Focusing on History
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Focusing on History

Focusing on History in Clay County, Missouri

A past filled with innovation, perspiration and determination

By Dan Christopher

Scanning the slightly musty third-floor workshop, I sense a lingering energy from a business that had thrived in an earlier century. I imagine hushed conversation among diligent factory workers crouched over whirring machines.

Soft daylight streams through the aged windows at this once-bustling Watkins Woolen Mill, a pride of Clay County, Missouri.

Colorful wool yarns, wrapped around rows of spools called ply twisters, stand like sentries guarding a rugged wooden table. Cast-iron looms nearby are as ready for work today as they were in the 1800s. These original looms once crafted cozy blankets, shawls and textiles. They are housed in a sturdy three-story building that had been constructed painstakingly with handmade brick. My camera savors the antiquity.

Thrills from the past
This is my first leisurely change-of-pace venture into America's heartland as a professional photographer. I cruise along I-35, which connects Canada and Mexico, deciding to visit Clay to experience down-home stuff that thrills history buffs, with sites including Watkins Mill.

On a guided tour, I learn that Waltus Watkins, a farmer, entrepreneur, visionary and namesake of Watkins Woolen Mill, began his remarkable plantation in 1839 on a four-acre livestock farm.

Over the next 30 years, along with his wife, Mary Ann, and their 11 children, Watkins grew the spread to a sprawling 3,600-acre agricultural and industrial enterprise. Just northeast of Kearney, the development encompasses the stately mill, a stylish eight-bedroom brick home, three sawmills, a blacksmith shop, a dairy, barns, employee housing and much more.

With cameras in hand, visitors like me stroll the well-manicured historic site that honors both history and tradition from an era of innovation, perspiration and determination.

Relishing the extraordinary achievement, I depart, driving a half-mile to visit a preserved church and school - both of them also built by the ambitious Mr. Watkins.

Jesse James myths and memorabilia
Nearby, in Kearney, is a community renowned for memorabilia, myth and the mystique of notorious outlaw, bank robber and train robber Jesse James and his brother, Frank. The home where Jesse was born is here, now known as the Jesse James Birthplace, it tells the James family story through video, artifacts and a site tour.
I put my camera to use in capturing the home and the grounds.

Before it gets too late, I check in at one of Kearney's many comfortable and affordable hotels, and head back out. I'm told Stables Grill is a good spot to fuel up. After a hearty lunch and friendly conversation, I head south to a fringe of Kansas City.

History alive and well
Three or four bison, half-napping in the lush green pastures, give me a lazy glance as I walk toward Shoal Creek Living History Museum. Warm breezes kick up dusty swirls along an unpaved road that leads me straight into a bygone era.

Ahead I see a pioneer village, bustling with activity. Volunteer villagers dressed in old-world attire busily tend to 19th century chores. Here, history is not only preserved, it is alive. Authentically furnished homes and cabins line the streets. Seventeen of them are original structures brought here from the rolling hillsides of surrounding counties to recreate a slice of America's rural past.

Treating myself to a self-guided tour, I wander the village, keeping my camera busy. I smell home cooking. Close by are out-of-towners with children laughing and loving their freedom to run. A couple of dogs bark; they're welcome here, too.

One family picnics under a shade tree. I chat with another family returning from a walk along the wooded trail, learning that they come here often. Mom and Dad like the education at the museum. Charlie, one of the kids, tells me he likes the gun fights.

Re-enactments are a big deal here. Before long, I hear the thundering hoofs and crackling gunfire.

It's a gen-yew-wine Wild mid-West shoot-em-up. Yelling. Snorting. Blasting. When the dust settles, everyone is safe and sound, and the gunslingers get a round of applause from the city slickers.
An easy drive south from Shoal Creek Living History Museum, Atkins-Johnson Farm and Museum in Gladstone is my next stop. Open to the public three years ago, the 22-acre historic site celebrates the pioneering Atkins family, who settled here in 1830, and the Johnson family, who bought and expanded the home in 1920. The 186-year-old two-story home on beautifully wooded property features several time periods: old and not so old.

Playground for history buffs
On learning I was exploring the area, a local I'd met had mentioned Mount Gilead School and Church, a little west of my hotel in Kearney. Before I call it a day, I make a point to visit. Originally a primitive Baptist church founded in 1830, destroyed by fire in 1862 and rebuilt in 1873, it served congregations for decades. In its rustic graveyard lies one of Abraham Lincoln's cousins alongside some Confederate soldiers. A worthy stop, for sure.

It's been a full day that calls for a late supper in town and a restful night's sleep. Morning invites new opportunities to visit the past and the present. So many options: rockclimbing, theater, fine dining, amusement parks and, of course, history.

A 10-minute drive from Kearney, and I arrive in Liberty, the county seat and home of Jesse James Bank Museum. Though the culprits were never officially proven guilty, the notorious James Gang gets credit for the first daylight bank hold-up in the U.S. Whoever it was absconded with $60,000 from this site on Feb. 13, 1866.
Another highlight is Historic Liberty Jail, where Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and some of his associates spent about five months awaiting trial in 1838–39. Now a modern, domed museum, it's owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and houses a partial replica of the original masonry jail.
A few miles east of Liberty is Historic Pharis Farm, with examples of architecture and riggings used by Revolutionary War veteran Fielding Bell dating to 1836.

Before leaving town, I drive onto the 160-acre farm to inspect several outbuildings, tools and gadgets, and a stately home built with handmade clay bricks. My venture to the tranquility of Clay County is both informative and medicinal. I see why visitors come again and again.

In the meantime, my camera and I continue on our heart-of-America adventure, my purpose invigorated by what I've seen.

Uncover more of Clay County's storied past.

Produced in cooperation with the Missouri Division of Tourism.
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