Perhaps best known as the hometown of the 33rd President of the United States, there’s much more to Independence, Missouri, than Harry Truman’s home, library, and legacy. Located just to the east of Kansas City, Independence is easily accessible and is chock-full of many fascinating, historic, and quirky things to do, see, and experience.
Here’s how to spend a perfect day in this charming Midwestern city.
Tour The Truman Sites
To borrow what was perhaps Truman’s most famous phrase, Independence is where the buck stopped. Harry grew up in Independence as the son of a farmer, first met his future wife Bess at the age of six in church, and got his start in politics at the Jackson County Courthouse as a judge before eventually ascending to our country’s highest office. Truman’s presidency was certainly eventful, including the end of World War II, the start of the Cold War, as well as the beginning of the war in Korea. After his time in Washington, Truman returned to Independence, where he lived out the remainder of his life, eschewing big circuit speeches and largely staying out of the post-presidential spotlight.
Today, visitors can tour several sites related to Truman, his presidency, and his legacy. The Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum is currently undergoing a $30 million renovation and is slated to reopen in 2021, in time to celebrate the 75th anniversary of when Truman became the nation’s 33rd president.
This is the place that houses Truman’s archives, artifacts, and exhibitions related to his life and presidency. The library and museum’s courtyard is also the final resting place of Truman, who opted for a private service at the library instead of a state funeral in Washington, D.C. Bess, their daughter Margaret, and son-in-law Clifton Daniel are also interred here.
Truman’s home in Independence is part of the Harry S Truman National Historic Site. Built in 1867 by Bess Truman’s grandfather, the couple were married on the home’s grounds and lived here before and after their time in Washington. The home is open for free tours, but you must have a ticket. Tickets are available at the visitor’s center. Across the street from Truman’s home -- and part of the national historic site -- is the Noland Home, where Truman’s aunt and uncle lived. The historic courthouse where Truman served as a judge is now the permanent home of the Jackson County Historical Society. The group gives guided tours of Truman’s office and courtroom.
Each of these places gives visitors a feel for who President Truman really was and the profound impact Independence had on him throughout his lifetime.
Follow The Paths Of Pioneers
All roads west came through Independence during the pioneer days, with thousands of people streaming through in the 1800s on their way to seek fortune along the Oregon, Santa Fe, and California Trails. You can learn more about them, their struggles, and Independence’s role in their journeys at the National Frontier Trails Museum 3 miles north of the downtown district. Here, you’ll discover journals, diaries, and exhibits that give you a firsthand feel for what traveling the road west was really like. Train enthusiasts will also want to check out the 1879 Chicago and Alton Railroad Depot. This two-story train station, located on the museum’s grounds, was reconstructed and relocated from its original location by a group of volunteers who offer tours of the historic space.
Marvel At The Mansions
Independence boasts more than its fair share of gorgeous, historic homes. A couple really stand out. The three-story Vaile Mansion, just north of downtown, is a Victorian showcase with marble fireplaces, rich walnut woodwork, and onyx accents. Constructed in 1881 for a wealthy businessman and his wife, today it’s operated as a mansion-museum with tours and special events.
Right on the Santa Fe Trail in the middle of town, the Bingham-Waggoner Estate, built in 1827, has its own special history. It was home for a time to artist George Caleb Bingham, who is still well-known in Missouri and nationally for his murals depicting river life and historic events. The state also holds special events and tours, and the Carriage House Boutique offers a fun collection of merchandise.
Learn The Faith Traditions
While they weren’t seeking gold or fortune, another group of pioneers passed through Independence in the city’s early days. These pioneers, however, were seeking religious freedom. Learn more about the Mormons, their early history in Independence, the difficulties they faced, and their lasting influence at the Latter-day Saints Visitors Center. You can also stroll through the nearby temple lot, a parcel of land where the church intended to build their temple before members were forced out of the state of Missouri in the early 1830s.
The Community of Christ, an offshoot of the Mormon Church, also has a temple and international headquarters here, easily recognizable by its dramatic spiral ceiling.
See Ginger’s Home
While it’s not open to the public, silver screen fans might find a stroll by the Owens-Rogers Home, located at 100 West Moore Street, worthwhile. This small Craftsman-style bungalow was where Ginger Rogers was born and lived for a time with her mother, Lela Owens-Rogers. Lela was impressive in her own right, working as a newspaper writer, a Hollywood screenwriter, and eventually serving as her daughter’s agent. Ginger Rogers, of course, went on to have a legendary Hollywood career, dancing and singing her way into America’s heart with Fred Astaire. The Owens-Rogers Home was restored and served as a museum for a time, which is now shifting from an in-person space to an online format.
Research Your Own Family
Perhaps all the history of Independence has you wondering about your own family’s past. If that’s the case, you’ll want to visit the Midwest Genealogy Center. This is one of the best places in the country to research your family roots -- for free. Its massive online genealogy databases include census records, newspaper articles, and other primary sources. Librarians are on-hand to help you get started, and if you’re looking to do a deeper dive, you can arrange an appointment with a genealogy consultant. This is a great place to take the first steps on learning more about your family story or further refine and focus on work you’ve already done.
If you’re craving some outdoor time, Independence has also got you covered. The Little Blue Trace Trail, an easy-navigated crushed-limestone path, follows the Little Blue River for 15 miles, taking you past urban areas and quiet meadows, fields, and farmland. The George Owens Nature Park features 3 miles of hiking trails, two fishing lakes, and even a butterfly garden. And Waterfall Park, right across from the Bass Pro Shop, is a favorite for locals and visitors alike, with its walking path around an 18-acre lake.
Have A Hair-Raising Experience
Tucked away into a shopping center is one of the most fascinating, strange, and quirky museums we’ve ever come across. Leila’s Hair Museum showcases and celebrates the Victorian-era tradition of hair art. That’s right -- the wreaths, jewelry, and other objects on display here are crafted from human hair. These keepsakes were popular in the late 1800s before photography was available to the general public. Hair art was seen as a way to memorialize loved ones using locks of their hair. There are thousands of pieces here, all collected by Leila Cohoon, a retired cosmetology teacher. Keep your eye out for famous hair, including strands from Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Queen Victoria.
Explore The Square
The best place for shopping, sipping, and strolling in Independence is its city square. Independence Square was the center of action for pioneers coming through on their way out west and remains the city’s hub today. Anchored by the aforementioned Truman Courthouse, here you’ll find a whole host of restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and shops, many housed in historic buildings. For a special treat during your visit, take a covered wagon tour of the square. You’ll hit many of the city’s most famous stops along the way and learn more about the colorful characters who also roamed the streets of Independence during its Wild West days. Don’t miss the Square’s Clinton Soda Fountain for a tasty float or sundae served up in a sweet, nostalgic spot where Harry Truman once worked!
There’s plenty to see and do in Independence, and if you don’t want to try to squeeze it all into one day, you’re in luck as the city offers visitors all sorts of overnight accommodations. There are the usual mid-tier chain hotel options, and there are also several historic inns, boutique hotels, and bed and breakfasts to consider. The city has a good online selection of these options here.
Also, for a special-occasion meal in a one-of-a-kind setting, make reservations at Vivilore. This charming spot, housed in a historic building decorated with fire art, serves modern American cuisine. It’s also well-known for its expansive patio, the perfect place for a sip and nosh. The adjacent gallery carries local art, candles, jewelry, and home goods.