A magical history tour of the Interstate 70 corridor across Missouri’s mid-section found a mother lode of state parks and historic sites to explore. We discovered musicians, artists, founding fathers, Civil War soldiers and the earliest inhabitants of the state.
The two-day road trip – a perfect remedy for cabin fever as cooler temperatures set in - began in St. Louis with the tinkling piano of Scott Joplin and ended in Kansas City at the perfectly preserved studio of the late Thomas Hart Benton, one of the Midwest’s premier artists. In between was a mansion pock-marked by bullet holes and the best fried chicken in the state.
Missouri State Parks includes 87 parks and historic sites, with about a dozen just a short detour off Interstate 70, including Katy Trail State Park, which crosses over the highway. Our schedule prevented stopping at all of them, but we did fit in six with enough time to enjoy each of these special places.
A Two-Day Adventure
Cookie Jordan was waiting at our first stop. She is the site administrator of the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site, a modest, walk-up flat at 2658A Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis, where ragtime pioneer Scott Joplin and his new bride, Belle, began their life. The rooms are furnished as they would have been when the Joplins lived there from 1901 to 1903.
“He taught piano and violin here, and did a lot of composing,” Jordan said. “He might have written ‘The Entertainer’ here.”
The music of Scott Joplin filled the room as an antique player piano pumped out “Solace,” a beautiful melody that was in the soundtrack of the 1973 movie “The Sting.”
“That’s not ragtime” Jordan said. “Joplin did more than ragtime – he did waltzes, tangoes and marching music. Everybody loves the player piano. We take their requests, but also try to get them to listen to something they’ve never heard.”
The next stop was just across the Missouri River in St. Charles, where Missouri’s original legislators met at what is now the First Missouri State Capitol State Historic Site.
Before Missouri was granted statehood in August 1821, several sites in St. Louis served as the seat of the territorial government. While a permanent state capitol was under construction in Jefferson City, St. Charles was chosen as the temporary capitol.
The historic site includes two Federal-style brick buildings. One building housed a general store. The second floor of the other building was used as the Senate and House chambers, and an office for the governor.
The 11-room complex has been returned to its original state, complete with furnishings from the 1821-1826 period.
The 10-year restoration effort was the catalyst for the living historic district that now includes much of St. Charles’ Main Street. Shops, restaurants and other attractions are housed in the original 18th and 19th century buildings, making for a lively tourist destination.
Nestled in the hills above the Loutre River on the interstate west of Danville is a 120-foot-wide cave that rewrote state history. Archaeologists have uncovered artifacts at Graham Cave State Park that reveal it was used for shelter by humans dating back as early as 10,000 years ago.
Today, visitors are allowed in the arch-like entrance of the cave where interpretive signs explain its original formation, and use by the first Native Americans.
The cave is part of a 365-acre park with a diverse landscape. The park has five short tails that show off its mature forests, glades and river bottoms.
A visit can begin at the parking lot below the cave. A tip: A looping trail leads to the cave and back. Walk it counter-clockwise and the trail is less steep. If you have the time, include adjoining Fern Ridge Trail, which follows a moss-covered ledge back down to the parking lot.
The Oliver Anderson house in Lexington north of the interstate near Kansas City is a grand old mansion full of exquisite antique furniture. But the feature that attracts the most interest is the bullet holes in the walls, inside and out, left from a fierce Civil War fight.
The house is the centerpiece of the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site, which tells the story of three days of bloody fighting in 1861 between the Union army and the Missouri State Guard.
The visitor center describes the Battle of the Hemp Bales, in which Southern forces hid behind rolling bales to advance on the Anderson mansion and capture the Union soldiers inside. The South won this battle, but eventually was run out of the state and lost the war.
Visitors to the historic site should plan to spend an hour or two in the charming town of Lexington, with its antique shops and architectural heritage of Victorian homes. Look for the Civil War cannonball lodged high in a column of the Lafayette County Courthouse in the town square.
The Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site in the Westport area of Kansas City is filled with the furniture and artworks of the family. It looks like Benton and his wife of 52 years, Rita Piacenza, merely stepped out for the day.
Benton bought the four-bedroom limestone house after his triumphant return to Missouri in 1935 as an accomplished artist. The Bentons raised a son and daughter in the home, which still contains 13 original Benton art works, along with the family clothes hanging in the closets and books and magazines on the shelves.
Benton converted a rear carriage house into a studio and worked there nearly every day. On Jan. 19, 1975, he went to the studio to put the finishing touches on a mural he was doing for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tenn. Benton dropped dead of a massive heart attack at the age of 85. Rita died 11 weeks later.
The studio remains as it was at his death. A stretched canvas sits in a frame next to coffee cans filled with brushes and baby food jars caked with dried paint, as if waiting for the artist’s return.
We planned our return trip to St. Louis perfectly, arriving at Arrow Rock State Historic Site west of Boonville in time for lunch.
The quaint village, and its collection of vintage buildings, is just 15 minutes from the interstate, but 175 years back in time. The visitor center tells how it was once a thriving river port that catered to settlers heading West on the Santa Fe Trail.
The artist George Caleb Bingham lived in Arrow Rock, and the town also is home to the J. Huston Tavern, built in 1834 and one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants west of the Mississippi River.
A poll of magazine readers selected the fried chicken at J. Huston as the state’s best, and we asked Chef Spencer Jasper to prove that claim. He returned with two pieces of crispy chicken, a mound of mashed potatoes covered in gravy, green beans with hunks of ham and a pair of biscuits hot from the oven.
“Extra napkins,” Jasper said. “It’s my fried chicken, and I know how juicy it is.”
Good call on the napkins.