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Kansas City's museums tell unique American stories

KANSAS CITY, Mo.

This city has made its mark on America.

It gave us Walt Disney and Walter Cronkite, Jesse James and Joan Crawford, Count Basie and Calvin Trillin. It's where Rival created the CrockPot, where McDonald's invented the Happy Meal.

Hallmark Cards, H&R Block and Applebee's have headquarters here.

But none of that is likely to draw more than casual attention from a tourist. Nor are the 100 barbecue joints or 200 fountains the city boasts.

Rather, it's the wealth of memorable museums that forces the visitor to split the available time, and maybe to regret not planning a longer trip.

To save you some of that angst, here is a guide to just four of the special museums.

Treasure under that field

Dressed in a muted plaid shirt, his hands tucked into the pockets of his workday slacks, Bob Hawley clearly hasn't let his find of treasure go to his head. He or one of his sons still greet visitors at the Arabia Steamboat Museum and tells them how they became sunken-ship salvagers — in the middle of a farm field in the middle of America.

"They say the Missouri River (he pronounces it Miz-ZURE-uh) is too thick to drink and too thin to plow,'' said Hawley, whose family has a refrigeration repair business.

Son David had been on a service call at a farm on the Kansas side of the river when he heard a story that apparently had been making the rounds for more than 130 years, about how a steamboat was buried beneath the farm — more than a half-mile from the river bank.

David told his father and brother. They decided to dig up the ship and whatever treasure it had gone down with. (David sometimes lets on to the visitors he greets that "We just wanted an excuse to drive heavy equipment.'')

A wall map in the museum shows the sites of 162 steamboats sunk between St. Louis and Kansas City in the mid 19th century, when the way to move goods to the frontier was by riverboat.

The fact that the Arabia was now under farm land was one of those peculiarities of the Earth's constant reshaping of itself. The Missouri had carved a new course through the farmland and then through recurrent flooding, covered the land with what turned out to be a 45-foot-deep layer of rich silt perfect for farming.

The museum tells the story:

• A film relates that the Arabia, 171 feet long, 54 feet wide and propelled by huge paddlewheels on either side, was loaded, in late August 1856 with about 220 tons of goods to be delivered to 54 merchants as far north as Nebraska.

• The ship hit a submerged tree trunk and sank in about 15 feet of water. All 130 passengers got off; the only fatality was a mule, tied on deck.

• The Hawley team, incorporated as River Salvage, had to sink 20 wells to drain enough of flowing underground water to accomplish the recovery.

"We were going to salvage it, sell 85 percent and give 15 percent to the landowner. Then, we were going to go dig up another ship," said Bob Hawley. "But recovering a barrel full of unbroken Wedgwood dishes changed our minds, from selling it to creating a museum. We realized this was all the treasure we ever wanted.''

And the landowner "traded his 15 percent for 25 artifacts, mostly dishes.''

The film shows the men pulling odd items encased in mud. Cleaned and restored, thousands of everyday items that pioneers needed to live on the frontier are now in floor-to-ceiling display cases, beyond the theater:

Here are whale oil lamps, 1,200 shoes, ink wells, mirrors, lacquer trays, cuspidors, wooden clothes pins, schoolroom slates, serving utensils, gun parts from Belgium, beads from Italy.

Items range from a 2-inch-tall, painted bisque doll to the tree that sank the ship to the mule's skeleton.

But the salvors did find money: a coin purse that held 25 cents, and also a single penny.

War to end all wars

Hundreds of thousands of doughboys passed through Kansas City's huge Union Station railway hub after the United States entered World War I in 1917. Within two weeks of the Armistice in November 1918, the area's populace agreed to contribute $2.5-million to build a Liberty Memorial to the soldiers' sacrifices.

In 1926, President Coolidge dedicated the imposing hilltop plaza and its 217-foot-tall Memorial Tower.

After taxing themselves for a multimillion-dollar refurbishment of Liberty Memorial in 1998, residents then passed a bond issue to raise $102-million to construct and acquire artifacts for a World War I museum.

Built beneath the memorial, the National World War I Museum opened in December 2006, designated by Congress as the nation's official WWI museum.

From the entrance, this exhibition defines that overworked phrase, state of the art.

Visitors enter by walking on a glass floor above 9,000 artificial red poppies, each representing 1,000 dead soldiers. Presentations range from newsreels to recordings, from interactive exhibits (make your own propaganda poster and e-mail it home) to more than 50,000 artifacts.

An opening film explains the shifting power, disparity of wealth and erosion of monarchies throughout Europe. In booths, visitors can hear American fighter pilot Eddie Rickenbacker describe a dogfight, or listen to period music and poetry.

Visitors can pass through a clever, if chilling, series of life-sized constructions showing how wretched trench warfare became.

Artifacts range from ID badges to a prized French tank, pierced by a German shell.

On the walls are quotations, including:

"It cannot be that 2-million Germans should have fallen in vain . . . No, we do not pardon, we demand — vengeance.''

— Adolf Hitler, 1922

"If we don't end war, war will end us.''

— H.G. Wells, 1935.

Dual destinations

About six blocks from the intersection of 12th Street and Vine, made famous in the rock 'n' roll song Going to Kansas City, is a pair of museums enshrining Americana:

• The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum utilizes period photos, uniforms and equipment to explain a facet of segregation that probably escaped the notice of most whites, then and still.

From the late 19th century past the middle of the 20th century, thousands of young black men played baseball, for money, on hundreds of teams. Except for the rare exhibition game, even the best of these men never played against whites.

This compact museum recounts the long journey to equality via a film and 12 galleries that roughly circle the clever centerpiece — a mock baseball field with life-sized statues of legendary players, in action poses at their positions on the field.

• Popular music has long transcended the nation's racial divide, and no part of popular culture is more uniquely American than jazz.

Locals can explain that when the Depression shuttered much of the nation's nightlife, political "Boss'' Tom Pendergast simply decided he wouldn't let it close down his city.

Controlling local government, he ordered public works projects to keep people employed and ignored Prohibition to keep them content. More than 100 nightclubs, dance halls and vaudeville houses featured blues and jazz. Indeed, walls of the American Jazz Museum are aglow with neon signs of such clubs as Fox's Tap Room and the Other Room.

Bands were formed and legends made in these smoky rooms. Regulars included Louis Armstrong, Big Joe Turner, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and a local fellow, Charlie Parker.

The 12th Street referred to in the rock song (now the city's official song) was the location of an estimated 50 jazz clubs, so it makes sense that the museum be located so close to it. (It shares the building with a nightclub, the Blue Room; the Baseball Museum is just up the block.)

Within the Jazz Museum, visitors can listen to Armstrong, Ellington, Fitzgerald and Parker, each of whom has a separate gallery. Walls are covered with LP album covers and vintage photos. One of Parker's special saxophones is on display. To challenge visitors, they can try to mix harmony, melody and rhythm in a mock recording studio.

Robert N. Jenkins is a former St. Petersburg Times reporter and editor. He was travel editor for nearly 20 years.

.If you go

Kansas City museums

• The Arabia Steamboat Museum, 400 Grand Blvd., in the River Market. Open daily except for major holidays. $12.50 for adults; $11.50 60 for and older; $4.75 for ages 4-12. (816) 471-4030.

• The National World War One Museum, open Tuesday through Sunday except for major holidays. $8 for ages 12-64; $7 for 65 and older; $4, 6-11. (816) 784-1918.

•The American Jazz Museum and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum share the address 1616 E 18th St. Both open Tuesday through Sunday except major holidays; $6 for adults, $2.50 for under 12. A combo ticket for both museums, $8 and $4. The Jazz Museum is at (816) 474-8463; www.americanjazz
museum.com. The Baseball Museum is at (816) 221-1920; www.nlbm.com.

Kansas City's museums tell unique American stories 10/16/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 16, 2008 11:55am]
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