cole-younger_frank-jamesThe family’s all here.

I’m surrounded by historians and wannabe historians, fiction writers and wannabe fiction writers, journalists, blackpowder shooters and admirers of Jesse James. When I look hard enough, I even find a few—heaven forbid—Yankees and detractors of Missouri’s most famous outlaw.

Let me get this straight. We’re gathered at the Jesse James Farm & Museum near Kearney to pay tribute to a bloodthirsty Confederate guerilla, a murdering bank and train robber, one mean hombre who engineered a crime spree that stretched from Missouri-Kansas-Iowa-Arkansas to Alabama to, maybe, Texas, and all the way north to Minnesota? A crime spree that started in 1866 just down the road in Liberty (if he was actually there) and ended in 1882 just up the road in St. Joseph at the hands of “that dirty little coward” whose name (Bob Ford) is best not mentioned around this crowd?

Of course! This is the annual Friends of the James Farm Reunion.

Why remember Jesse James? “Aside from the obvious events that make his life a great story, I have to believe that his status as a ‘media darling’ is the largest single factor,” says Scott Cole, a member of the Friends of the James Farm’s board of directors. “Beginning with John Newman Edwards and the dime novelists, Jesse has always enjoyed the benefit of a sympathetic mass media eager to portray him as the ‘Noble Defender of the Lost Cause.’”

Cole is more than just a Jesse James enthusiast. He’s Jesse’s first cousin, four times removed. His wife, on the other hand, is a descendant of George “Jolly” Wymore. That’s not technically correct, since that innocent teenager was murdered during the Liberty bank robbery, but you get my drift. She’s the first cousin, four times removed of poor Jolly.

Says Susan K. Salzer, a novelist (Up From Thunder is about Jesse and the boys), historian and admitted “Missouri gal”: “These people are my forebears. They are my history.”

Over there is Betty Barr, Jesse’s great-granddaughter, enjoying Kansas City-style barbecue (another excellent reason to attend this reunion). And here comes Frank James. Okay, he’s not really Frank James, but Gregg Higginbotham is a local re-enactor who portrays Jesse’s big brother when he’s not in character as Confederate Gen.Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Actually, the Friends of the James Farm Reunion (scheduled June 18) is more than a family reunion. Since it was first held in 1982, it has been all about preserving history.

The Friends promote not only historical research but also an understanding of Jesse James, his family, his associates and the times in which they lived. In 1978, Clay County bought the James farm from the descendants of Frank and Jesse, and began restoring the farm, which was in ruins. The reunion is a fundraiser to help keep the farm, museum and history alive.

Bus tours take family and visitors on a trip through time to historic sites related to the James Gang. It’s a fun gathering. I think the Friends have even adopted me, despite the fact that a few of my ancestors fought on the side of the Union. After all, the James Farm—and the Friends of the James Farm Reunion—is for everyone, even if you’re not related to a Missouri bushwhacker.

“The James Farm still is a place you should visit,” Salzer says. “Like them or not, the James brothers are American icons. Their lives, and those of a generation of young men growing up on both sides of the Missouri/Kansas border, were shaped by the violence of the 1850s and ’60s. If you are an American, their story is part of your history too.”

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