ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (KMTV) — Carrying a saddlebag of letters from loved ones, cowboys on sleek horses sped off from St. Joseph, Missouri, as the Pony Express sought to deliver mail to people on the West Coast within days instead of the weeks it normally took.
While the effort was considered groundbreaking at the time, it wasn’t built to last. Within 18 months, it vanished from the frontier, replaced by new technology — the telegraph — which could send messages in minutes. While the Pony Express was a genius idea at the time, it required heavy government subsidizing and served a specific route from St. Joseph to Sacramento, California.
The story of the Pony Express and its riders is celebrated at the Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph. With uniquely designed displays and plenty of interactive exhibits, the Pony Express museum is the star of a trip to St. Joseph, about a two-hour drive south of Omaha on Interstate 29.
But, the Pony Express museum isn’t the only reason to visit to the eighth-largest city in the Show Me State and October is the perfect month for a trip down I-29. St. Joe — as it's often called — celebrates the fall season as well as offering a Halloween history treat.
PumpkinFest, hosted at the Pony Express National Museum, runs this Friday through Sunday evening. While our favorite attraction is the giant pumpkin exhibit, with the iconic Pony Express rider highlighted in the center of the top row, there’s plenty for everyone, especially children. Friday’s events kick off about 5 p.m. with balloon artists, horse care tips, storytelling and, of course, scary music.
Saturday starts with the annual children’s costume parade at 11 a.m. Interested people can sign up children here. Entrants need to arrive at the Patee Museum by 10 a.m. to register.
The weekend’s activities include pony rides, petting zoos, face painting, games, food and a variety of music into the night.
Voices of the Past
An opportunity to visit St. Joseph’s famous Mount Mora Cemetery during the Halloween season may seem a bit scary. But, Voices of the Past offers a look into the city’s history with a “spiritual” visit by a former resident along the mausoleum row at the cemetery.
Guided tours start at the historic Wyeth Tootle Mansion and usually involve meeting a ghost from the past. Following a bus ride to Mount Mora, the guide takes visitors along a tour of the mausoleums, home to some of the wealthiest and best-known residents of St. Joseph. A mix of humor and history transpire as you traverse the paved walk. This year’s event takes place Oct. 14-15, and each tour lasts about an hour. A self-guided visit to Mount Mora during the day provides an interesting look into St. Joseph’s story, as you can learn names, years they were here and their achievements. During a previous visit, we found a headstone dating back to 1799.
While October may be a fun time to visit St. Joseph, with the seasonal festivities and events, the city provides a variety of attractions year-round. From art to America’s first celebrity outlaw, as well as a national media icon, visitors are in for an educational and entertaining gallop to St. Joseph.
Jesse James House
As part of the Patee House Museum complex, the Jesse James House was the last the infamous outlaw would live. Following a career of firsts in American crime, including the first daytime bank robbery, James planned to hang up his six-shooter and retire to the family farm. But, he was shot and killed by Robert Ford. A bullet hole can still be found inside the house. It’s a short, but interesting walk through the house.
Patee House Museum
A lot is packed inside the Patee House Museum, having served as a hotel, Civil War outpost and women’s college. Today, it showcases an array of St. Joseph history, from a replica of early 20th Century St. Joseph storefronts to the Buffalo Saloon, once the oldest saloon west of the Mississippi River, and exhibits highlighting the Pony Express, to pioneers and the military. The most popular attractions may be an 1860 steam locomotive and vintage carousel. The working carousel features hand-carved ride pieces, including a hummingbird, eagle, horses and a Pegasus.
Glore Psychiatric Museum
With the original building located inside a state prison, the State Lunatic Asylum No. 2 was home to some very “unique” patients, including one who ate nails and other metals and another who hid letters in the back of a television console. The Glore Psychiatric Museum recognizes the ailments that impacted people such as these two, as well as other mental health challenges.
Tracing the history of mental health treatments, including burning people at the stake because they were believed to be witches as well as the later practice of performing lobotomies, the Glore respectfully examines mental health care treatments. It can be a challenging subject for some to address and everyone should consider their sensitivities when planning a visit.
St. Joseph Museums complex
With the Glore Psychiatric Museum as the anchor, the St. Joseph Museums complex offers views into St. Joe’s history as well as unique exhibits.
The Native American Gallery provides a look into Indigenous clothing, art, pottery and other artifacts. The World War I exhibit reflects on the challenges locals faced in supporting the war, while making ends meet at home.
Sharing the stories of St. Joseph’s African American residents, the Black Archives explore stories from slavery, the Underground Railroad, jazz and desegregation. Among the historical figures is Coleman Hawkins — “Father of the Tenor Sax” — who hailed from St. Joseph and played with some of the greatest jazz musicians in history, including Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.
The Eckel Collection celebrates the story of French-born architect Edmond Jacques Eckel, who settled in St. Joseph and developed a successful career there.
If you ever played with a Barbie doll, you’ll want to check out the exhibit at the Society of Memories Doll Museum. Joining the internationally-famous Barbie are Chatty Kathy and Cabbage Patch dolls along with historical figurines and movie characters, including from “Gone with the Wind.”
Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art
While not as large as the museums you’ll find in Kansas City, the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art showcases artwork from the 18th century through contemporary pieces. With about 3,000 items on display, the museum focuses on American artists, such as Ken Moylan. The museum also hosts a series of special exhibits throughout the year. Located in one of St. Joseph’s classic mansions, the building itself is a work of art with a beautiful water fountain and garden.
A trip to St. Joseph would be remiss without a walk around downtown, taking in the views of the massive murals along the back walls of some of the city’s vintage buildings. With a mural providing a collage of historical events, such as the Civil War, a tragic train crash, music and other interesting subjects, the murals are fascinating. While strolling downtown, grab a drink at Café Pony Espresso as you search for the statues featured on the sculpture walk. New statues are added annually.
Walter Cronkite Memorial
The St. Joseph native rose through the media ranks to become the most trusted voice in the national news media. Anchoring the CBS Evening News for more than two decades, “Uncle Walter” as he was nicknamed, didn’t pull punches when reporting. From the Vietnam Conflict to the moon landing and President Kennedy’s assassination, Americans turned their TV channels to the veteran newscaster for their information. Western Missouri State University is home to the Walter Cronkite Memorial, which includes a replica of Cronkite’s “Evening News” set and displays of the major stories he covered. Visitors can sit at his desk, don a pair of thick glasses and do their best Cronkite impression.
Remington Nature Center
Check out the life-size replica of a wooly mammoth that once roamed Missouri. Along with fossils of the giant animal, the Remington Nature Center of St. Joseph provides a look into the natural history of western Missouri. From prehistoric Indigenous peoples to animals that once roamed the region, the nature center is an interesting stop during a visit to St. Joseph. You can also enjoy a walk along the shoreline of the Missouri River.
Fort Smith Park
Because St. Joseph was considered a key stronghold for the Union during the Civil War and with the railroad, pioneers and others traveling through the area, Fort Smith was built on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River and with a perfect view of the city. Anticipating a battle with Confederate soldiers that never occurred, Union soldiers fortified the outpost with cannons and other firepower. Today, nature and history enthusiasts enjoy visiting the park.
Where to eat
When in St. Joseph, enjoy dinner at the JC Wyatt House. Opened nearly 20 years ago by former New York chefs in search of the perfect spot for their brand of food and service, JC Wyatt House quickly became one of our favorite places to dine anywhere in the country. It offers two pre-planned options and diners select their dinner ahead of time. Located on the main floor of a Victorian-era house, the restaurant has limited seating, so reservations are required. They also decorate the dining area for the season, so each visit will have a unique setting.
Bringing Neapolitan-style pizza to St. Joseph may have been a gamble, but one that paid off. Opening about seven years ago near downtown, the pizzeria immediately gained fans. Cooking their pizzas in a wood-fired oven at 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit, Il Lazzarone uses the required ingredients to be considered Neapolitan pizza. Taking only about 90 seconds to cook, pizzas are delivered to your table fast and hot. Pair your pizza pie with an order of bruschetta, which includes fresh tomatoes and cheese perfectly flavored.
Cajun fans will enjoy a trip to the Bayou via Boudreaux’s Louisiana Seafood and Steak. As soon as you walk into the downtown joint, you get the feel of being at Mardi Gras with beads and colors everywhere. With the standard crawfish Po’boy, jambalaya and etouffee, you can also sample Cajun-infused steaks, pasta and other foods.
With so much to do and see in St. Joseph, you may want to extend a day trip into a weekend visit. With plenty of hotels, bed and breakfast inns and Airbnbs available, you can be assured of a fun and comfortable visit to the “Gateway to the West.”
To learn more about Tim and Lisa Trudell and The Walking Tourists, visit their website: thewalkingtourists.com
Read more: Travels in the Heartland