Northland sites keep history alive

04/15/2014 4:53 PM

04/20/2014 5:38 PM

The dark wooden bed is set at an angle from the corner of the bedroom. It nearly blocks the door from the drawing room in the one-story white farmhouse.

It’s from this bed that a woman, who was roughly the size of a high school offensive lineman, could see out the small quarter-paned window on the opposite wall. A gray headstone — the shape of the Washington Monument — in the side yard is perfectly framed by the window.

It’s here that Zerelda James, the mother of Frank and Jesse James, could wake from her sleep to make sure that nobody had disturbed her son Jesse’s final resting place. The bed isn’t out of place — it’s a ward against against grave robbers.

Jesse James has been immortalized in films and stories — a minister’s son who became an outlaw. It’s easy to see him and his brother Frank as mythical figures, good with a gun and quick with a quip. But before they became icons of the Old West, the James boys were growing up on a farm in Kearney.

And that farm, which was in the James family for more than 145 years before being purchased by Clay County, sits waiting for you to visit.

History isn’t always framed or boxed or bound. It is alive in the Northland at sites like the James farm, Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site and Shoal Creek Living History Museum.

816 North set out to discover the area’s living history sites and the people who are breathing life into the tales of legendary and ordinary Missourians. It turns out you don’t need a DeLorean to head back in time. You can get there in the same car you use for your daily commute.

In the coming months, Faye Ann Roberts will don her long, black rope skirt to go to work in the doctor’s office at Shoal Creek Living History Museum. In a sparse log cabin, she will transform into Rebekah, a doctor who tends to the herb garden outside and dispenses herbs like lamb’s ear, which was what they used for small bandages in the Civil War era.

“The kids have no idea how the pioneers lived, and it’s just a whole new world,” says Roberts. “It’s important to share it with the next generation, because hopefully they will have a desire to return it to the next generation and pass on the idea of living history.”

A buffalo roams just inside the entrance to the museum. Roberts, who is the treasurer of the Shoal Creek Association, says the group has plans to purchase two calves this summer.

Farther down the trail is the museum, which stretches over 21 buildings and 80 acres inside Hodge Park — a public park maintained by the Kansas City Parks and Recreation Department. Shoal Creek is a faithful re-creation of a 19th-century village with log cabins, a blacksmith, a church and the Thornton Mansion (the only building with electricity on the property). The buildings are closed (although a walking tour is available) outside of special events and prebooked tours. Private tours are available for groups of 10 or more.

During the first Saturdays from June through September, the village comes alive with re-enactors like Roberts and the members of Shoal Creek Questers No. 1363. Roberts, 72, has been a Quester for going on 38 years. Questers is an international nonprofit organization focused on historical preservation and education. Roberts launched the local chapter in 2001.

The 18 members demonstrate Victorian tea pouring, cooking on a wood-burning stove and blacksmithing. In addition to working with school groups and the public, the local Questers chapter has raised $23,550 in the past decade to help purchase period-appropriate furniture and a grandfather clock for the Thornton Mansion.

Talking about the way life used to be is a way for Roberts to connect with her own past.

“My grandfather told us stories at night. We had no TV,” says Roberts. “They were the stories of his childhood, and I think that’s where I got my love of history. I could hear the stories and then see the pictures of him delivering milk.”

A journey to the past for would-be re-enactors often begins at James County Mercantile in Liberty. This modern version of a general store has period-appropriate clothing, props and books about the area’s history.

“The first think we ask everybody is ‘Who are you and what are you portraying?’ 

” says Jean Warren.

Del and Jean Warren have been outfitting re-enactors since 1985. Back then, Del was plying his gunsmithing trade out of a tent at field events. The Warrens still attend and vend at skirmishes and re-enactments across the country. But they set up their home base, which is a block from the Jesse James Bank Museum in Liberty, in 1996.

Having studied printed fabrics and cottons for the past 15 years, Jean works with sites to determine period appropriate clothing. She has worked with the Lyric Opera, University of Missouri-Kansas City drama students and the Kansas City Renaissance Festival. James County Mercantile is where you go if you need to construct a proper corset.

Jean has a team of 10 seamstresses who match designs and shadings to historical periods from the last 150 years. She can outfit a 19th-century man for anywhere from $35 to $1,000, but everything begins with a vest or jacket.

“It wasn’t proper for men to show their shirts or suspenders outside of their family. It was considered underwear,” says Jean.

Jean has played the role of a laundress, scrubbing clothes with lye soap in kettles and then wringing them out.

“You can read it in a book, and that’s boring. You can listen to somebody talk about history, and maybe that’s not so boring,” says Jean. “But if you go to a living-history site, that’s real, and you’re going to remember it a whole lot longer.”

The trees tower over the road that winds through Watkins Woolen Mill State Historic Site. You pass a camp site and wish you’d stopped at the general store a few thousand yards from the park’s entrance so you could be sitting with a fishing pole and a wriggling worm at the edge of a lake.

But once you’ve gone just far enough to think you’ve missed the turnoff, the large brick visitors center will appear alongside a parking lot. Admission to the center is free. There are hands-on demonstrations of how the flywheel powers the mill, detailed dioramas and a flipbook that compares horse-drawn vehicles to modern cars. The mill is roughly a four-minute walk from the visitors center.

Eight sheep graze a few hundred yards from Watkins Woolen Mill. Their coats are gray and white, ballooning out like cotton candy spun by an overzealous carnival worker. On April 19, these sheep will be sheared as part of the Spring on the Farm celebration. Things will be just as they were in 1860, when Watkins Woolen Mill was built. There will be blacksmiths hammering, women making rag dolls, and beans cooking on a wood stove.

But on a cool Saturday in March, a tour guide’s voice is the only one on the plantation. She leads 11 people around the side of the four-story mill over a gravel- and mud-pitted road that could easily claim an unsuspecting visitor’s sneaker.

The mother of one of the three Boy Scouts on the tour points to logs propped in a familiar conical shape and asks whether it’s a tepee. Rebecca, our state-employed tour guide, explains that it’s actually a method for drying wood. The mill at its peak used 20 acres of forest a year to power its boiler. You’ll get to see inside three of the building’s four stories, trailing the path of the wool as it was spun into finished yarn.

Amid small hills dotted with hay bales and cows, the tour of the Jesse James Farm and Museum begins with a 20-minute film that gives an introduction to the James family. You sit in a line of painted wooden pews, surrounded by posters glorifying the Old West, to watch the concise retelling of how the clan came to be on the wrong side of the law.

The exit from the movie room leads into the museum filled with the Jameses’ possessions, many of which were left behind when the farm was sold to Clay County. A trio of saddles in glass cases seems fresh off the trail.

But it’s the Jameses’ former house, a low-slung white building at the end of a winding paved path, that is the reason to stop here. The house is furnished with period-specific items like the wooden footlocker where Frank kept his books while touring in a Wild West show. There are family photos in the drawing room, one of the home’s three original rooms.

From the bedroom where Zerelda, the family matriarch, slept, you can see Jesse James’ original burial plot. The final room on the tour is the original kitchen where the Pinkerton detectives once tried to smoke out the James boys with a hollowed-out cannonball, in the process maiming Zerelda and killing the 8-year-old half-brother of the James duo.

The raid is described earlier in the film at the museum. Although it’s a compelling story on celluloid, the story feels somehow more alive staring into the very fireplace where the cannonball exploded.

“It’s just to have this feeling of visiting the past and preserving it. If you’re able to go and see it, you won’t forget it,” says Faye Ann Roberts.

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