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.
"In my opinion, he got off to a rough start — that's what built him into a local hero. The Civil War was a hell of a place to be in Missouri. They made him what he was, and he fell right into it," said Rhodes, of Platte City, who recalls receiving a personal tour of the home from a James relative about 35 years ago. The family continued to give tours for decades after the deaths of Jesse James and his mother. For many years, Frank James even led the tours — perhaps telling of the gang's exploits after being acquitted of criminal charges in two robbery trials. It was Frank James who began charging 50 cents for tours around 1910, said Elizabeth Beckett, the Clay County historic sites director.
When Clay County began overseeing the James home in 1978, the roof had sunk to chest-level, the wooden floors had become buried in dirt and the house was held upright by ropes and trees. But after two restorations, 75 percent of the original materials remain. The two-room cabin, which family members expanded after James' death, still contains a parlor table from the outlaw's childhood and other furnishings used by the family.
The grave site no longer contains Jesse James' body, which was moved to a traditional cemetery alongside his wife. But it is still stocked with pebbles.
Cabin For Carver
The James home is perhaps one of the most authentic birthplace sites.
There is no home, for example, at the birthplace of George Washington Carver near Diamond in southwest Missouri. Instead, the National Park Service has constructed a replica log cabin foundation at the approximate site where Carver is believed to have been born as a slave.
Mark Twain's and J.C. Penney's birthplace homes both have been moved from their original foundations.
Penney's home was transported from the country to downtown Hamilton and contains no original items other than a few family photographs. Twain's 423-square-foot birthplace home was moved from the tiny town of Florida to the shelter of a museum constructed in the nearby Mark Twain State Park. It, too, lacks any verifiably original furnishings, although it does include a cradle owned by the town that might have been used to hold Twain. Truman's birthplace home sits on its original site in Lamar but lacks original indoor items, largely because the future president's family moved when he was just 11 months old. As it is, Truman's hometown is most commonly considered Independence, where a home he lived in as an adult is open for tours.
While the original site and furnishings of a house may be important to historians, many tourists are simply looking for an
impression of what life was like in a famous person's formative years.
Childhood historic sites are trying to convey that vague, warm quality of "home," said Denzil Heaney, administrator of the Gen. John J. Pershing Boyhood Home in Laclede.
For Pershing, home was always the nine-room Gothic house where he lived from age 6 until he entered the U.S. Military Academy in his early 20s. Although his family had long since moved, Pershing still would stay in the home when he returned to Laclede as a general.
For Walt Disney, "home" was the nearby northern Missouri town of Marceline, even though he only lived there from ages 5 to 11 and went on to gain fame in California. That's because Disney's childhood doodlings gained form in Marceline, which he used as a prototype for some of his later film and amusement park scenes.
Leave a Message
Disney's boyhood house is not open for tours, but its current occupants encourages visitors to walk on the property to a large cottonwood tree under which Disney would lie down to draw. A mowed trail with interpretative signs also leads to a barn — modeled after Disney's — where tourists are encouraged to scrawl messages on the walls.
Heaney hopes people will take a similar step back in time when they tour Pershing's boyhood home. He did, which is why he applied to become the director of the state historic site after visiting it on vacation two years ago. "When I first came here to tour the site, I could really see that sense of home," Heaney said. "I could see where his room was and how the home was all situated… and I think that really brought it to life for me."
If You Go…
GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER BIRTHPLACE: Located near Diamond; from Missouri 59, go west on Route V 2 miles then south on Newton County Road 16Q. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. No admission. Contact (417) 325-4151 or www.nps.gov/gwca.
HARRY TRUMAN BIRTHPLACE: Located just off U.S. 160 in Lamar. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. No admission. Contact (417) 682-2279 or www.mostateparks.com. J.C. PENNEY BIRTHPLACE: Located downtown Hamilton on U.S. 13. Open 9:30 a.m.-noon and 12:30 p.m.-4 p.m., Monday through Friday. No admission. Call (816) 583-2168. JESSE JAMES BIRTHPLACE: Located a few miles northeast of Kearney on Missouri 92. Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily. Admission: adults, $6.50; age 55 and older, $5.50; children 8-15, $3.50. Call (816) 628-6065. JOHN J. PERSHING BOYHOOD HOME: Located in Laclede; from U.S. 36, go north on Missouri 5 into town and follow the signs. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: adults, $2.50; children 6-12, $1.50; younger children, free. Contact (660) 963-2525 or visit www.mostateparks.com. MARK TWAIN BIRTHPLACE: Located in Mark Twain State Park near Florida, Mo.; from Missouri 107, go east on Route U. Open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Admission: adults, $2.50; children 6-12, $1.50; younger children, free. Contact (573) 565-3449 or www.mostateparks.com. MARK TWAIN BOYHOOD HOME: Located in downtown Hannibal. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon-4 p.m. Sunday. Admission: adults, $6; children 6-12, $3; younger children, free. Contact (573) 221-9010 or www.marktwainmuseum.org. WALT DISNEY BOYHOOD HOME: Located near the northern city limit sign of Marceline on Missouri 5, just a few miles south of U.S. 36. The home is privately owned and not open for tours, but visitors are welcome to walk down a path to a cottonwood tree under which Disney used to draw and are encouraged to scrawl messages in a barn. No admission. Call (660) 376-2332.