For a “nearcation” to a place straight out of the old-time Westerns, look no further than St. Joseph, Mo., just 78 miles from Lawrence.
This historic little town, whose motto is “Where the West Officially Started Getting Wild,” is filled with surprises. The Pony Express got its start in St. Joseph on April 3, 1860, and outlaw Jesse James met his end there when he was shot and killed on the same date 22 years later. No wonder True West Magazine named St. Joseph one of America’s “Top 10 Western Cities.” No horsin’ around!
The Pony Express National Museum has family-friendly exhibits galore. You can pump water from the original well and shift a mochila saddle from one horse to another, just like Pony Express riders once did. There’s even a room exploring pioneer kids’ lives, so your young Calamity Jane and her cowboy brother can try out the frontier lifestyle.
The Patee House Museum, built in 1858, was formerly a pioneer hotel and the headquarters of the Pony Express. But now this grand old building houses such a fascinating collection of things that your eyes could wander around all day. You’ll see period rooms, an 1861 replica stagecoach, an 1860 locomotive, antique toys, Walter Cronkite’s father’s dental office and a lot more. Clamber aboard a rhino on the vintage “Wild Thing” carousel for a ride you’ll never forget!
Right next door is the Jesse James Home Museum, where the bullet hole in the wall shows where James was plugged by fellow gang member Bob Ford while James was standing unarmed on a chair, dusting and straightening a picture. Yep, you’ll be standing in the same room where James rasped his last breaths. It’s enough to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
Calm yourself down by communing with nature at the Remington Nature Center, much beloved by restless young buckaroos. Your kids can get up-close-and-personal with a mammoth and her baby, stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a bison, confront a black bear weighing more than 600 pounds, and look into the glinty eyes of a wolf. Of course, these critters are stuffed by taxidermists, so they won’t be hankerin’ to gobble down your young’uns.
There are plenty of other exhibits (many hands-on) about nature and history (including a 7,000-gallon aquarium) — not just educational but downright fun. Outside, you can enjoy scenic views of the Missouri River while your small fry follow nature trails to their hearts’ content.
Shifting gears, take a tour of the impressive collections of 18th, 19th and 20th century art (including colonial portraits, American landscape paintings and examples of American impressionism) at the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, former home of William Albrecht, creator of the Big Chief writing tablet. The Albrecht-Kemper Cafe is open to the public for lunch every Wednesday and Thursday. Although the menu changes weekly, the food is always tasty and the surroundings are as inspiring as the museum’s collections. I love their Ultimate Grilled Cheese sandwich on sourdough bread.
While you’re in the mood for rustlin’ up some grub, try Galvin’s Dinner House, a family-style restaurant serving some of the most mouthwatering pan-fried chicken that you’ve every tasted in your life. (Their soups and salads are nothing to sneeze at, either.) Last September, Galvin’s celebrated its 70th anniversary, so it must be doing something right.
The J.C. Wyatt House (built in 1891) was lovingly restored to capture the opulence of St. Joseph’s Golden Age of Prosperity. Chef Jeff Keyasko uses fresh, local ingredients to prepare flavorful cuisine, in a fine-dining setting, by reservation only.
Boudreaux’s Louisiana Seafood serves authentic Cajun fare, including seafood and steaks, in the heart of historic downtown St. Joe. Laissez les bon temps roulez!
And if the cowpokes in your posse can’t agree on what they want for dinner, but you’re all starved enough to eat a saddle blanket, head to Chu’s Garden Restaurant, a Chinese, American and Mexican buffet. After you chow down at this trough, you won’t be hungry for hours.
There’s way more to see and do in St. Joseph than is possible on a day trip, so plan on spending a long weekend to take in more of the sights and activities. For summer fun all year round, buy day passes to Monkey Cove Water Park at the Ramada Inn and Conference Center. And be sure to visit Tobiason Studio, where you can make a small Old West stained glass souvenir to take home.
Set up camp at the Drury Inn & Suites, with its indoor pool, free hot breakfast, free wireless Internet, free popcorn and free hot food and cold beverages each evening. This motel makes getting in touch with your inner western spirit downright civilized!