The town of Independence, Missouri immediately conjures images of former President Harry S. Truman. On a quiet, residential street, visitors can experience the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site including a visit to the Truman home.
Harry Truman was an accidental president, who never wanted the job and referred to the White House as “the great white jail”. Truman’s political career began as a judge, progressing to a U.S. senator and then vice president to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. When Roosevelt died in 1945, Truman became president in the midst of World War II. Known for both his humility and decisiveness, Truman inherited a host of problems as president including the Manhattan Project (atomic bomb), involvement in a World War and later the start of the Cold War and the Korean War. Truman, himself, worried that he might not be up to the job of president. Even as vice president, Truman had little interaction with President Roosevelt and was initially unaware of the Manhattan Project on becoming president.
Truman’s home in Independence was built in 1867 and originally belonged to his mother-in-law, Madge Wallace. A visit to the house, which is managed by the National Park Service, is a must and tells a lot about Harry Truman the man. Truman was devoted to his wife Bess, and their love story began in 1910. Truman’s cousins, Nellie and Ethel Noland, lived across the street from the Wallace home. Truman happened to be returning a borrowed cake plate to the Wallace house when Bess opened the door. Their courtship lasted nine years and Truman tried everything to woo Bess, including taking her fishing. The Noland House is now part of the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site and includes a free museum with interesting photos and quotes about Truman’s courtship of Bess. Family meant everything to this president and some of the Noland House exhibits on the 1,200 letters he wrote to Bess between 1911 and 1959 are touching and I found myself getting emotional. I had to laugh that one display includes information that in 1955, Truman found his wife burning some of the letters. Truman immediately exclaimed “Think of the history” whereupon Bess countered “I have”.
Tickets to the Truman house are $5.00 and can be bought at the visitor center located at Main Street at Truman Road, a few blocks from the house. Tickets are first-come, first-serve, and tour groups are small, restricted to eight persons each. I found this group size perfect for seeing the house as everyone can ask questions. Starting at the visitor center, tourists can view a film, “At Home with Harry and Bess”, which gives insight into Truman’s great love of both Bess and Independence. The visitor center also includes some of Truman’s many ties. I didn’t realize that Truman was a fan of brightly colored or patterned neckties (and yes, some were pretty awful), often to just get a response from either his wife or daughter, Margaret.
Our tour was guided by Ranger James who was clearly enthusiastic about his subject. The tour starts in the garden and heads through the screened back porch, which the Trumans loved for privacy. The garage is open with Harry Truman’s last car, a Chrysler Newport, on display–a vehicle he enjoyed driving around Independence.
The tour stays on the first floor and includes a kitchen which isn’t what I would have expected from a former president. The cabinets are green and Truman liked the wallpaper so much, he even wall-papered the ceiling. My personal favorite room was the library, with the bookshelves designed by Truman himself. Truman was an avid reader, and it is believed he had read all the books in the Independence Library. Our tour included information that Truman read five newspapers daily, as he never trusted the opinion of any one newspaper.
Stories about life in the house are fascinating and sadly, Truman spent much of his life never getting his mother-in-law’s acceptance. I was stunned to hear that his mother-in-law never voted for him. The dining room makes it clear of how little Madge Wallace felt about Truman’s accomplishments as some presidential china was allowed to be displayed, but only on the bottom shelf of the china cabinet.
A painting in the parlor of Bess Truman was from the White House. The Truman family liked this portrait and when the White House found the painting was missing, Mrs. Truman refused to give it back. The artist had to come to Independence to make two copies.
Music was a strong part of the Truman family. I enjoyed hearing the story that Margaret Truman was given a grand piano for her 9th birthday (which is on display in the parlor). Her reaction was disappointment, as she wanted an electric train set.
Readers of this blog will know that I am a huge fan of the National Park Service and the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site is well managed. The 30 minute house tour, as well as a visit to the Noland Museum and the visitor center should be on any tourist agenda.
Truman was a man who was humble and relied heavily on the love of his wife and daughter. His decisiveness was well-known and the phrase “The Buck Stops Here” was popularized by Truman. An accidental president who worried whether he was up to the task, he is now considered by historians to be on the various lists of the top ten United States presidents.
Humility, decisiveness and a great love story. For visitors to the Kansas City area, be sure to stop in Independence for a remarkable hands-on history lesson.
Harry S. Truman National Historic Site
223 North Main Street
Independence, Missouri 64050
Home located at:
219 N. Delaware Avenue in Independence