Saint Joseph, Missouri, is a small city with a rich history. It was the starting point of the Pony Express and the place where iconic news anchor Walter Cronkite grew up. Not only can you travel back in time at the city’s museums and learn about the Civil War and the infamous outlaw Jesse James, but you can also take in impressive art on the city’s downtown sculpture walk. Antique stores and outstanding food beckon as well.
Here are just nine reasons to make time for historic Saint Joseph.
1. It’s Where The Pony Express Began
With the click of a button on your phone, tablet, or computer, you can send mail, a text, or even a tweet. Imagine having to wait days -- and sometimes weeks -- for a letter. That was life in the Wild West, when pioneers migrated to faraway places like California and Oregon.
Then, in 1860, a group of businessmen created the Pony Express to carry mail from Saint Joseph to Sacramento, California. Riding on horseback at breakneck speed, each rider carried mail from one station to another. As one rider arrived, another waited to grab the mail and continue on to the next stop.
The Pony Express delivered mail over a 1,900-mile route. Mail took about 10 days to get from one side to the other. Then, about 18 months later, the telegraph was invented and took over the world of communications. With a single click, the Pony Express became obsolete.
Saint Joseph’s Pony Express National Museum, featuring everything from exhibits highlighting the brain trust behind the operation to displays covering life along the route, is worth visiting.
2. Its Museums Provide A Fascinating Glimpse Back In Time
Numerous museums tell Saint Joseph’s story.
The Glore Psychiatric Museum chronicles the nearly 150-year history of the state hospital, with an emphasis on the treatment of mental health. The exhibits respectfully cover actual cases, including that of a patient who swallowed more than 1,400 pieces of metal, including safety pins and needles. Another patient hid notes inside the back of an old television set; these were later discovered and displayed at the museum. The Glore also traces the history of mental health treatment, all the way back to the time when the mentally ill were accused of witchcraft.
Another interesting local museum is the Doll Museum, which features about 1,500 dolls and accessories from different time periods, including Barbie dolls, Cabbage Patch dolls, and unique dollhouses.
The Black Archives Museum highlights the contributions of local African Americans, including the musician Coleman Hawkins and the National Football League star Mike Rucker.
The Native American Gallery contains part of a 4,000-piece collection donated by a Saint Joseph resident, including handmade pottery and beaded clothing. You can learn about locals’ roles in World War I in the History Gallery. Edmond Jacques Eckel designed some of Saint Joseph’s best-known buildings, including the Mosaic and the Corby Building. His work and life story are covered in the Eckel Collection.
3. It’s Got Great Public Art
From traditional classical art to large-scale murals covering the sides of downtown buildings, Saint Joseph boasts a vibrant art scene.
The Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art features oil paintings from the 18th century as well as contemporary art. The museum also hosts special exhibits.
Downtown Saint Joseph is home to impressive public art, including an iconic statue honoring the city’s role in the Pony Express and other sculptures highlighting the city’s pioneer past. A sculpture walk sponsored by the local arts council will take you past a variety of contemporary pieces.
In recent years, artists have added larger-than-life murals to the sides of the city’s historic buildings. These murals commemorate the city’s history and feature tributes to Native Americans and the city’s music scene.
4. You Can Shop To Your Heart’s Content
As you explore downtown Saint Joseph, you’ll want to visit some of its unique shops, such as the Tobiason Art Glass Studio. Tobiason specializes in stained glass for churches as well as private homes. Some unique pieces feature flags and seasonal characters like snowmen, Santa Claus, etc.
Downtown Saint Joseph also offers plenty of antique stores, among them The Lucky Tiger, which sells vintage clothing, home decor, and vinyl records. A visit to The Lucky Tiger is a fun trip down memory lane.
As you browse, stop in at Cafe Pony Espresso and grab a coffee and a treat.
5. Jesse James Once Lived There
The Patee House Museum & Jesse James Home is another must-stop spot.
The Patee House was constructed as a four-floor luxury hotel in 1858; it also served as an office for the Pony Express and a Civil War courtroom. Today, the Patee House is a popular museum.
The Blue Room highlights the work of George Warfel, including portraits of 20 Western figures like Buffalo Bill Cody and Jesse James. Other rooms cover the Civil War, Native Americans, Missouri musicians, and the hotel itself. The main floor features a historic main street exhibit featuring actual Saint Joseph businesses from years past. A working carousel features hand-carved characters like a hummingbird and Pegasus.
Next door to the hotel is the last house Jesse James lived in before he was murdered by Robert Ford. The house, which was relocated to Saint Joseph from its original site, is a small wood-frame building. You can see a bullet hole in the wall near the place where the outlaw was shot.
6. The Remington Nature Center Offers A Peaceful Walk
Offering a refreshing nature walk along the banks of the Missouri River, the Remington Nature Center features a lovely floral exhibit near its entrance. As you tour the visitor center, you can learn about the area’s history, from the days when giant mammoths roamed to the time of the Civil War.
7. It’s Home To Some Of The Most Spectacular Victorian Homes In The Country
The Wyeth-Tootle Mansion was home to two families over nearly seven decades. Built in 1879 for William Wyeth and his wife, Eliza, the mansion has 43 rooms, including a turret that gives the structure a castle-like appearance. The Wyeths sold the house to Katherine Tootle in 1887. The widow of a local businessman, Tootle renovated the mansion to suit her tastes, adding an elaborately carved staircase. Today, the rooms include exhibits on Saint Joseph’s history.
Aside from the Wyeth-Tootle Mansion, Saint Joseph is home to numerous historically significant, elaborate Victorian homes. Spend some time driving the streets around the Wyeth-Tootle Mansion -- you won’t go far without stopping to take a photo of one of the grand structures.
8. Walter Cronkite Grew Up There
The Walter Cronkite Memorial features a replica of the Saint Joseph native's CBS Evening News studio. Considered “the most trusted man in America,” Cronkite covered some of the most important events in American history, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the moon landing, and Watergate. His reports for the CBS Evening News about Vietnam are credited with changing Americans’ view of the war, leading to a peace treaty and American withdrawal.
The memorial covers two floors at Missouri Western State University and is free to the public.
9. It Hosts The Kansas City Chiefs Preseason Camp
The recent Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, have called Missouri Western home each preseason for several years. Fans flock to Saint Joseph over a three-week period beginning in late July to get autographs and pictures and to watch their favorite Chiefs players practice. The Chiefs play at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, which is about an hour south of Saint Joseph.
Where To Eat
Saint Joseph’s culinary scene offers outstanding Mexican, Cajun, and Italian food.
Let the good times roll at Boudreaux’s Louisiana Seafood and Steaks, Saint Joseph’s original Cajun kitchen. When you try authentic dishes like the jambalaya and etouffee, you'll swear you’re dining in New Orleans’s French Quarter. Start your dining experience with an order of catfish pieces, fried alligator, or a bowl of crawfish bisque. Then add a side of dirty rice to your entree. Boudreaux’s menu features pasta, seafood, and steak, each prepared with a Cajun touch.
Barbosa’s Castillo has been offering authentic Mexican fare in Saint Joseph for almost 60 years. Enjoy an appetizer of fresh, handmade chips and salsa, and then choose from burritos, enchiladas, tacos, and more.
Serving up Neapolitan-style pizza since 2014, Il Lazzarone is popular with locals. The pizzas feature authentic ingredients, such as imported dough flour and tomatoes grown at the base of Mount Vesuvius, and are baked in a wood-fired oven at about 1,200 degrees. While the vegetarian Margherita is a classic, it’s worth going out on a limb to try the Carne (with Italian sausage, pepperoni, and salami) or the Pizze Caprese (San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, aged balsamic vinaigrette, and extra-virgin olive oil). Try the bruschetta as an appetizer. It’s amazing!
For a truly intimate and romantic dining experience, reserve a table at the J.C. Wyatt House, located inside a Victorian house. Owned and operated by former New York restaurateurs, the J.C. Wyatt House features a set menu with a three-course dinner that you select at the time you make reservations. The food, which includes pork loin, lamb chops, and filet mignon, is delicious, and the personal service is outstanding.
Where To Stay
Located on what was once known as “Millionaires' Row,” the Shakespeare Chateau is a beautiful Victorian home that’s been converted into a bed and breakfast. Featuring nearly 50 stained glass windows, the mansion, which was built in the mid-1800s, contains rooms named after Shakespeare’s plays. Each morning begins with a made-from-scratch breakfast that will most likely be your favorite meal of the day!
If you prefer a more typical hotel stay, the Drury Inn fits the bill, offering clean and comfortable rooms and a central location just off of Interstate 29. The hotel’s amenities include a business center, indoor swimming pool, and fitness center. The complimentary breakfast is excellent.
With its interesting history and beautiful art and architecture, Saint Joseph would make an excellent weekend getaway. Learn about the Pony Express, take a stroll along the banks of the Missouri River, shop for unique souvenirs and gifts, and enjoy outstanding food during your visit to this city of uncommon character.