"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.
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