from Kansas City.
As I drove in, I saw the stadium complex of the Chiefs and Royals and immediately visions of Lenny Dawson, the Chiefs quarterback from their heyday in the 1970s, returned to me. The following day I made my pal stop at the stadium so I could take a couple of photos. My twelve-year self was very happy we made the stop. I continued on, past the downtown and headed north to Parkville, a little town on the Missouri. After greetings and settling in, we headed out for a walk along the River on this mild evening. It was good to stretch my legs and see this river of Lewis & Clark fame. The Missour River like many of the rivers, creeks and lakes I’ve seen on my trip is low, lower than it’s been in years. We had quite an appetite when we returned home and headed into Kansas City for barbecue; one of the two things I requested to do on my visit. The other was to visit the Truman Presidential Library. At Jack Stack Barbecue I had beef burnt ends, pork spare ribs with sides of cheesy corn bake and hickory pit beans. It was delicious, although I must admit I didn’t sleep very well. My digestion system is not familiar with barbecue any longer and although I didn’t come close to finishing my meal, it was still too much. But Delicious!
Before going to bed, we made a plan for the next day. My Michigan friend, now from Kansas City, is a kindred spirit; she is the most active woman I have ever known and one I strive to keep up with on our adventures. As she mentioned various things I could see in the area, all sounded good. We finally decided, no art museums for this visit, just history and planned to visit six the following day. Her husband just laughed and shook his head. We were up and out the door by 8:30am, stopping at the Truman home before arriving at the Truman Presidential Library when it opened. This library is a tribute to the Office of the President as well as to Harry Truman. There is an extensive mural depicting life in Missouri when you enter. After a well-done introductory film, we went to the exhibit where first item in the center of the room is Truman’s famous desk sign,”The Buck Stops Here”. The various pivotal moments, and there were many, of Truman’s presidency were on display including the question of where or not he should have dropped the atomic bomb. Having been at the JFK Library the week before my trip began, I was impressed with the courage of the Truman library to explore controversial decisions and actions of President Truman. The Kennedy Library was more a glossy tribute to the man and, in fact, barely covered the assassination.
18th and Vine, the cradle of Jazz was our next destination. We were visiting the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and American Jazz Museum. James Earl Jones narrates an introductory film that gives the history of the various Negro Baseball Leagues and the integration of the National and American Leagues. The heroes of the leagues and their baseball achievements were highlighted as well as the neighborhood pride that the teams brought to the local African-American communities. The Negro League World Series was covered, which I was unaware had existed. The first players who integrated the majors were highlighted, including Satchel Paige, who I had thought the greatest pitcher when I was a kid. Paige was the oldest rookie of the year in the history of the MBL. The American Jazz Museum was focused more on individual artists and I spent my time reading and listening to my favorites: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. One of the Museum walls is covered in album art, I recognized a few from my father’s extensive record collection. We planned to return in the evening to The Blue Room, the performance space to listen to local musicians.
It was lunch time and we found a parking spot on the same block as the restaurant Succotash. This trendy diner-like lunch spot had its fair share of hipsters, including one with a handle-bar mustache that even Rolly Finger’s would have envied. I had a salad with Succotash; it seemed appropriate given the restaurant’s name and the fact that I’d never had succotash before. Perfect after that heavy, but delicious barbecue.
Next was the Shawnee Indian Mission, which is just over the border in Kansas. This Indian Mission was set up by a Methodist minister, Revered Johnson, who was paid by the Federal Government. Interestingly, all the children were taught together-the white children, the slave children and the Indian children. Johnson was paid per student; the profit motive created an integrated classroom before anyone had ever heard the word. Regarding the Shawnee children, the thought was that if the Indians dressed like us, talked liked us, and prayed like us, then there wouldn’t be an Indian problem. This Mission school operated in the winter months, as the students helped on their parents’ farms the remaining months. The mission lasted about twenty years in the 1830s-1850s. The Shawnee were driven further west by settlers, as they again lost their land, and the Mission was a supply stop on the California-Oregon trail and the Santa Fe trail, both of which crossed within a mile of the Mission. During the Civil War, the Mission was used to house Union soldiers. The Mission currently works with many local 4th grade classrooms to learn about Mission and the settlers journey out west.
The next stop on our Museum blitz was the National WWI Museum. I read more about this war when we lived in Belgium then I did when I studied history in college, in particular, it’s poets Owen, Sasson and McCrae of In Flanders Field fame. Each year in Belgium, we bought and wore our poppies for Remembrance Day and I visited Ipers on several occasions. I was impressed by this Museum from the moment I step in and saw the field of poppies below the entrance floor. The inside has a dark setting, appropriate for this dark period of war. The posters, uniforms, weapons and all other paraphernalia from the war is thorough and I couldn’t quite believe I was in Kansas City and not in a Smithsonian building on The National Mall. It was a museum of that caliber.
Our final museum stop was uplifting-literally. We went to see Steamship Arabia, which was lifted from a farm field 100+ plus yards from the Missouri River in the late 1980s. This archeological dig was the idea of some friends who had heard about a steamship that had sunk in the area in 1856. In the course of one winter the dig commenced and was completed, the farmer needed his land for spring plowing. In the intervening years, the contents of the ship along with some of its body have been restored and a museum created in the Riverfront area of Kansas City. We had to beg for admittance. The attendant told us we missed the last tour but we explained that my pal had been to the Museum several times and would be my guide. The attendant finally relented. This was a well-organized museum; it laid out each item recovered from the ship in a very orderly fashion. I loved it’s sense of organization and loved it even more, when I heard some high school kids near us exclaim about all the spoons, or all the type set. Sometimes, seeing is believing. Arabia was carrying cargo, lots of it and much has been salvaged. It is still a work in progress. The employee we spoke to was working on a piece, slowly getting the corrosion off the unknown piece and told us that there were still buckets full of things to clean.
The trip out of the city was as my friend had explained the night before, a visual history of transportation, with the Missouri River on our left, a city airport between the river and our busy highway and then the dozens of train tracks on our right. Kansas City’s history in a nutshell. Once home, we ate homemade pizza, each of us adding the toppings of our choice. Unfortunately, I was too tired to make it back to The Blue Room for the evening performance and instead we spent the evening watching Sporting Kansas City play soccer and chatting about the wonders Kansas City. (and to my kids who are wondering-we did not build a teepee)