Outlaws Jesse and Frank James made a living robbing banks and trains. Apparently, their mother also knew how to rake in the money, although in a legal if crass way.
Not long after an assassin shot Jesse James in 1882, Zerelda James Samuel began giving tours of the home where she raised her boys. She even sold souvenirs.
For 25 cents, visitors could buy a pebble from Jesse's grave in the front yard. And when the rocks got low, she simply replenished them from a creek bed.
Zerelda Samuel may have been one of the first Missourians to promote the birthplace of a famous — or in this case, infamous — native son. But she certainly wasn't the last.
Now, the Clay County government promotes her family home as the Jesse James Farm and Museum, charging $6.50 for adults to tour the home and a nearby museum and still selling pebbles for 25 cents alongside shirts, books and toys.
In the city of Hamilton, the municipal library shares a building with the J.C. Penney Museum, which offers tours of the home where the businessman was born. The federal and state governments also run parks promoting the birthplaces of such famous Missourians as President Harry Truman, author Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) and educator George Washington Carver.
From Truman to Disney
Other sites have been created to promote the childhood homes of Truman and Twain, whose families moved not long after their births, as well as those of Walt Disney and World War I Gen. John Pershing, whose birthplace is disputed but whose elegant boyhood home still stands in north-central Missouri.
Most of the houses passed from one owner to another over the years, undergoing alterations and gaining more modern conveniences. Except for the James home, it was only later — after their former residents gained fame — that someone seized on the tourism potential of the humble beginnings and repaired the deteriorating childhood homes as public showplaces. For some visitors, a look at humble early environments can amplify the magnitude of an individual's achievements. For others, the homes provide insight into the circumstances that shaped the famous figures.
Jesse James' boyhood home, for example, remains relatively secluded in the countryside northeast of the small town of Kearney. It's not hard to imagine how the young Jesse became familiar with guns, especially when one learns how he joined the Confederate Army during the Civil War after Union soldiers beat him, attacked his mother and tried to hang his stepfather at their home.
Sympathy for Jesse James
Later, after Jesse James graduated to a career of armed robbery, private detectives who were hired to find him and Frank threw an incendiary bomb into the family home, killing a younger brother and maiming their mother, who lost an arm. No one knows if Jesse and Frank James were even home at the time.
Yet the event helped shape public sympathy for James, who was reported to have spared women, working-class men and former Confederates from bullets during his holdups.
That's partly why Charles Rhodes, touring the James home with his grandson, is among the many who feel a strange mix of curiosity, respect and pity for James, who might have been branded as a mass murderer in another era.