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Rural Missouri Magazine
Where's Harry?
A tour of western Missouri offers a glimpse at Harry Truman's life and the rural background that shaped one of the 20th century's most important leaders

by Jeff Joiner

School children visiting the Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence listen to a guide describe the 1948 presidential race and Truman’s Whistle Stop campaign tour of the country by train. Behind are large photographs of Truman, daugher Maragaret and wife, Bess, waving from the back of a train.

The voice of Harry S Truman welcomes a group of children as they step into the Oval Office. Of course the office is a reproduction and Truman’s voice recorded but the kids, on a tour of the Truman Presidential Museum and Library in Independence, instantly recognize the most famous office in the world. Truman’s Oval Office, decorated as it was when he occupied it from 1945 until 1953, contains one artifact the kids find most interesting, a television with a tiny screen set in a large wooden cabinet. A tour guide tells the group Truman was the first president to have a TV in the Oval Office.

A visit to the Truman Library in Independence is a reminder of some of the most volatile history of the 20th century. As president, Truman witnessed the end of World War II and the beginning of the rebuilding of Europe and Japan. But he also faced the expansion of communism, which led to confrontation in Berlin and the bloody Korean War, and devised a policy to contain communism known as the Truman Doctrine. Often loudly criticized for unpopular decisions, like firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Truman dealt with his heavy responsibilities straight on, without flinching or laying blame.

A portrait of Harry Truman hangs at the Truman Library in Independence.

Many historians credit Truman’s plainspoken manner and upfront “The Buck Stops Here” frankness to his rural upbringing. Born in Lamar and raised on the family farm near Grandview, Truman came from humble beginnings. And once his presidency was finished, he and wife, Bess, returned to their home at 219 North Delaware in Independence where they lived only a few blocks from where Truman’s political career began in the Jackson County Courthouse 30 years earlier.

A real understanding of Truman and how he faced the problems of post-World War II America can’t be appreciated without looking at where the man came from. Fortunately for travelers Truman’s home state offers many places to see and touch the history that shaped the president.

A birthplace in Lamar

Truman was born May 8, 1884 in a small, white frame house in Lamar where he and his parents lived for 11 months before moving to Harrisonville and later Grandview to the north. On the day his first child was born, John Truman planted an Austrian pine tree and today, 119 years later, that tree still lives in the front yard of the house, which has been the Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site since 1959. The house, managed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, recreates a typical midwestern American home at the dawn of the 20th century.

Spring arrives in Lamar at the Truman Birthplace State Historic Site.

Truman was the first person to sign the guest book on the day the historic site was dedicated and typical of his down-to-earth style, he wrote, “Harry Truman, Indepen-dence, Mo., retired farmer.”
A life begun on a farm

The Truman family eventually moved to a 600-acre farm near Grandview in 1887 where they lived for three years before moving to Independence. Harry Truman often worked on the farm as a youngster and was responsible for the operation after his father’s death in 1914 until he joined the military three years later. An Army captain, Truman led an artillery battery during World War I.

What today is called the Truman Farm Home is part of the Harry S Truman National Historic Site administered by the National Park Service, which includes the Truman Home 30 miles away in Independence. A shopping complex called Truman Corners now surrounds what’s left of the family farm, which includes 5 acres of land and the farmhouse, which is not open to the public. The farm is located near the intersection of Highway 71 and Blue Ridge Boulevard.

The Summer White House in Independence

The centerpiece of the Truman National Historic Site is the home that Harry and Bess occupied as a young married couple in 1919. Though he lived for many years in Washington, D.C., first as a United States senator, vice president and then 33rd president of the United States, Truman always considered the house in Independence home. Even during his presidency it was known as the Summer White House.

Truman’s Jackson County Courthouse office featured family photos and a picture of President Roosevelt.

Following the inauguration of Dwight Eisenhower as president in 1954, Harry and Bess returned to Independence where he was occupied with the planning and construction of his presidential library.
Until late in life, Truman was known for taking long walks around Independence, a fact commemorated by the city on its street signs in the Truman Historic District which feature a silhouette of the former president, cane in hand, walking.

Truman lived in the house on Delaware until just before his death on Dec. 26, 1972 at the age of 88. Bess continued to live in their home for another decade and died there. In her will she left the home to the United States and it was dedicated as a national historic site in 1983.

The Truman Home, located on the corner of Truman Road and Delaware Street, is open for tours by National Park Service rangers. Tickets can be purchased at the site visitor’s center on Main Street in downtown Independence.

A library worthy of a president

The crown jewel of Truman’s Missouri is the presidential library which documents in letters and historic papers his legacy as the first president to step into the dark waters of the Cold War, a period that continued until the collapse of the communist government of the United States’ chief adversary, the Soviet Union, in 1991.

The library details in a series of exhibits Truman’s political rise and his presidency including his whistle stop train campaign and upset re-election in 1948. It also documents the dark, early history of the Cold War. A painful reminder of that era is the Purple Heart medal and angry letter sent to Truman by the father of a U.S. soldier killed in Korea. The medal and letter were found in Truman’s desk in his office after his death.

A visiter to the Truman presidential library tries to adjust the president’s tie.

Other Truman historic spots include the Jackson County Courthouse in Independence which maintains the office and courtroom of Presiding County Court Judge Truman and the Elms Hotel in nearby Excelsor Springs where the president holed up during election night in November 1948 when he, and most of the nation’s press, expected Thomas Dewey to defeat him.

By visiting any number of spots in Missouri frequented by the “Man from Independence,” people can appreciate how a simple, rural beginning shaped world history.

For more information:

• The city of Independence is planning a number of events in May to commemorate Truman’s birthday and the 50th anniversary of his return to Independence. Events include the dedication May 3 of the 5-mile Truman Walking Trail. Details about the trail, its dedication and other Truman events are available by contacting Independence Tourism at (816) 325-7111, or online at www.visitindependence.com.

• Information about the Truman Presidential Museum and Library is available by calling 1-800-833-1225, or online at www.trumanlibrary.org.

• For hours and details, including entrance fees, for the Harry S Truman National Historic Site, including the Truman Home in Independence and the Truman Farm Home in Grandview, call (816) 254-9929.

• Information about visiting the Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site in Lamar is available by calling (417) 682-2279, or online at www.mostateparks.com.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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