My dad’s the type of guy who devours books about history for fun. I think he’s read every David McCullough book out there, and he retains all that information. At age 86, he’s a walking encyclopedia (or is database a more relevant term?) of historical facts.
When I was a kid, our summer vacations included stops at museums and important historical sites like Gettysburg and Vicksburg, where my siblings and I would pout because there we were, standing on empty battlefields instead of splashing in a hotel pool like our peers.
But, decades later, I find myself seeking stories of local places, and the people connected to them, and writing about these subjects for a living.
How’s that for karma?
With age comes wisdom, and while I might not read history books for pleasure like my dad does, I have acquired a healthy respect for it.
To demonstrate that (and to atone for my lousy adolescent attitude), I often take my dad to historical places in the Joplin area when he and my mom come to visit from Chicago (now via a direct flight from O’Hare to the Joplin Regional Airport – woohoo!).
Here’s what we did on their most recent trip to Joplin.
After a lazy morning, I rounded up the troops and we headed to the Joplin Museum Complex (JMC), a collection of museums which comprehensively covers the different aspects and eras of Joplin’s history.
Our first stop at the JMC was the Everett J. Ritchie Tri-State Mineral Museum, which details the extensive mining industry that put Joplin on the map. The entrance to the museum resembles a mine shaft, with numerous slabs of rocks and minerals on display. “Everything here is so sparkly!” said my youngest daughter, her eyes wide with amazement.
“Look at this,” my mom said, waving my daughter over to an exhibit. “Can you believe there once was a giant cave made of crystals right here in Joplin? They even held concerts inside!”
My daughter’s mind was blown.
My mom was referring to Crystal Cave, which was discovered in 1893. Comprised of calcite crystals, the cave was considered one of the world’s largest geodes, and was a popular tourist attraction in the early 20th century. But when the area mines closed, the water pumps that kept the cave dry were turned off, allowing groundwater to flood it. Today, an asphalt parking lot lies over the sealed off cave, with a small sign offering the only indication of the magnificent geological formation underfoot.
After learning about the industry that built our city, we walked to the south side of the museum complex to the Dorothea B. Hoover Historical Museum to see how mining impacted Joplin’s civic and cultural development. Here, artifacts are displayed from the most significant periods in Joplin’s history.
“Well, I’ll be,” I heard my dad say as he examined something in the collection. “That’s Bonnie Parker,” he said, pointing to a black-and-white photo of the woman who comprised one half of the infamous duo of Bonnie and Clyde.
“And that’s some of the jewelry that she wore,” I said, pointing to several colorful pieces of costume jewelry in the display case. “She left it behind when the apartment they were hiding in right here in Joplin was ambushed.”
“Is the building still here?” my dad asked.
“Actually, it’s the next stop on our list.”
We drove about four miles to 3347 ½ Oak Ridge Drive to the garage apartment that Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, along with Buck and Blanche Barrow (Clyde’s brother and sister-in-law), and W.D. Jones (another member of the gang) stayed at in April 1933. They were there for nearly two weeks when, on April 13, several lawmen approached the building, having been tipped off that there might be some bootleggers holing up there. The gang immediately began firing on the lawmen, killing two of them, then fled in Clyde’s Ford-V8.
In the chaos of the ambush, they left behind guns, jewelry, and a roll of film that contained photos of the gang members, including the iconic photo of Bonnie posing with a cigar in her mouth and a gun at her side.
After my dad snapped photos of the gang’s hideout, he said, “I wonder what it looks like on the inside.”
“Well, if you want to spend the night in it, you can,” I told him. “It’s listed on AirBnB.”
He looked puzzled. “On what?”
“I’ll explain it over lunch,” I said, heading back to the car. We loaded up our gang – a much less scandalous one than Barrow’s – and headed a mile south to The Eagle Drive-In.
This small drive-in may feel like a typical burger joint, but one glance at the menu and you know that it is anything but. For example, the signature beef burger here is topped with a quail egg, and from there, the burger meat choices become more exotic: elk, bison, and lamb.
My oldest daughter ordered The #6 Burger, which was comprised of an elk patty with Malbec and clover honey, caramelized onions, and Swiss cheese. I went the meatless route and ordered the Falafel Burger, topped with onion, tomatoes, feta, and tzatziki sauce.
Portions are generous at The Eagle Drive-In, and after our meal, we were ready to head back to our house, change into some forgiving pants, and rest up for the next day of exploring.
“Rise and shine!” I summoned my inner Mary Poppins as I went from room to room, waking my children, who were reluctant to rise so early on a Saturday morning. When I knocked on my parents’ door, my dad answered, already dressed for the day. He was eager to start exploring.
I wanted to get to The Bruncheonette for breakfast early, as this tiny, yet popular, farm-to-table diner often fills up within minutes of opening. We lucked out and secured a position toward the front of the line. As my parents examined the menu at the counter, I explained that the “Benny” options were variations of traditional Eggs Benedict, which I knew was one of my mom’s favorite breakfast dishes.
“Oh, this is a hard decision,” she said. “But I think I’ll go with the Benny Harper.” This version is made with bacon and avocado in addition to the traditional elements. I ordered the Garden Benny, made with asparagus, tomatoes, truffled arugula, and beet Hollandaise.
Other dishes that our group ordered ranged from the savory Darth Vato Tacos, filled with scrambled eggs and chorizo, to the sweet Crepes with Bananas and Nutella.
After breakfast, we drove just a few blocks to the historic Murphysburg district, the very first residential area of Joplin where the founding fathers of the city built stately homes over a century ago. “This reminds me of the Garden District in New Orleans,” said my mom, taking in the sight of full, mature trees, and the variety of intricate and graceful architectural styles.
“That’s what I’ve always thought,” I agreed.
In 1871, Patrick Murphy purchased 41 acres of land near what is now downtown Joplin and named this area Murphysburg. In 1873, it merged with Joplin City to become Joplin.
Historic Murphysburg Preservation, the organization that promotes that preservation of this residential district, has created a tour of Murphysburg that can be found online. While this tour can be done by car, my family was itching to explore it on foot.
We strolled along the shaded sidewalks, careful to sidestep the areas where the strong tree roots had pushed the concrete out their way in a show of dominance. I’d picked up a history guide and a brochure of the different architectural styles of Murphysburg from the Joplin Convention & Visitors Bureau to provide some additional historical details to my family during our tour.
“Ooh, that one is my favorite!” my youngest daughter said, pointing to a graceful Queen Anne home painted the color of sunshine. “Yellow is my favorite color,” she explained to my parents.
“That’s the Dr. Albert Winchester House,” I said. “Dr. Winchester reportedly delivered over 2,500 babies in Joplin.”
We saw a few more homes on that block and then headed north, pausing at the intersection of 4th and Sergeant. “That house reminds me of a castle,” my middle daughter said, referring to the imposing Romanesque style of the Charles Schifferdecker House.
“That’s because it was built to look like a castle from Germany, which is where Charles Schifferdecker was from.” One of the most important figures in Joplin’s history, Schifferdecker had come to the area at age 18 and opened a brewery, and later work in the mining industry. A successful businessman, he became one of the greatest philanthropists of our city.
At the end of the tour, the group was ready to rest and refuel before seeing more downtown sights, so we drove to Main Street to have lunch at M&M Bistro. Owned by Mehrdad Alvandi (the host with the kind smile) and his wife Minoo (the talented chef), this restaurant brings Mediterranean fare such as spanakopita, moussaka, and gyro sandwiches to the Joplin area.
The portions here are generous, but that didn’t stop us from ordering a piece of the sweet and flaky baklava for dessert. I think it might be encoded in my family’s DNA that we physically cannot resist an opportunity to eat dessert.
As we left the restaurant, I asked “Who’s ready to learn about Route 66 and how this important highway impacted Joplin?” My Baby Boomer parents enthusiastically said, “We are!” while my children tried unsuccessfully to stifle their yawns.
Their bored expressions reminded me of how I must have looked to my parents on those road trips decades ago. But despite my desire to be swimming instead of reading placards at a historical battlefield and other such places, I actually did learn things, and I did form memories that have spanned the years. Someday my kids will say the same about our travel experiences, too.
“You all know that we are standing on Main Street right now,” I began, “but did you know that this was part of the original Route 66, too? And across the street is a park dedicated to just that.”
Route 66 Mural Park is an urban space that features an oversized 45-record imprint of the iconic song (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66, plus two murals: Cruisin’ into Joplin, and below that, The American Ribbon, which traces Route 66 from beginning to end, and has a curious object in front of it – a bifurcated red 1964 Corvette (which happens to make a great backdrop for photos).
After seeing the car, my dad turned to me and said, “Remember my ‘51 Chevy?”
How could I not? He had bought that car when I was a teen, and I remember him puffing on a fat Macanudo cigar in the front seat, blissfully unaware of my discomfort in the back, the itchy wool seats and lack of air conditioning making me long for the modern comforts of our ‘80s station wagon.
But seeing the wistful look in his eyes, I didn’t dare crush his spirit by telling him how exactly I remembered his Chevy, so I simply said, “Yes.”
“Now, that was a great cruising car.” There was something about the way he said that that shifted something inside of me. Instead of using my teenager eyes and viewing that old car as an annoyance, I finally saw it through my dad’s eyes: as a virtual time machine, transporting him back to the carefree times of his youth.
I got it now.
“Want to see what Joplin looked like in the heyday of the Route 66 era?” I asked. We walked across the street to Joplin City Hall, which is located in the historic Newman Building, a building which housed a thriving department store during most of the last century.
Inside, I led them to the mural called Route 66, Joplin, Missouri, painted by Anthony Benton Gude. It’s filled with classic ‘50s images of soda fountains and classic cars cruising down Main Street. My dad’s ‘51 Chevy would have fit right in.
“The next mural depicts Joplin right after the mines started booming,” I said, leading them to Joplin at the Turn of the Century, 1896-1906, which was painted by Gude’s famous uncle Thomas Hart Benton. In it, symbols of possibility and success are juxtaposed with those of the corruption and debauchery common in old mining towns.
I pointed to the bottom of the painting. “See those men gambling? They’re doing so in the House of Lords. That’s the famous saloon that was once here.”
“I remember seeing the roulette wheel from House of Lords at the museum,” said my dad.
“That’s right. And, if you want to learn more about the different objects that Benton chose for this mural there’s an exhibit upstairs called Evolution of a Mural where you can read about it.”
I could tell that my kids were in need of a break by that point, so I sent my husband Travis (who is, ironically, also a history buff) with my dad to learn more about the mural, and I led my mom and my daughters back out to Main Street to do some shopping, popping in at their favorite local stores: Sophie, Blush Boutique, and Blue Moon Boutique.
We met back at the car a little after 5 p.m. because I wanted to make one last stop before dinner. No trip to Joplin is complete without a visit to Candy House Gourmet – definitely not for my family members!
This confectionery has been making original recipe treats for decades, including toffee, turtles, brittle, fudge, and caramels. I let each family member pick out a treat with the promise that there would be no eating – not even one nibble – until after dinner.
After shopping for candy, we went to the nearby Red Onion Cafe, a casual, urban restaurant that has been serving quality American food for over twenty years. There’s something on the menu here to make everyone happy, making it the perfect place to bring the whole family.
We ordered Red Onion’s famous creamy and spicy Smoked Chicken Dip as an appetizer, which is served with tortilla chips for dipping. The entrees ordered by our group ranged from the refreshing ROC Chicken Salad Sandwich, to the popular Dave’s Fried Chicken Salad Sandwich (made with coconut-breaded chicken), to the elegant Chicken Tuscany.
And, believe it or not, my kids convinced me to let them order dessert, despite the fact that we had a carload of treats from Candy House Gourmet: “The candy will keep for a few days, Mom, but we don’t get to have the Caramel Fudge Pecan Cake very often.”
How could I argue with that logic?
Since we’d been running hard with a packed schedule all weekend, I thought I’d make Sunday all about relaxation: a slow-paced breakfast, an easy stroll through the woods, and a leisurely Sunday drive south of Joplin.
Our first destination was Undercliff Grill & Bar, in an area close to Shoal Creek known as Tipton Ford. You might think this an odd choice for a Sunday morning, but this establishment transforms from a typical bar-and-grill to a breakfast spot from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. And, did I say it was typical? I misspoke. The Undercliff has a rich history spanning over a century, plus it’s built right into the side of a cliff.
“There used to be a general store here,” I explained to my parents. “People used to travel between Joplin and Neosho by rail,” I said, pointing to the train tracks built just in front of the building, “and they would often stop here.”
“Unfortunately, this was also the site of one of the deadliest train accidents in American history,” I said. I went on to tell them that on the night of August 5, 1914, two trains collided and a number of people lost their lives, many of whom were on their way back to Neosho after participating in Joplin’s Emancipation Park Day event.
“Well, you sure know how to be a Debbie Downer,” my oldest daughter said, rolling her eyes.
“Okay, okay,” I laughed. “Enough of that. Let’s order some food!”
From sweet, fluffy pancakes, to savory omelets, to the popular Round Barn Breakfast (consisting of two eggs, your choice of meat, toast, and a pancake), there was something on the menu that appealed to everyone.
We wrapped up breakfast, then drove less than ten miles to George Washington Carver National Monument, the first site in the National Park Service dedicated to an African American. It consists of an education center, plus an outdoor loop trail for exploring the nature of Carver’s world.
Nature was, in fact, the driving force behind Carver’s education, laboratory experiments, and lasting contributions to society. All of this is detailed in a short biographical film that we watched at the Carver education center.
“I didn’t realize he faced so many health challenges,” my mom commented when the film ended. Carver had been born into slavery to a couple owned by Moses Carver, but was such a sickly child that he wasn’t able to do chores like the other slaves. Instead, he spent his time walking around the forest and prairie surrounding the Carver homestead. In doing so, he observed and learned the properties of many plants, and demonstrated an innate ability to care for them, earning him the nickname “The Plant Doctor.”
“This sign says that he’s also known as the Peanut Man,” said my middle daughter. “I guess I should thank him for inventing the peanut butter in my Reese’s cups,” she laughed.
“Actually, he didn’t invent peanut butter,” I said. “But he did discover over 300 uses for peanuts, plus uses for other things, like sweet potatoes.”
“I’m amazed that he chose not to patent any of his inventions,” my dad added. “Apparently he wasn’t interested in money or fame; he just wanted his contributions to help others.”
My daughters ruminated on that concept as we walked outside on the paved hiking trail that led us through the woods, over a crystal-clear creek, past the old Carver homestead, and out to the prairie, which was speckled with purple and yellow wildflowers. I watched them study different plants with interest, perhaps imagining how they could experiment with them to create something impactful for the community.
I hope they’d been inspired.
On the drive back to Joplin, I asked each person to tell me one interesting thing they’d learned during our history weekend. I was pleasantly surprised to hear my daughters each come up with something different. They had been paying attention!
Then I looked over at my dad and asked, “What did you learn?”
His warm chocolate eyes filled with pride. “I learned that my daughter likes history after all.”
To read more about my adventures in the area, visit JoplinMOLife.com.