In April of 2015, Joann and Ruth visited St. Joseph, Missouri. Since my husband Vern and I had lived there several years before that, Joann asked if I would write this blog post about the places and interesting architecture that she photographed on their visit there.
It was a pleasant spring morning on Monday, April 26, 1999 when Vern and I left our hotel in historic downtown St. Joseph, Missouri to drive to the closing of our new home there. I had taken a new position the year before with my long-term employer, which necessitated that we relocate from Wisconsin to St. Joe where the company has a large office that I would be working out of.
We thought we had left the hotel in plenty of time to travel the short distance to a nearby bank for our closing at 9:00 am. We had no idea that we would encounter a traffic jam in quiet downtown St. Joe – a traffic jam of covered wagons!
This Wagon Train of about 20 covered wagons and many riders on horseback was a reenactment to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the California Trail. The group was setting out from St. Joseph, the place where the Old West and the California Trail began.
The discovery of gold in California in 1848 brought more than 100,000 determined pioneers through St. Joseph on their journey westward. Many came by steamboat and it was here that they purchased wagons, oxen and supplies.
Others came to St. Joe in wagon trains, where they bought more supplies and waited to be ferried across the river on their journey westward. Because St. Joseph was such an important “jumping-off point” in the great westward migration, it became known as the “Queen of River Cities”.
After getting settled into our new home in St. Joe, we set out to learn more about this historic community that we were living in. At first glance, St. Joe may seem like just a sleepy cowtown (the stockyards have been in operation there since 1887), with many old downtown buildings, some of which are no longer in use. Hickory Hall in downtown St. Joe housed the Hickory Theatre, which opened in September of 1923, showing the silent movie “Without Compromise” starring William Farnum. Its last day as a theater was May 5, 1958.
We quickly learned that the people are Midwest-friendly and that there is so much more to this intriguing and interesting city of about 75,000 people on the Missouri River just north of Kansas City. The C. D. Smith Drug Company building dates back to the late 1880s when C. D. Smith, along with his brother Samuel and two other partners, built the building for a wholesale drug supply house.
In addition to being known as the outfitting post for many thousands of emigrants heading west to seek their fortune in gold or for a better life, St. Joseph is well known for its role with the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company, better known as “The Pony Express”.
St. Joe was selected as the eastern terminus of the mail service because both the railroads and telegraphs connected St. Joseph with the east, but those services did not yet extend west beyond St. Joe. Sacramento, California was selected as the western terminus for the new mail service.
On April 3, 1860 at 7:00 pm, mail arrived in St. Joseph from the east by train. The mail was quickly taken to the stables of the transfer company and Johnny Fry set out on the first east to west ride of the Pony Express. Fry would ride for 90 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles, before relaying the mail to another rider. That same day, another rider left Sacramento, California headed for St. Joseph with the eastbound mail.
After covering nearly 2,000 miles in each direction, both the westbound and eastbound mail arrived at their destinations ten days later on April 14, 1860. Over the next 18 months, 120 Pony Express riders would ride 650,000 miles under sometimes dangerous circumstances to assure that the mail was delivered as quickly as possible.
Though there were some mishaps (horses stumbling during rides at breakneck speeds) and some encounters with Indians (only one rider was killed by Indians), the mail was delivered with only one instance of lost mail. This impressive mail service lasted for just over 18 months when, on October 24, 1861, the Pony Express was discontinued after the Overland Telegraph Company completed its construction of the telegraph lines to California. The original Pony Express Stables building in St. Joseph, an internationally known landmark, is now a museum with many “hands-on” experiences for families such as dressing in pioneer clothing.
St. Joe has several other museums in addition to the Pony Express National Museum. One of those is the Patee House Museum, owned and operated by The Pony Express Historical Association. The Patee House Hotel was built by John Patee and completed in 1858. At the time, it was the largest and most modern hotel west of the Mississippi and had many luxury amenities, such as gas lights, hot and cold running water, flush toilets, and a cupola for better air circulation.
In 1860, the businessmen of the Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company, William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell, set up headquarters for the Pony Express on the first floor of Patee House. Riders would pick up the mail there before their rides westward and riders who did not live in the area also stayed at the hotel.
In addition to its original use as a luxury hotel, the Patee House had many other occupancies over the years. During the Civil war it housed the Provost Marshal’s office and after the war, the grand ballroom served as a courtroom to try Confederate officers. Then, for a number of years, the hotel reverted intermittently between other occupancies (including two different times as a “Female College”) and then again operating as a hotel.
From 1886 to the late 1950s, it housed a garment factory, after which it fell into disrepair before concerned citizens raised funds and saved the building from demolition. In 1965, the Patee House was designated as a National Historic Landmark for its role as the Headquarters for the Pony Express.
Today, the four floors of the Patee House Museum display many interesting historical exhibits, including hotel rooms from the building’s heyday, a Civil War exhibit, a full-sized carousel, Native American displays, and the replica “Streets of Old St. Joe” which includes a reproduction of the dental office of Dr. Walter Cronkite Sr. - yes, broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite was born in St. Joe!
Located next to the Patee House Museum is the Jesse James Home. The outlaw, Jesse James, was the leader of the James–Younger Gang. And although he was sometimes kind to the poor, he was also a murderer, robber and horse thief. Jesse, his brother Frank and the gang were involved in many robberies of stagecoaches, trains and banks across numerous states.
In December of 1881, Jesse and his wife Zee rented a house in St. Joseph, Missouri. It was in this home that Jesse James was shot and killed on April 3, 1882 by Robert Ford. Robert and his brother Charles were invited to the James home to help plan one last great bank robbery after which Jesse planned to settle down there with his wife and children. Ford’s motive was to collect the $10,000 reward that was on Jesse’s head.
In addition to all of the old west history, we also learned that there are many arts, entertainment and cultural opportunities in St. Joe as well as many festivals and parades. One of the venues where we attended many live theater and concert events during our nearly five years in St. Joe was the beautiful Missouri Theater, St. Joe’s regional center for the arts.
Originally constructed as a Paramount Studios movie palace, the Missouri Theater opened on the evening of June 26, 1927. Excited patrons paid $0.25 admission to see the silent feature film "Rough House Rosie”. It’s amusing now to think that this stunningly beautiful, exquisitely ornate theater was originally built for viewing silent films. In 1979, the Missouri Theater was added to the National Register of Historic Places. A $1.9 million dollar renovation was completed in 2002. The Missouri Theater is one of only a few remaining Hollywood-Oriental style theaters still in use as a theater.
Another beautiful structure in St. Joseph is the Immaculate Conception Church, also known as Twin Spires. It is one of the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in northwestern Missouri. It was built in 1908 with stained glass windows imported from Innsbruck, Austria, which depict the life of Mary, Mother of Jesus, from her birth to her coronation as Queen of Heaven.
After congregation membership declined during the 1970s, the Immaculate Conception Parish was merged with Saints Peter and Paul Parish and the new parish was called Queen of the Apostles. The altars from Saints Peter and Paul Church were “rescued” and brought to Immaculate Conception. Due to a continued decline in parish membership, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph closed the church in 1992. Local residents then formed the Twin Spires organization and purchased the church.
The Twin Spires organization opened the church building as a religious history museum and also rented it as a wedding chapel, meeting place, and concert hall. We attended the audience-participation play “Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding” at Twin Spires while we lived in St. Joe. The audience members were the “wedding guests”. The “wedding” was in the church sanctuary and the “reception” and dinner were in the church basement. In 2015, a private Catholic group purchased the church and it is now The Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. While we don’t have a photo of the original interior of the church, it was very similar to the interior of Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Petersburg, Iowa which was constructed two years earlier in 1906, an interesting coincidence.
There is so much more to do and see in this unassuming city but I’ll end with a fun place we discovered right away. We were driving up the “North Belt Highway” (Highway 169), when a giant pink and white ice cream cone caught our eyes – Kris and Kates Ice Cream stand. It originally opened as an orange-brown waffle cone in 1993 under another name. In 1997, new owners purchased it and gave ownership to their children, Kris and Kate. They painted it pink, and changed to a ’50s and ’60s theme, with pictures of Elvis, era-appropriate cars and of course, rock and roll music playing. It became our favorite spot for a cool and tasty treat during St. Joe’s very hot and humid summers.
If you’re ever in northwest Missouri, be sure to spend some time in friendly St. Joe, MO!
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