Top 10 True Western Towns of 2008


The date: April 3, 1882.

The setting:A house on a hill in St. Joseph, Missouri.

A legendary outlaw stands on a chair, straightening or dusting a picture. Behind him, two of his cohorts pull pistols. One fires, the bullet hitting the badman in the back of the head, killing him instantly.

It’s the assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford (and his equally gutless brother Charles), to steal a title.

After the killing, Jesse’s body is taken to the Heaton funeral home for autopsy and preparation; funeral services are also held. Meanwhile, widow Zee James and her two children move into the Patee House hotel.  Jesse’s mother Zerelda will soon join them.

Two weeks after the shooting, Bob and Charley Ford are brought to trial at the Buchanan County Courthouse in St. Joe. They plead guilty and are sentenced to hang on the local gallows. But per a previous agreement, Missouri Gov. Thomas Crittenden pardons them.

That’s the history (yeah, we know some folks in Texas don’t buy it—just go with us on this). But those buildings are not.

Thanks to the wisdom of the good folks of St. Joe, you can still visit the courthouse. You can see a museum at the funeral home, featuring a logbook and other documents related to the James case. You can enjoy the magnificent architecture, furnishings and historic exhibits of the Patee House. And you can walk through the house on the hill—okay, it’s been moved a couple of blocks, but it’s still around, looking more or less the way it did back in 1882. And those gallows, from which the Ford boys would have done a little swinging? You’ll find them in the Patee House too.

Jesse James is just one reason St. Joseph is this year’s Top True Western Town.

Another is the Pony Express, the Old West’s legendary mail service (although it only operated for 18 months). Prior to its arrival in early 1860, delivery from Missouri to California took about 25 days. But the Express used a relay of riders on fast horses to cut that time down to about 10 days. The Eastern terminus? St. Joseph. And the modern city has many reminders of the operation.

Take the Patee House. The 1858 hotel also served as the Pony Express headquarters, and a number of exhibits showcase its history and legacy. Not far away is the Pony Express National Museum, located in the original Pikes Peak Stables, which is believed to be the starting point of the first express run in 1860. The museum features a number of artifacts from the period, as well as hands-on exhibits and demonstrations.

St. Joe’s heritage goes back further than that. Lewis and Clark came through the area in 1804, and a number of sites related to their expedition are marked. Same goes for the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails—St. Joseph was the starting point for thousands of pioneers who headed west on those routes. Joseph Robidoux founded the town in 1826 (it wasn’t incorporated until 1843)—and several of the buildings he constructed in the 1840s are still around.

You know, we could go on and on. About how more than 50 structures are on the National Register of Historic Places. Renovation and preservation projects—both public and private—are ongoing and constant. Some 15 museums populate this area, including one for exotic dancer Sally Rand (which conjures the image of Jesse James doing a fan dance … nah, let’s not go there). Events like April 3rd Days (which commemorates the start of the Pony Express and the killing of Jesse) and Trails West (art and music from around the region) keep things hopping. And citizen involvement is remarkable, in organizations like the Heritage Action Campaign, St. Joseph Preservation, Inc. and the Pony Express Historical Association.

Not everything is Happy Trails. Last year, some preservationists were at loggerheads with local officials over the composition of a new roof for one historic building. Emotions ran high. But that kind of passion indicates a remarkable dedication and commitment to historic preservation. Other towns and cities should have such problems.

Sure, Jesse James found St. Joe to be a killer (so to speak). You’ll find it something else—a great example of what the true West can and should be. It is the Top True Western Town.

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