Missouri’s Highway 36 earns ‘Genius’ nickname

Mark Twain the pilot in Hannibal, MO

A span of less than 200 miles in northern Missouri is home to some of the greatest innovators in American history. Highway 36 – AKA “The Genius Highway” – is home to the invention of sliced bread, the Pony Express, Disneyland, JC Penney, World War I leadership and great story telling.

Department store legend JC Penney was born in Hamilton, a small community east of St. Joseph. World War I General John J. Pershing called Laclede home. Walt Disney spent the most influential period of his childhood in Marceline.  And, Samuel Clemens – Mark Twain – grew up in Hannibal.

Starting on the western edge of Highway 36, St. Joseph is home to many success stories. However, it may be best known as the starting point of the Pony Express. The Pony Express ran for a short time during the mid-1860s. It delivered mail from St. Joseph to California.

St. Joe’s iconic city symbol is the Pony Express statue downtown.

Iconic Pony Express downtown St. Joseph

The national Pony Express museum is located a few blocks off downtown. It’s a nice place to spend about an hour or so and get the story behind the Pony Express.

Pony Express Museum in St. Joseph, MO

Jumping on Highway 36 and heading about 50 minutes east, we stopped in Hamilton. James C. Penney was born in rural Hamilton in 1875. He died in 1971.

JCPenney Museum in Hamilton, MO

In 1898, Penney started working for a small chain in Wyoming called Golden Rule. He later bought the three stores. In 1913, the stores joined the new JC Penney chain, as Penney sought to expand the line under a new name.

JCPenney Catalogs

JC Penney had a catalog ordering business in addition to the stores. I remember looking at them as a kid. They were every kid’s Christmas wish list catalog.

The chain was privately held until October 1929. Penney went public with a stock sale. Four days later, the Stock Market crashed and the United States entered into the Great Depression. He lost most of his personal wealth. But, he borrowed against his life insurance policy to meet payroll and stay in business.

At its peak in 1973, the JC Penney chain had 2,053 stores. After recessions and other financial issues, the chain has about 1,060 stores today. 

JCPenney Museum in Hamiton, Missouri

Hamilton recognizes its most famous resident with a museum next to the town library. The large one-room museum is free to visit, but does accept donations.

Visitors can see a lot of personal pictures of Penney and his family. They can also see store-related memorabilia, such as a calculator from the 1920s.

JCPenney memorabilia at museum in Hamilton, MO

Hamilton recognizes Penney and other key events and attractions with a downtown mural.

Downtown mural in Hamilton, Missouri

Next on the Genius Highway is Chilicothe. A short 30-minute drive from Hamilton is home to the invention of sliced bread.

The Chilicothe Bread Company sold the first sliced bread in the United States in 1928. The bread company used a machine called a Rohwedder Bread Slicer, invented by Iowan Otto Rohwedder. 

Home of Sliced Bread in Chillicothe, MO

The local museum has the original bread slicer (on loan from the Smithsonian).

The next stop on the “Genius Highway” is the birthplace and childhood home of General John J. Pershing, General of the Armies, in Laclede, MO. He was a World War I hero, in leading the American forces through Europe. Pershing was born in 1860. He passed away in 1948.

General John J. Pershing's boyhood home

Pershing taught in a small school outside of town for a couple of years before entering West Point. As a cadet, he invented jumping jacks as an initiation for the younger cadets.

Jumping Jacks were used to initiate new cadets

His Army career took him through Mexico, the Philippines, and then Europe. Pershing was named the General of the Armies, which is equivalent to the highest rank any officer can attain. He would currently be a 6-star general. If the military ever created a 6-star rank, he would then be equivalent to a 7-star. You get the picture. No one can ever outrank Pershing.

Pershing served as a mentor to some of the greatest military officers the United States has had – Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, George Marshall and George Patton.

General Pershing Wall of Honor

Following his military career, the Missouri native’s public service included working on the American Battles Monument Commission, which sought to preserve and recognize key military sites around the world.

Less than 30 minutes east on Highway 36 is Marceline. One of the most recognizable men in the world spent five years of his life there. They ended up setting the foundation for Walt Disney’s life and career. Disney created Disneyland, and later Disney World.

Marceline is boyhood home of Walt Disney

Disney’s mother taught him a lesson after Walt and his sister put on a “circus,” using the family’s animals. The younger Disney charged admission for the circus, but when children wanted their money back because the animals didn’t do anything, he refused. His mother overheard this and made him give the money back. His mother set in motion Disney’s ultimate goal when she told Walt that if he is going to charge people money for something, they need to leave happy. Thus, Disney’s philosophy that the parks are “the happiest” places on earth came about.

Disneyland was imagined in Marceline, Missouri

Walt and his sister would spend time under their “dreaming tree.” It was here that he would draw pictures of the animals they would see – chipmunks, squirrels and deer – and then flip the pages quickly to create a show.

The Dreaming Tree has seen better days, but people have kept it around.
The Dreaming Tree has seen better days, but people have kept it around.

Disney, born in 1901, never forgot the impact that Marceline had on his life, even after spending more time in other places, such as Kansas City. He visited Marceline several times as an adult. He loved Marceline and the town loved him. He donated several items to the town, including a flag made for Disneyland.

Walt Disney gave back to his hometown of Marceline, MO

The town’s museum honors Disney and his success in a former railroad depot. It’s a beautiful attraction. It charges a $10 admission for adults, but it’s worth the fee. You’ll see actual Disney cartoon characters and people he inspired, including Muppet artists. He was supposed to return for a special event in 1966, but had to cancel because he was feeling ill. He died a few months later from cancer.

Mickey has roots in Marceline, Missouri

A little more than 90 miles east of Disney’s home town is the hometown of Mark Twain – Samuel Clemens. Born in 1835, Clemens took the pen name Mark Twain and wrote some of the greatest novels in American history.

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in Hannibal, MO

His most famous pieces of work – “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” – were based on himself and childhood friends. Twain was the model for Tom Sawyer, Huck’s best friend. Huck Finn was based on Tom Blankenship, Clemens’ childhood friend. Becky Thatcher – the boys’ friend – was based on Laura Hawkins.

The city has a decent museum complex honoring Clemens located downtown. It includes a small exhibit at the visitors center and each child’s home. You can walk through each house. A couple of blocks away is the Mark Twain Museum and Gallery. The museum and gallery have an interactive display of five Twain books on the main floor. The second floor includes personal artifacts and a display of Norman Rockwell drawings based on Twain character art.

Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, MO

The $11 admission covers all the buildings and museum. It’s definitely worth the trip to Hannibal for the Mark Twain exhibits.

So, as you can likely tell, Missouri’s Highway 36 has earned its nickname as “The Highway of American Genius.” The highway is a scenic and educational drive. Enjoy your trip among some of the greatest American geniuses.

For more information on Highway 36 and its attractions, please visit the website www.americangeniushighway.com.