Tucked away in northern Missouri is a stretch of road that takes you three hours across the state, from Saint Joseph on the western edge to Hannibal in the east. In between, you have an opportunity to visit the hometowns of some of the greatest innovators in American history. Nicknamed the American Genius Highway, Missouri Highway 36 includes the hometowns of business genius J.C. Penney, entertainment giant Walt Disney, Army General John J. Pershing, and master storyteller Mark Twain, as well as innovations, such as the Pony Express and sliced bread. It’s best to plan to spend a full day on the Genius Highway visiting the geniuses’ hometowns.
Pro Tip: While driving the Genius Highway is fun any time of the year, fall adds a touch of color, with the leaves displaying impressive hues of red, orange, and brown on abundant trees along the way, as well as in Missouri’s state parks.
1. Pony Express In Saint Joseph
Learn about the pioneer version of express mail at the National Pony Express Museum, with interactive exhibits and artifacts that tell the story of how mail was delivered by cowboys riding fast horses from Saint Joseph to Sacramento, California. Lasting about 18 months, the Pony Express started in the Missouri city in 1860. A visit to Saint Joseph often involves learning about local newsman Walter Cronkite, considered the most trustworthy journalist of all time. The anchor of CBS Evening News is honored with the Walter Cronkite Memorial at Missouri Western State University, and includes a replica of the newscast’s studio. Check out Saint Joseph’s riverfront with a leisurely stroll along the Missouri River. Include a visit to Remington Nature Center, where you can enjoy the beauty of a small botanical garden and learn about the wooly mammoth, which once roamed northwest Missouri.
Pro Tip: For a truly upscale New York-style dining experience, reserve a table at the J.C. Wyatt House, which is run by former New York chefs.
2. Depot Museum In Cameron
A short drive east of Saint Joseph, Cameron’s Historical Society and Depot Museum showcases the area’s railroad past, along with other local history. The town is also home to the Old School, now a public events center, but also features historical attractions, such as class photos and other memorabilia. Nature lovers will enjoy a visit to Wallace State Park, with hiking trails that take you past an old quarry, along streams, and through pine trees. With a lake and beautiful views, the state park is the perfect spot for a picnic.
3. J.C. Penney In Hamilton
Less than an hour east of Saint Joseph, Hamilton’s J.C. Penney Museum highlights how the retailer became a business genius. Born in Hamilton, Penney would get his start in the retail business by working for a small chain in Wyoming. He later purchased the three stores and marketed them under his name. Growing into a major chain, the J.C. Penney chain was among the first to include mail-order catalogs. During its heyday, J.C. Penney had more than 2,000 stores located around the United States. Whether or not you’re a quilter, a stop at the Missouri Star Quilt Company is a must! Started on a shoestring budget in an old building in downtown Hamilton, the quilting store has grown into a business leader and YouTube sensation that would make even J.C. Penney proud.
4. Sliced Bread In Chillicothe
Welcome to the home of sliced bread! The Chillicothe Bread Company became the first to use the Rohwedder Bread Slicer, created by Missouri inventor Otto Rohwedder in 1928. Imagine, sliced bread has been around for less than 100 years. With a downtown mural highlighting the story of sliced bread, you can learn more about it, and the area’s history, and see an old soda fountain at the Grand River Museum.
5. Pershing State Park In Meadville
About 25 minutes east of Chillicothe, Pershing State Park is home to Locust Creek covered bridge, which is one of only four covered bridges in Missouri. The Locust Creek bridge, built in 1868, was part of a transcontinental railroad. Enjoy a walk along the interactive boardwalk, which leads to a wildlife viewing area in the park’s wetlands. You can also visit the American War Mothers Memorial, which honors mothers of soldiers who have served in the military since World War I.
6. General John J. Pershing In Laclede
John J. Pershing grew up in this small town, where he taught for a couple of years before attending the Military Academy in West Point, New York. While at West Point, he invented jumping jacks as an exercise for fellow cadets. Pershing would go on to lead the allied effort during World War I, eventually rising to the rank of General of the Armies, which is the highest military rank available. He historically outranks every other person to serve as a five-star general. His story is told at the Gen. John J. Pershing Boyhood Home State Historic Site. A statue of Pershing is located near the house as part of a veterans memorial. Prairie Mound School, on the museum’s grounds, features a gallery of exhibits showcasing the general’s life.
7. Walt Disney In Marceline
To Walt Disney, Marceline was Disneyland. While he lived in Marceline for only five years, the town had such an impact on him that he considered it his hometown. It also set the foundation for his Disney philosophy of having customers enjoy their park experience and go home happy. His story is told through a series of exhibits at the Walt Disney Hometown Museum, including family heirlooms and Disney studio and park memorabilia. While in Marceline, enjoy a stroll through an old-fashioned downtown and visit the Dreaming Tree, a spot where Disney and his sister would spend time laying on the ground, looking skyward, and fantasizing about their future.
Pro Tip: For an old-fashioned small-town dining experience, visit Ma Vic’s Corner Cafe, home to burgers and pizza.
8. West Winery In Macon
With a tasting room in downtown Macon, West Winery has been producing wine since 2007. In 2009, the winery moved to its current location inside an 1880s building. West Winery is different from other urban wineries in that you can watch new wine being made as you enjoy your drink. With wines made from grapes and other fruits, such as pears, you can enjoy a variety of white and red wines at the tasting room.
9. Mark Twain And Molly Brown In Hannibal
Your visit to Hannibal scores a daily double, as you can visit historical spots for America’s greatest storyteller, Mark Twain, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Mark Twain grew up as Samuel Clemens before embarking on a life that took him for rides on riverboats and working as a reporter before he became the author of novels including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Basing Huck Finn on himself, Tom Sawyer on his best friend, and Becky Thatcher on their friend Becky, the children’s stories come alive as you visit the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum. Test your best Huck and Tom skills to see if you can “persuade” an innocent passerby to finish whitewashing the fence outside of Huck’s (Clemens’s) home. You’ll also want to visit the downtown museum, a couple blocks from the homes, which includes impressive exhibits based on Twain’s books.
Since Twain’s stories included tales of river boat adventures, no visit to Hannibal is complete without a Mississippi River cruise. For nearly 35 years, the Mark Twain Riverboat has offered river tours seasonally, from April to November. With sightseeing and dinner cruises available, you’re sure to have a fun time aboard the river boat.
Born in 1867, the daughter of Irish immigrants, Margaret Tobin grew up in Hannibal before marrying J.J. Brown. Nicknamed Molly after her death, she was known as Maggie to family and friends. The Browns became “new money” wealthy after J.J. acquired a Colorado mining company in the mid-1890s. The Molly Brown Birthplace and Museum (closed for the remainder of 2020) features a room designed to resemble an Irish immigrant’s house, while other rooms highlight her life, including the Titanic story. She unsuccessfully attempted to get lifeboats to return to the ship to save people before the luxury ship sank. She devoted her life to public causes, including two campaigns for the United States Senate. The musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown was based on her life.
Pro Tip: If you like physical challenges, climb the 244 steep steps to the top of the Mark Twain Memorial Lighthouse atop Cardiff Hill, an area where Huck Finn and friends enjoyed playing. There is also a parking lot near the top if you want to drive to the lighthouse.