Dinosaurs. Indigenous people. Lewis and Clark. Wagon trains hauling White settlers westward. Hopping aboard a train and traveling to new adventures. Growing up in rural Shawnee. These are among the interesting discoveries we encountered during a month-long tour of some of the Kansas City area’s historical attractions on the KC History Trip.
We teamed with KC Destinations, a consortium of Kansas City-area visitors bureaus from both sides of the state line, for a look at some of the unique historical attractions in the Metro area. KC Destinations. The group has put together a variety of KC Trips, including the history trip we experienced. Besides the attractions we’re talking about in this post, the area has so much more history to explore, including Buffalo soldiers, classic airlines, railroad depots and military museums.
From the birthplace of America’s first celebrity outlaw to the celebration of jazz, we barely scratched the surface of western Missouri and eastern Kansas history. While we know that there is much more history to explore in the area, here’s a look at 14 outstanding stops in 13 cities.
Museum at Prairiefire – Overland Park, Kansas
With a skeleton cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex in the Great Hall, the Museum at Prairiefire offers a look into the natural history of Kansas. The first floor exhibits of the T-rex, along with Pteranodon (prehistoric bird), giant fish fossils and more are free to the public. If you want to visit the Discovery Room – and you do – there is an admission fee. The second-floor center features a variety of interactive exhibits, ranging from the history of the solar system to paleontology, anthropology, zoology and a look at invertebrates. The museum is known for its kid-friendly STEM programs. The Museum at Prairiefire also hosts special exhibits throughout the year.
The Museum at Prairiefire, which is part of a mixed-use district with restaurants, bars and apartments, serves as a history and culture outlet in the Overland Park area. The museum is a LEED-certified facility, meeting several standards for environmentally-friendly construction and operations.
The museum includes a look at Midwestern wetlands, featuring one on its property. Prairie grass and wildflowers are located around the museum’s grounds, providing a look at what the Indigenous people and Euro-American settlers saw during their travels. Even its colorful exterior celebrates the Kansas prairie, with the colors resembling a prairie fire as sunlight moves across the vibrant colors during the day.
Lewis and Clark Park at Kaw Point – Kansas City, Kansas
The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition, working its way up the Missouri river, spent three days in the Kansas City (KCK) area in late June 1804. Exploring the area near the confluence of the Kaw and Missouri Rivers, the team stayed along the land of the Kaw Point Park. Today, the 10-acre Lewis and Clark Park at Kaw Point includes a monument honoring the Indigenous nations that called the area home, include the Delaware and Kansa (whose name the state adopted and called Kansas). An amphitheater near the rivers’ confluence includes stone benches listing the name of each of the Corps’ members. A silhouette of Lewis and Clark stands near the riverbanks.
During their time at Kaw Point, Corps members repaired their pirogues, hunted wild game and dressed deerskin. As you walk the paved trails through the park, it’s easy to imagine what the men could have encountered during their encampment.
Today, you can enjoy a wildflower garden, among the flora and fauna the expedition members may have seen. A boat launch allows modern “explorers” or anglers, easy access to the river. As you visit Lewis and Clark Park at Kaw Point, you can take in the views of the skyline of Kansas City, Missouri. As part of the Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail, hikers and bicyclists can access the KCMO portion via the Woodsweather Bridge.
Gardner Junction Park – Gardner, Kansas
Three of America’s most famous wagon trails converge about two miles west of Gardner. Gardner Junction Park celebrates the stories of life in the region, as well as the Santa Fe, California and Oregon Trails, which each crossed the area within about a quarter-mile of Gardner Junction Park. The Santa Fe Trail would move south to New Mexico, while the California and Oregon Trails would move north into Nebraska and other western states.
Gardner Junction Park is a 2-acre roadside park on US Highway 56 with signage that traces the history of the area, as well as the wagon trails. With prairie grass and about 30 species of wildflowers native to Kansas, the short, paved path offers an impressive look into the area’s history, culture and nature.
Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm – Olathe, Kansas
Arriving at the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop, weary travelers step off the stagecoach, men taking their hat and using it to knock the trail dust off them. Women are helped down by the stagecoach driver or male passenger. Heading inside the lower level room, the women may excuse themselves to “freshen” up before the stop’s cook, the farmer’s wife, cooks a meal for them to enjoy during their stopover.
While the passengers enjoy their break, the stage driver and partner, usually an armed guard, help the farm staff change the horses, so the stagecoach can have fresh horses until their next stop, which may be in the middle of the road 20 miles away. The stagecoach team knows those horses may or may not be there, barring their theft by horse thieves or are Indigenous people in search of fresh ponies.
As the only working stagecoach left on the Santa Fe Trail, the Olathe living history farm calls the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm Historic Site home. Providing a look at life on the trail during the 1860s, farm staff do everything as they would have been done during the 19th century, from cutting wood to making their own horseshoes at the blacksmith shop. As a working farm, crops such as corn are raised, along with livestock, including cattle, hogs and horses. You’ll find chickens roaming freely about the grounds.
The Mahaffie farmhouse is furnished with 19th-century furniture and accessories. You may find a woman knitting or sewing in one of the rooms, while music is played an old-fashioned phonograph in another room. The cellar is reserved for stagecoach passengers, to relax and enjoy a hot meal.
After touring the farm, you’ll enjoy a ride on the stagecoach, taking you almost a mile as you enjoy a ride through history.
C.W. Parker Carousel Museum – Leavenworth, Kansas
C.W. Parker was always a showman. His personality was that of an entertainer. He could take the slightest fact and turn it into a whopper of a story, swearing it was all true. His story is celebrated at the C.W. Parker Museum in Leavenworth, located at the company’s original site.
Before finding his way into the carousel business, Parker bought his first arcade game – a high striker – and challenged men to test their strength in hopes of winning a prize, often for their lady. But, he was intrigued by the horses spinning in a circle on the carousel. In 1892, he bought his first carousel – an Armitage/Herschell track machine – and then, everything took off for him. Two years later, Parker built his first track machine. He eventually started producing the carnival ride in Leavenworth in his “six-story factory complex,” which was really a two-floor factory warehouse. But, his company created hundreds of carousels over the next several decades.
Parker went from the horse track machine to a jumping carousel (where horses were operated by boxes, which made look like they were jumping) to steam-powered before becoming electric carousels. They continued to be produced in Leavenworth until 1955 when his son sold the company.
With uniquely designed horses, Parker nicknamed his carousels “Carry-Us-Alls.” They were among the most popular rides at carnivals and county fairs. They were constructed for quick set-up and used easily replaceable parts.
The museum traces Parker’s story, including some of the carousel horses C.W. Parker created. The museum is also home to three carousels – a primitive carousel from the 1850s (too frail to ride), a 1950 Liberty carousel and a 1913 “Carry-Us-All.” The 1913 carousel is open for rides and handles kids of all ages (and I do mean all ages). While my knees are what they used to be to allow me to hop on one of the horses, I did enjoy a ride in one of the benches on the carousel. Lisa, on the other hand, enjoyed a ride on a pony.
Clay County Museum – Liberty, Missouri
Located in a former drug store from the 1860s, the Clay County Museum explores life in the area, ranging from prehistoric Indigenous tribes to the mid-1900s. You’ll find arrowheads, Civil War artifacts, early 1900s memorabilia, including clothing and books. Covering three floors, you’ll find an old-fashioned sitting room and doctor’s office on the second floor. The basement consists of agriculture items, as well as community groups, such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.
Located in Liberty’s historic downtown, the 1865 building, looking like its early days, was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, along with several other buildings on the block.
Lenexa Historical Complex – Lenexa, Kansas
Four historic buildings offer a look into Lenexa’s past. The Legler Barn, originally constructed by a Swiss immigrant in 1864. The barn stone barn stood for another century before it was deconstructed and stored in caves during the 1970s. It was later rebuilt and relocated to Sar-Ko-Par Park in Lenexa. The barn serves as the anchor to the Lenexa Historical Complex, housing the city’s history museum, where you can find artifacts, such as a lavender dress from 1893 and quilts.
Next to the Legler Barn, the fifth member of the historical complex is an herb garden. With a metal statue of “The Cowboy” standing guard, the herb garden is home to a variety of flowers and plants.
A train depot, the third depot built because the first two were destroyed in fires, was built in 1912 or 1913 and served the Missouri, Fort Scott and Gulf Railroad. It’s been a historical complex staple since 1967. A Burlington Northern Railroad caboose is parked next to the depot.
The Wiedenmann Strang Line Waiting Station was used for people catching a streetcar to Kansas City. The city started an electric streetcar route in 1908. The original Strang line waiting station, the white building was located at the Wiedenmann farm, hence its name. The Strang line operated in Lenexa until 1940.
The last building at the Lenexa Historical Complex, the bandstand is a replica of the original bandstand, built in the early 1900s. Today, the bandstand offers an excellent area to relax and enjoy shade while people or wildlife watching at the city lake.
Jesse James Birthplace – Kearney, Missouri
Known as America’s original celebrity outlaw, Jess James got his start in life on a small farm near Kearney. Now the Jesse James Birthplace Museum, James’ childhood log cabin home consisted of three rooms. An addition was added following his death in St. Joseph, about 30 miles north of Kansas City.
The family once lost the farm, following the death of Robert James, who died from an illness while preaching in California. The young James’ mother remarried, and the family regained the farm. The James family owned slaves, who lived in a small shack that you can see during a tour of the farm.
Following his murder in 1882, he was buried on the family farm. Jesse was buried on the family farm. His gravestone said, “(Jesse)…was killed by a coward not worthy of being mentioned by name.”
Mrs. James positioned her bed at an angle, so she could watch the gravesite and prevent people from stealing the body or other grave items. He was eventually moved to the city cemetery, where he is interred near his mother.
The farmhouse contains the largest collection of Jesse James-related artifacts and memorabilia. The Jesse James Birthplace is an interesting place to kick off your own Jesse James trail, such as a nearby location chronicling his first daytime bank robbery.
Lansing Historical Museum – Lansing, Kansas
Located in a former train depot, the Lansing Historical Museum offers a look into three major areas of community interest – the Kansas State Penitentiary, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway and the Lansing community, itself. The museum is located on the front lawn of the original penitentiary. Three rooms highlight the exhibits’ stories.
The main entrance is home to the railroad history, with exhibits including a picture of President Abraham Lincoln, who promoted creating transcontinental travel via the rails. A display shows the advancement of communication through the years, from a telegraph and typewriter to the telephone.
A second room chronicles life in the small town of Lansing. Tracing the community’s fire department story to highlighting the high school’s reunion classes, a look at the history of Lansing is told through photographs and memorabilia from the high school.
A third room shares the history of the state prison. With equipment used by corrections officers, including handcuffs, pistol and cap, the museum’s display showcase the growth of the position from the old prison guard to the current corrections officer. With exhibits, such as a piano, the museum offers a look at the family side of prison employees, who were required to live in Lansing at one time. The prison’s most infamous inmates were Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, who were convicted for murdering a family of four people. They were hanged at the prison.
Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum – Atchison, Kansas
One of the most prolific pilots of her time, the Atchison native disappeared in the South Pacific while trying to set a record for flying around the world. But, the story of Earhart begins in Atchison. The granddaughter of city socialites, Earhart and her sister lived with the grandparents for several years, while their parents worked in other cities.
The Amelia Earhart Birthplace Museum shares the future pilot’s story, from childhood through the day she disappeared. While the house contains furniture from the time period Earhart lived there, very few pieces of furniture actually belonged to the family. However, a small table with the guest sign-in book did belong to her grandparents. You’ll find something related to Earhart in every room, including a set of luggage that she endorsed.
The house is immaculate with well-accented rooms, such as the dining room. The upstairs bedrooms are displayed as they may have appeared when the family lived there. The children’s room – where the Earhart children slept – has dolls and other toys among the beds and clothes.
You’ll find a painting of Earhart and her husband, George Putnam, in her grandfather’s den. A bust of Earhart is also located on the grandfather’s desk.
While the birthplace museum is the key attraction in Atchison, plans call for a hangar museum celebrating Earhart, including a plane like the last she flew. A statue of the pilot is located in a mall downtown.
Shawnee Town 1929 – Shawnee, Kansas
Experience life in smalltown Shawnee in the year 1929. While the world would suffer a global economic collapse in October, life was made easier that year with the inventions such as zippers and Kleenex. Shawnee was a long way from growing into a city with about 65,000 people. Instead, the town had about 550 residents. It took about 40 minutes to drive a truck from the farm to the Kansas City market. If you were traveling by horse and wagon, a trip to the big city took about two hours.
So, it was important to have a good main street with businesses that could support residents. Shawnee Town 1929 is a living history museum with a variety of buildings exploring life in the rural town. From a general store selling canned goods and other products, such as Campbell Soup, Aunt Jemima pancake mix and even Cracker Jacks, to a filling station, where you could buy an ice-cold soda pop while an attendant filled up your jalopy. Stop in at the local barbershop for a shave and cut for less than a buck.
A working farm at the museum is home to chickens and a garden, raising flowers and vegetables. The house, while built in the late 1800s, would have been used by a family during the 1920s. With a spacious kitchen and comfortable living room, the house has a bedroom on the main floor. Other bedrooms are on the second floor. However, the family would still need to use an outhouse, which is located near the house.
Museums at 18th and Vine – Kansas City, Missouri
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Moses Fleetwood Walker and Bud Fowler were among the first Black baseball players to play on integrated teams in the 1860s. However, it didn’t last long as racism reared its ugly head and “Jim Crow” laws banned Blacks from playing baseball with White players.
Once banned, African Americans turned to play baseball in their own leagues. Some leagues were stronger than others. Teams came and went. Players would hop from one team to another for better pay or perks. Then, one man thought the Black leagues needed to organize and unite under one banner.
Rube Foster, himself a former player and the founder and manager of the Chicago American Giants, organized a meeting of team leaders at the Paseo YMCA near 18th and Vine in Kansas City in 1920. The meetings resulted in creating the National Negro League, consisting of eight teams. Other leagues were organized on the east coast and in the south.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum shares the history of Black baseball. Exhibits track the history of Black baseball, its teams, players and the issues they confronted, such as having to use the Green Book, a book created to inform African Americans of black-owned businesses, such as hotels, restaurants, barbershops and gas stations.
The museum has several outstanding exhibits, including a locker room with uniform Negro Leagues Baseball teams, such as the Grays, the KC Monarchs and the Giants. A display of baseballs signed by former players drives home how many outstanding players were denied an opportunity to play with other great players in integrated leagues. Another exhibit showcases women players, who had been denied a chance to play with their White counterparts in leagues.
A timeline shares the dates when each Major League Baseball team became integrated following the Brooklyn Dodgers’ signing of Jackie Robinson and promoting him to the Majors in 1947. Three months later, Cleveland promoted Larry Doby. The first five African Americans to play Major League Baseball are featured at the museum – Hank Thompson (St. Louis Browns), Willard Brown (Browns) and Dan Bankhead (Dodgers) joined Robinson and Doby in the big leagues in 1947. Each MLB team slowly added African American players afterward, with the Boston Red Sox being the last team to integrate, when Pumpsie Green joined the team in 1959, 12 years after Robinson broke the color barrier.
Your visit to the NLBM includes a walk-through history as you check out the greatest players at each position on a field of sculptures. Led by manager Buck O’Neil, some of the greats honored include Satchel Paige at pitcher, Josh Gibson at catcher and Cool Papa Bell at centerfield.
American Jazz Museum
Celebrating the story of American jazz, the American Jazz Museum is a walk through music history. With interactive exhibits that allow visitors to test their jazz knowledge and musical skills, a visit to the museum challenges your senses.
Recognizing the greats of jazz, from Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and BB King to local legend Charlie “Bird” Parker, the American Jazz Museum includes special exhibits on the stars. Parker didn’t enjoy a lot of national prominence during his prime, but his work continues to be recognized by contemporary musicians as some of the best performed.
Album covers line the wall like a teenager’s room with posters of their favorite bands. With greats such as Erroll Garner, Shirley Scott and Billie Holliday, you’ll wish you had the albums hanging on your walls at home.
A tribute to Kansas City’s jazz, night clubs and hot spots lights up the museum with places such as Milton’s Tap Room, Pink Door and Hotel Street.
The American Jazz Museum is home to an actual jazz club, as The Blue Room – named after the Hotel Street club of the 1930s – hosts national jazz acts in a relaxed environment. The Gem Theater hosts a variety of performances and is located across the street from the jazz museum. Built in 1912 and hosting talking movies in 1929, the theater fell off by the 1960s and faded. During the city’s revitalization of the 18th and Vine District during the 1980s, the Gem Theater’s resurgence was a priority. It’s been a mainstay since, hosting the annual American Jazz Walk of Fame induction ceremony since 2014. The Walk of Fame commemorates jazz greats with a 30-inch bronze medallion on Vine Street between the Gem and the Blue Room.
The American Jazz Museum also hosts the Horace M. Peterson III Visitors Center, which consists of historical exhibits highlighting 18th and Vine. Among the exhibits are a dentist’s office sign, nurse’s uniform and a press for the Call newspaper.
Merriam Historic Plaza – Merriam, Kansas
As one of the youngest cities in the Kansas City metro, Merriam was incorporated as a third-class city in 1950 and as a second-class community in 1957. The city of about 11,000 celebrates its history with a small park at the visitors center just off Interstate 35.
With 12 stations, the paved path at Merriam Historic Plaza traces the city’s history from the centuries when the Kanza people lived in the area before being forcibly removed to make way for the westward movement of Euro-Americans. The city, originally known as Campbellton, because David Gee Campbell had donated land for a railroad, which then saw a community grow. Later, Charles Merriam, an executive with the train company, opened an amusement park near the rail line, named Merriam Park. Eventually, people started referring to the community as Merriam, and the name stuck. Campbellton faded into history.
While Merriam Park was open, one of the attractions was a bear pit. The bears were known to escape and roam the area. They were captured and returned to the park, where they subsequently escaped the bear pit. They played this game often during the park’s existence. It seems fitting that the first piece of public art displayed by the city was one of a parent bear playing with its cubs.
Merriam Historic Plaza’s location is a nod to the Merriam Park amusement attraction, which opened in 1880. The plaza also includes flower beds and prairie grass.
Ready to Plan Your Own KC History Trip?
KC Destinations makes it easy to plan your History Trip. Simply download the Otocast app to your mobile phone and off you go. And you can win prizes. Here are the easy steps to use Otocast for your KC Trips experience:
- Download Otocast from Google Play (Android) or the App Store (iPhone).
- Register your e-mail for the contest.
- Start your adventure.
Once you complete three visits for a trip, i.e, History, Quirky or Coffee, you’ll be entered into a drawing for a $250 prize.
Exploring America’s past allows us to see the successes and flaws in our history. But, the neat thing about American history is that we seem to continually learn something new. As you explore these and other historical attractions around the Kansas City metro, always ask questions, if only to yourself. It’s amazing the things all of us can learn by exploring the area.