Arts & Culture

A trip through Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska reveals varied historical attractions

The Homestead National Monument located in Beatrice, Neb., commemorates passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which allo
The Homestead National Monument located in Beatrice, Neb., commemorates passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed any qualified person to claim up to 160 acres of federally owned land in exchange for five years of residence and the cultivation and improvement of the property. (Marion Patterson photos)
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As a cold January wind swirled around our home, we discovered an upcoming six-day void in our March schedules. We could fit in a fun trip. A fond memory of the three years we spent living in Kansas was its March sunshine. For years we’d been intrigued with the Pony Express, so we made plans to follow its route from St. Joseph, Mo., into Kansas, and then swing north into Nebraska to visit Willa Cather’s childhood home in Red Cloud, the Homestead National Monument near Beatrice and the spectacular Lied Lodge in eastern Nebraska.

We weren’t disappointed. On our six-day early March trip, Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska sunshine warmed our chilled bones, and the brief trip offered pleasant surprises and deepened our understanding of how this relatively small area of the Midwest played a critically important role in our nation’s history, especially in the mid to late years of the 1800s. Our trip was just ahead of the coronavirus pandemic that has swept the globe.

In the 1800s, St. Joseph, Mo., was a great stepping off point for pioneers, gold seekers, desperados and families seeking free and inexpensive land to farm. Tens of thousands of travelers filtered through town, providing opportunities for entrepreneurs to profit immensely. Those in transportation, communications, manufacturing and food processing especially profited. St. Joe’s glory days are reflected today in many mansions built by wealthy residents.

According to Beth Conway of the St. Joseph Convention and Visitors Bureau, the town has more museums per capita than Washington, D.C. Several of these are the once-grand homes of early capitalists. We would have liked to tour them but prioritized the Pony Express Museum, Patee House, the Walter Cronkite Memorial and the Glore Psychiatric Museum.

The Pony Express

Nearly everyone who has heard of the Pony Express has a mental image of a dashing rider on a spirited horse racing across the prairie or through mountain passes. Pony Express buffs simply call it the “Pony.”

We started our adventure with a tour of the Pony Express National Museum near downtown St. Joseph. Executive Director Cindy Daffron helped us understand how short-lived, yet important, it was. When Johnny Fry, the Pony’s first rider, headed west on April 3, 1860, the telegraph had reached St. Joe, but there was no fast communication between there and Sacramento, Calif., about 2,100 trail miles to the west. When the Pony started, California and Oregon already were states and the nation was embroiled in deciding whether slavery would expand as new states were created west of Missouri. The balance of power between north and south hung by a thread, and the 1860 presidential election would predict whether the nation would descend into civil war. The Pony delivered the news of Abraham Lincoln’s victory to the West.

Here are some details of the Pony Express:

• It was a series of relay stations. An individual rider would normally change horses about every 10 miles and continue on for about 100 miles before resting and then returning. Riders had but two minutes to jump off a tired horse, toss their mochila — the over-saddle sack that held mailbags — on a fresh mount and race off.

• The Pony Route didn’t go through trackless wilderness. Rather, it mostly followed well-trod wagon roads, including much of the Oregon Trail.

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• It cost $5 to mail a letter on the Pony in 1860. That’s about $140 today. A pretty expensive stamp! Because of cost, the Pony mostly carried important news and business data. It was too expensive for routine correspondence.

• Managing the Pony took many riders, more horses and about 10 days for a letter from St. Joe to reach Sacramento, Calif. The record crossing was seven days and seven hours.

• The Pony was a private company that never made a profit. It lasted only about 18 months and folded when the transcontinental telegraph was completed in 1861. The Transcontinental Railroad followed only a few years later.

• Although dashing riders are the best-known feature of the Pony, it took a vast logistical effort to create and maintain the route. Hundreds of horses had to be purchased and cared for and many relay and home stations built and staffed. Relay stations, located about 10 miles apart, were where riders jumped off tired horses and mounted fresh ones. Home stations were 75 to 100 miles apart and were where riders ended their shift after being in the saddle for 10 to 12 hours.

• The Pony was a private company founded by William Russell, Alexander Majors and William Waddell. Its official name was the cumbersome COC&PPEC.

The Pony Express museum is housed in the building where horses were tended and riders started their journey. After picking up a horse, a rider would cross the street into the Patee Hotel, which was the main Pony Express office. Here he would gather his mochila, the leather over-saddle bag that contained four locked mail pouches, and set off westward. The first hurdle was crossing the nearby Missouri River on a steam ferry and then trotting west across the prairie at an average speed of 10 mph.

After visiting the Pony Express Museum, we sauntered over to the Patee House Museum. There we saw where riders picked up mail and dashed off. We viewed a fascinating array of exhibits with mostly an Old West theme. Among many other things, we learned that Aunt Jemima pancake mix and the Saltine cracker were invented in St. Joseph. Next door is the Jesse James House, where the notorious outlaw was murdered.

Although our trip was mostly to focus on the mid and late 1800s, we couldn’t pass up a visit to the Walter Cronkite Memorial on the campus of Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph. We grew up watching Cronkite’s memorable and credible broadcasts of the space program, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. The journalist was born in St. Joe, and the memorial is a series of exhibits depicting his career. We were thrilled to sit at the desk that once was in the CBS newsroom and touch his manual typewriter. From there we went to a truly creepy, yet important, series of three museums under one roof. The Glore Psychiatric Museum is housed in what once was Missouri Lunatic Asylum #2. Seeing how mentally ill patients were shackled, experimented on and even confined to cages was sobering. Adjoining were the American Indian History Galleries and the Black Archives Museum. All three museums were fascinating, sobering, not fun, yet important to learn how poorly society treated minorities.

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More fun was driving St. Joseph’s 26-mile-long parkway that links Krug Park in the northern edge of the city with Hyde Park in the south. Designed in 1918 by landscape architect George Burnap, the pleasant two-lane road twists and turns as it ducks under crossroads and bisects woods and wetlands. Set in the heart of a city of 75,000 people, it feels like a scenic rural drive. A bicycle and hiking trail parallels most of it.

St. Joe has the normal phalanx of chain restaurants and hotels. We prefer to ferret out locally owned eateries that embrace the character of any place we visit. Lunch at the Cafe Pony Espresso in downtown was cozy, and one night we dined at the Hoof and Horn near the old stockyards in an industrial area. It features hearty meat meals as freight trains roar by on nearby tracks. We opted to stay in the Krug Carriage House Airbnb, a quiet, cozy apartment above the old carriage house. The gas fireplace warmed the evenings, and the sunrise view east with the cupola silhouetted against a brilliant morning sky added to the restful ambience. Henry Krug once was a wealthy resident who built a grand mansion not open to the public, but the carriage house was a pleasant place for us to stay. Adjoining is the large Krug Park that is open to the public. St. Joseph is about 300 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids and 30 minutes north of Kansas City, putting it in easy range for a long weekend.

On to Kansas for More History

After crossing the Missouri River at St. Joseph, we drove west to visit the Pony Express Barn and Museum in Marysville, Kan. Joseph Cottrell built the limestone structure to stable horses for the Pony. Later it was a key stop on the Overland Stage Route. The barn and museum contain many displays about the Pony and stagecoach era.

From Marysville the Pony route cut north into Nebraska and eventually followed the Oregon Trail. We veered west and slightly south to tour the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia. It relates a fascinating part of American history that spans a six-decade effort that started just before the Pony.

From 1854 to 1929, an estimated 250,000 orphaned, abandoned and homeless children were placed with families in rural communities throughout the United States and 10 other countries. Many of the children were from New York and other large Eastern cities. This was an era when millions of immigrants swarmed into the United States. Many lived in cramped tenements. Unfortunate kids were forced to live on the street picking rags, hawking newspapers and seeking anything that might yield a few coins.

The existence was grim.

The Glore Psychiatric Museum showed how people were inhumanely treated, but the Orphan Train Museum was a contrast. There we learned how compassionate people helped transport and place orphaned children in loving families in healthy places.

The Orphan Train movement was one of the largest social reform relocation efforts in our country and was the beginning of documented foster care in America. Some “train riders,” as they were called, ended up with Iowa families, but many went to Kansas.

Curator Shaley George said, “Some of the descendants of train riders know their history, but a lot don’t.”

After three days of travel, it was time to begin a big swing toward home. We left Concordia and drove slightly westward to view the world’s largest ball of twine created by a community, in Cawker City, Kan. We then turned north to the Geographic Center of the 48 contiguous states just south of the Nebraska border and slightly west of U.S. Highway 281. After that, it was only a short drive to Red Cloud, Neb.

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Noted American author Willa Cather spent her formative childhood years in Red Cloud in the early days of settlement. She graduated from Red Cloud High School and the University of Nebraska. Although she did most of her writing in New York City, her well-known books, such as, “Song of the Lark,” “O Pioneers” and “My Antonia,” are set in the land of her youth.

We enjoyed visiting the Willa Cather Center downtown. Education coordinator Rachel Olsen guided us through her childhood home and church as well as the restored railroad depot. We stayed in a spacious Airbnb called Willa’s Villa above the Cather museum. As the town settled in for the night, we lit candles and votives, sipped wine and enjoyed the quiet and stars. The next morning, the brilliant sunrise on the prairie reminded us of why we loved living in Kansas so much — wide open spaces!

Although a brand-new town when Cather was a child, Red Cloud already had 2,500 residents. The Homestead Act was new, and thousands of people had arrived in Nebraska seeking free land. About a third of them were foreign born. Now just over 1,000 people live in this quiet community.

Continuing homeward, we learned more Midwest history at Homestead National Monument near Beatrice, Neb. It is on the site of the first homestead and operated by the National Park Service. Life was rugged in this windswept land, yet people survived and thrived. A good lesson for today.

Just a year after the demise of the Pony Express in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, giving 160 acres of free land to settlers. It stimulated a land rush and greatly speeded the settlement of many parts of the country, especially the Great Plains. The Civil War enabled Congress to pass the legislation. Before the war, Southern politicians recognized that giving land away would lure mostly anti-slavery settlers who would establish free states and upset the political balance. With the war in progress, there was no Southern opposition.

Many Iowans believe our state’s farms were acquired through the Homestead Act, but most of the Hawkeye State already was settled when the law was passed. Only a small amount of Iowa’s land was privatized through the Homestead Act, but vast areas of the Great Plains were truly homesteaded. Some land was transferred to settlers in many other states, including Florida. The last homestead was granted to a settler in Alaska in 1988, two years after the act was repealed.

The National Park Service Visitor Center helped us understand how so much of the United States was shifted from public to private ownership and the difficulties settlers had creating farms in remote places with hostile climates. Admission is free, and trails wind through the original farm.

We spent our last night in the luxurious Lied Lodge at the National Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska City, Neb.

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The mostly treeless Midwest was being rapidly settled in 1872 when J. Sterling Morton, a new Nebraska resident, founded Arbor Day. Through his work, millions of trees were planted nationally, and the Arbor Day tradition continues today.

Just a few minutes’ walk from Lied Lodge is a large hazelnut planting, a pleasant wood, a large apple orchard and a Tree Adventure for families to enjoy.

Our circuit of Midwest history took us on a 1,200-mile, six-day loop through four states but any of the sites can be reached in less time.

St. Joseph is just 300 miles from Cedar Rapids. Red Cloud is about 470 miles west with Homestead National Monument and Lied Lodge along the same route.

We returned home just ahead of the pandemic. These words from Arbor Day founder Morton can guide us through this difficult time: “Other holidays repose upon the past. Arbor Day proposes for the future.”

What a great spring to plant a garden or a tree.

If You Go

• St. Joseph, Mo: stjoemo.org

• Marysville, visitmarysvilleks.org

• National Orphan Train Complex: orphantraindepot.org

• Willa Cather Center: willacather.org

• Homestead National Monument: nps.gov/home; (402) 223-3514

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• National Arbor Day Foundation’s Lied Lodge: liedlodge.org

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