Many folks making the trip to Missouri’s beautiful Mark Twain Lake to enjoy the outdoors, relax and overall have a good time also end up spending part of their journey traveling U.S. 36.
Perhaps they know its history, but if not, hopefully this writing will impart some knowledge. A Roman statesman once said “history is the witness that testifies to the passing of time.” Let’s see if he was right.
The four-lane highway crosses the Show Me State some 190 miles from Hannibal on the eastern border to St. Joseph on the western boundary. It takes travelers through farmland and rolling hills, over rivers such as the Salt, Chariton and Grand, near and through villages, towns and cities that make up America’s heartland.
I’ve often referred to the people that live, work and rear their families along VFW Highway 36 as “the salt of the earth,” the folks that flavor America. Someone once commented “that’s an accurate statement, ‘cause it’s the Salt River that provides the water to make Mark Twain Lake.” More accurately, it was the damming of the Salt River (Clarence Cannon Dam) by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers more than 25 years ago that formed the 18,600-acre body of water that provides water control, power, boater recreation and fantastic fishing for untold thousands of people.
“Hey, let’s jump in ol’ Betsy and make a day trip on VFW U.S. Route 36 across America’s 24th state. Today a history lesson; tomorrow we’ll go fishin.’”
Hannibal, Missouri — where steamboats anchored while traveling the Mighty Mississippi — was once home to Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as author Mark Twain, and where the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn remain legend. The story’s white picket fence still stands, and some folks swear the ghost of Becky Thatcher roams the streets at night. Mark Twain Cave is a must for tourists.
Although Samuel Clemens put Hannibal on the map for the world to cherish and remember, he was actually born in a log cabin on the Salt River in the hamlet of Florida, where today an outstanding museum encloses the log house and overlooks the lake that bears his famous name. Turn off Route 36 at Monroe City; you’ll find tiny Florida in no time.
Continuing west on Historic 36, the next stop is Marceline, the boyhood home of Walt Disney. As a child, Disney and his sister Ruth would sit under the still-standing “dream tree” and talk to imaginary playmates while sketching his friends Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. These characters later would mesmerize children and parents around the globe and help build the Disney empire. Who would have thought it would all start in tiny Marceline?
Leaving Disney World, we head west on the Hound Dog Trail, the name given the stagecoach route prior to the establishment of the railroad in the late 1850s that runs adjacent to U.S. 36. The towns of Laclede and nearby Brookfield are the birthplace and boyhood home of Gen. John J. Pershing, the U.S. Army leader who commanded the first Army troops ever sent to Europe in World War I. “Black Jack” Pershing is America’s only six-star general.
Next city of interest is Chillicothe, where sliced bread was invented when Frank Bench (in the 1920s) decided to buy a machine to do the work of a sharp knife. Thanks, Frank — the rest is history. We’ll continue west and cross the Grand River, which provides the path for waterfowl and migrating birds to the Fountain Grove Refuge and Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
We’re getting close to the end of our journey, so let’s stop at Hamilton where Zack Wheat, Hall of Fame Brooklyn Dodger, was born and began his baseball career, resulting in stardom. Don’t know if Zack knew J.C. Penney (bet he did), but Mr. Penney put his ideas together after his childhood in Hamilton. Nearly every American has shopped in one of J.C.’s department stores. The J.C. Penney Museum in the village of Laclede gives the whole story.
Finally, the end of our journey is on the original Pony Express route that had its birth in St. Joseph, Mo. The pony riders lasted only one year because some guy named Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, or at least was given credit for it. Things happen. Although Independence, Mo., was the starting point of the Oregon Trail, St. Joseph became a gathering place for emigrants heading west on wagon trains to seek their fortunes.
The infamous outlaw Jesse James (born in Clay County), along with brother Frank, resided in St. Joseph and used the area as headquarters for his bank and train-robbing gang until a gang member, Robert Ford, killed ol’ Jess for the $5,000 reward. Nice guy.
Rumor has it that the Stetson hat was first sold in St. Jo and became the mark of all cowboys and wannabes. Anyway, John did a good job. Little did Joseph Robidoux, a French fur trader, have any idea what the city he founded would become in future years.
Hope you enjoyed the ride on one of land’s most famous highways, old U.S. 36. It’s a nice four-lane in today’s fast pace and perhaps I’ve piqued your interest in “The Way of American Genius.” I think the Roman statesman was right, but that’s enough for now. I’m ready to head back to “Twain” and my favorite hangout, Timber Ridge Resort. You ready to go fishin’? Those big crappie are waiting on us.
Larry Reid is host of “Outdoors with Larry Reid,” which airs at noon Sundays on WBGZ Radio,