Independence Harry

Leaving St. Louis, we drove across Missouri to our next destination, Independence, and explored the life and Presidency of Harry S Truman. Our tour of “all things Truman” spanned decades of his life, from the drug store where a young Truman once worked, to his final resting place at his Presidential Library and Museum. It was a great day of historical exploration.

September 2014

CLINTON’S SODA FOUNTAIN

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We began our day by stopping into Clinton’s Soda Fountain. Though this iteration of Clinton’s has only been in existence since 1988, it was at this site that a fourteen year old Harry Truman worked his first job at Clinton’s Drug Store. The drug store, thankfully, is not overwhelmingly Truman the way Springfield was all Lincoln all the time.

Here’s a sneak peek of the Presidential Museum with its display regarding Harry’s time at Clinton’s. You can see that the new captures the spirit of the old.

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We grabbed a quick drink and snack at the counter before heading off to the NPS Visitor’s Center.

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HARRY S. TRUMAN NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE

The Harry S. Truman National Historic Site is comprised of multiple locations. In addition to the NPS Visitor’s Center, there is (the Truman Family Farm), his home with wife Elizabeth “Bess” Truman, the church where they were married, as well as other sites in the Truman Historic District (the Presidential Library is separate from the NHS). For our visit we only had time to visit Harry and Bess’s home if we were going to have the opportunity to explore the museum (which we very much wanted to do). We began with the exhibits and movie at the Visitor’s Center before moving on to the historic home.

TRUMAN HOME

The only way to visit the home is to take the guided tour offered by the National Park Service, so we grabbed our tickets and headed down to the house. The beautiful Victorian home was known as the “Summer White House” during Truman’s Presidency – not to be confused with the “Little Whitehouse” located in Key West. Unfortunately, other than exterior shots, the Truman home did not allow photography. I asked why and was told it was to protect the artifacts in the home from light. Since most cameras have the ability to disable flash (and since many National Historic Sites do allow photography) I find that to be a frustrating explanation, but I always abide by the rules on tour. Here’s a photograph of the outside of this beautiful home, along with the historical marker:

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Here’s another look at the exterior of the house:

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In this shot, you’ll notice the top of a wrought iron fence in the foreground. Not a part of the original property, the fence was added by the Secret Service in 1949 to protect the home from “treasure hunters.” Souvenir hunters began to satisfy their needs by literally stealing pieces of the house. One particularly frightening incident had a startled Bess finding two women “touring” the inside of the house. So the fence was erected. Unfortunately, in addition to keeping unwelcome guests out, it also served to keep the Trumans in. Truman hated the fence, and had envisioned taking the fence down after his presidency. But they quickly realized that would never be possible. Fame would not allow for it.

The inside of the house is a bit like a time capsule. Unlike many historic homes where you step back to another century in a home that has been refurbished and done “in the style” of the original home, the Truman home is preserved exactly as it had been (complete with the Trumans’ actual possessions and furnishings), at the time when Bess Truman passed away in 1982 (10 years after Harry). This passage from the NHS website captures it perfectly: “Today, the Truman Home offers a glimpse at the personal life of the 33rd President of the United States. Beautiful in its uncluttered commonness, the Truman Home showcases the simple life the family enjoyed in Independence before and after Harry’s years as President.”

The Trumans were very frugal and there may have been financial reasons for their lifestyle and choice of Independence to retire. Until 1958, ex-presidents did not get a pension. Congress finally passed (and President Eisenhower signed) the law allowing for an annual pension of $25,000 plus office expenses of $50,000 and unlimited postage. Additionally, only after the Kennedy assassination did retired presidents get secret service protection. Until then, the police chief assigned an officer as a part-time bodyguard for the Trumans. It is said that Bess was able to push her shopping cart through the local supermarket without anyone bothering her.

One of the showpieces within the home was a piano. Unaware that the Trumans’ only child Margaret Truman Daniel was a singer and songwriter (as well as a novelist), I was charmed by stories of Margaret’s childhood in Independence including one about the train set she really wanted the Christmas she got her first piano instead.

A later tale about her career as a singer involved her father (the sitting President at the time) writing a pointed letter to a critic who had given her a less a than favorable review. The letter included (among other gems): “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” Apparently it caused a big controversy about how a man who could not control his temper over a bad review could be trusted with the authority to use nuclear weapons. Have things really changed?

Back outside, another “time-capsule” of sorts is located on the grounds. In the garage sits Harry’s final car.

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Harry only drove the 1972 Chrysler Newport for 6 months before his passing, and Bess for another ten years after that. Margaret donated the car to the National Park Service and it remains in the garage at the family home. The license plate 5745 (May 7th, 1945), the date of VE day in Europe – was to serve as a reminder to Harry of this important victory. The plate number is retired and no longer issued.

This however, was the not the same car that Harry Truman took on a long road trip after the presidency. The book “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip” provides great insight into the years following the presidency. I wonder how their trip compared to ours?

Stay tuned as we continue our exploration of the life of the 33rd President with our visit to the Harry S. Truman Museum and Library.

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From August 12 – October 15, 2014 my husband and I traveled the northern United States in my Honda Civic. Cross Country Civic was started (and will eventually be completed) to document our cross country adventure. All comments and questions welcome.

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