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Missouri legends and legacies

The story of Missouri is full of fascinating figures and legendary events. Take a tour through the state, and you’ll experience some of the best of both.

From early explorers like Lewis and Clark to musicians, soldiers, outlaws and presidents, Missouri has seen a cast of colorful characters that have shaped its past and its future. Those legends have left a legacy on the state that visitors can experience through museums, tours and hands-on experiences.

Anchored on its eastern and western borders by St. Louis and Kansas City, respectively, Missouri has a lot to offer in its metropolitan destinations. As you travel from one side of the state to the other, you’ll also find smaller communities along the way that have their share of stories to tell.

The tour begins in St. Louis and then makes stops in St. Charles, Jefferson City, Independence, Kansas City and St. Joseph. You could just as easily make the trip in reverse order, however. Either way, plan on spending five days to experience these distinctive Missouri legends and legacies.


Destination St. Louis

Highlight | Ragtime Residence

You may not associate St. Louis with the music of the early 1900s, but the city played an important role in the development of ragtime music, an early predecessor of jazz.

Scott Joplin, who composed such famous ragtime tunes as “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Entertainer,” was an African-American pianist who spent several of his most productive publishing years in Missouri. St. Louis commemorates Joplin with the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site.

The historic site is a museum in the townhome where Joplin and his wife lived during their six-year residence in St. Louis. The space is modest by today’s standards but is outfitted much as it would have been during Joplin’s residence there. A period player piano plays music from Joplin’s repertoire as groups explore exhibits and learn about that early style of American music.

While you’re there: St. Louis has no shortage of other attractions for groups to explore. The Gateway Arch offers a great view of the city and a history of Lewis and Clark’s westward adventure. Groups can also tour the world-class museums in Forest Park or take in a show at the Fabulous Fox Theatre.


Destination St. Charles

Highlight | Riverfront Rendezvous

Not far from St. Louis, the town of St. Charles sits on the banks of the Missouri River. That location has proven historically important, as St. Charles played a significant role in the journey of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery.

Lewis and Clark met in St. Charles in 1804 to begin their trip westward along the Missouri River. To commemorate that, the Lewis and Clark Boat House and Nature Center in St. Charles houses several full-scale replicas of the boats that Lewis and Clark used on their journey.

The museum also has dioramas illustrating some of the scenes the explorers found and exhibits on the Native American cultures they encountered along the way. Outside the museum, the Walk of Discovery takes visitors on a nature walk through wooded areas, wetlands and plants that would have been common in Lewis and Clark’s time.

While you’re there: St. Charles’ cobblestone streets and historic ambiance make it a great place to while away an afternoon. Give your group some free time to browse the boutiques and restaurants on Historic Main Street or to visit with local artists at the Foundry Art Centre.


Destination Jefferson City

Highlight | Haunted Halls

In the center of the state, Jefferson City serves as Missouri’s capital, which has made it the site of many interesting characters and events. Some of the most intriguing resided at the Missouri State Penitentiary, which operated between 1836 and 2004.

After it was decommissioned 10 years ago, the penitentiary opened for tours. Organizers bill the grounds as “the bloodiest 47 acres in America.” At its peak, the prison housed 5,200 inmates. At one point, it was the largest penitentiary in the United States.

Groups can choose from a number of tours available at the penitentiary. History tours can last two to three hours, introducing visitors to housing units, “dungeon cells” and the gas chamber. Along the way, they hear stories about some of the most infamous inmates, escape attempts and riots that took place at the penitentiary. Ghost tours of the penitentiary showcase its supposedly haunted history.

While you’re there: Visitors to Jefferson City can explore a number of buildings related to state government, including the Capitol, the Supreme Court building and the governor’s mansion.


Destination Independence

Highlight | Harry’s Homeplace

Among the most celebrated Missourians to make an impact on the national scene was Harry Truman, the unlikely president who endeared himself to Americans during and after his time in office. Truman spent much of his life in Independence and returned there after his presidency.

Groups can learn all about Truman’s life and legacy at the Harry S. Truman Library and museum. Visitors to the museum see exhibits on Truman’s local life in Independence as well as material dealing with the issues he faced during his presidency.

A tour of the library also includes a view of the office in which Truman worked after his presidency, which looks exactly as it did when he passed away. Truman and his wife, Bess, are both buried in the museum’s courtyard..

While you’re there: Discover more Truman history at the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, which preserves the home where Harry and Bess lived for decades. Groups should also visit the National Frontier Trails Museum to learn about the travelers who journeyed west by wagon from Independence.


Destination Kansas City

Highlight | Museum and Memorial

Not long after the end of World War I, Kansas City leaders formed an association to build a memorial to the men and women who had served during the war. In 1921, more than 100,000 people gathered to see the opening of the completed Liberty Memorial.

Today, the Egyptian Revival-style monument is accompanied by the National World War I Museum, the country’s official institution dedicated to telling the story of the war. The main gallery is located beneath the memorial tower and gives visitors an overview of the war with historic artifacts, videos and immersive special-effects environments.

At the glass bridge connecting the monument and the museum entrance, visitors can stop and reflect over a symbolic field of 9,000 poppies, which represent the 9 million people who died as a result of the war.

While you’re there: Kansas City is among the most vibrant cities in the region, with plenty for groups to see and do. Visit the Arabia Steamboat Museum to learn about historic shipping in the area, or check out the Hallmark Visitors Center to indulge in some greeting card nostalgia.


Destination St. Joseph

Highlight | Historic Horseplay

By the mid-1800s, westward expansion had sent a half-million people to the Western territories, and they needed a way to communicate with the rest of the country. They found a legendary but short-lived solution in the Pony Express, which was founded in St. Joseph.

Visitors hear this fascinating story at the Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph. The museum is housed in the stable building that served as the eastern terminus of the route. A diorama displays all the terrain that riders would encounter on their trip west, and a map shows all of the various exchange stations along the route. Visitors can see a life-size re-creation of one of these outposts.

The museum ends with a display that depicts the telegraph, an invention that put the Pony Express out of business just a year after it was formed.

While you’re there: St. Joseph is where famed criminal Jesse James is believed to have been killed while staying in town under an alias. Groups can see the home where he died, along with thousands of other Western artifacts, at the Patee House Museum.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.