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Travels in the Heartland – Explore Missouri’s ‘Genius Highway’

General John J. Pershing
Posted at 12:59 PM, Dec 26, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-26 13:59:57-05

A small section of northern Missouri radically changed the world. From developing a method of delivering mail faster than it had ever been done before to creating a magical kingdom, the Genius Highway may cover only 200 miles, but its impact continues through today. Heck, even sliced bread was invented along the way.

US Highway 36 runs between St. Joseph and Hannibal. Along the way, you’ll find the birthplace of the Pony Express in St. Joseph, the hometown of JC Penney (yes, the department store guy), the place where sliced bread was invented, the boyhood home of General John J. Pershing, the highest ranking military officer in American history, the town that inspired Walt Disney to go on to create the most-famous entertainment dynasty in history, and the town that inspired young Samuel Clemens to grow up and become Mark Twain. You may want to plan an overnight stay on this Heartland adventure.

Pony Express National Museum

Pony Express National Museum

While the Pony Express lasted less than two years during the early 1860s, its legacy continues today. From jumping on the first horse in St. Joseph and racing up to 10 miles before changing horses at a relay station, the Pony Express route covered about 1,900 miles, from St. Joseph to Sacramento, California.

Along the way, riders encountered terrain from the Great Plains to the Rocky Mountains, and onto the western edge of the country. It took roughly 10 days for a letter to travel that distance. It was still quicker than being sent via a covered wagon. The Pony Express National Museum showcases the story of the Pony Express, from its inception as a genius idea to its demise. Less than two years after starting its run, the Pony Express was put out to pasture by the telegraph system, which could transmit messages in minutes.

The telegraph developed alongside the railroad, which also ended the need for cross-country wagon excursions. Located in downtown St. Joseph, the museum uses interactive displays as well as static exhibits to tell the Pony Express story.

JC Penney Museum

JC Penney Museum

Born in Hamilton in 1875, JC Penney would go on to create one of the largest department store chains in the United States. JC Penney stores grew from a small chain of three markets in Wyoming after Penney bought Golden Rule in 1913 and folded them into early JC Penney stores. As you tour the JC Penney Museum, next to the Hamilton Public Library, you’ll find artifacts used by the businessman, as well as those in his stores, including a 1920s calculator.

Penney took his chain public days before the stock market crash in 1929, sending the world into the Great Depression. The Hamilton native lost his life savings but used his life insurance policy to keep the stores afloat. At its height in 1973, JC Penney had almost 2,100 stores across the United States.

Today, there are less than 670 locations. While Penney left Hamilton as a teenager, he always felt close to the small town, about an hour east of St. Joseph.

Chillicothe – Home of sliced bread


When someone says something is “the greatest thing since sliced bread,” the folks in Chillicothe might smile a little bigger than others. That’s because slice bread was invented in the community, about 90 minutes east of St. Joseph. In 1929, the Chillicothe Bread Company became the first in the United States to use a machine to slice bread, when baker Frank Bench used a Rohwedder Bread Slicer to cut a freshly-baked loaf. The bread slicer was invented by Otto Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa.

While the original slicer is located at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, you can visit the Grand River Historical Society Museum to learn about the slicer and more local history. Check out the downtown area for a mural celebrating the story of sliced bread, as well as additional historical art pieces. A historical marker recognizing the sliced bread invention can be found at 709 Washington Street.

General John J. Pershing Boyhood Home

General John J. Pershing’s boyhood home

Long before he commanded the world’s armies against the Germans and their allies during World War I, leading the West to a decisive victory in the “Great War,” John J. Pershing was just a country kid, playing with friends in smalltown Laclede, about midway between St. Joseph and Hannibal. No one could have known the Pershing – nicknamed “Blackjack” – would go on to become the greatest military mind of his time.

After teaching at a small country school in Missouri, Pershing attended West Point, where he invented jumping jacks to help train Army cadets. Pershing rose to the rank of “General of the Armies,” equivalent to a 6-star general. No officer in the American military can ever outrank him. Consider some of the great officers the US has had – Eisenhower, Bradley, Patton – and it’s amazing that he’s held in such high esteem that no one can be ranked above him.

This is some of the information shared as you tour the General John J. Pershing Boyhood Home Historic Site, where you can visit his childhood home, the school where he taught – now, an exhibit hall – and a statue recognizing the war hero.

Walt Disney Hometown Museum

Mickey Mouse

Prior to creating the happiest place on earth, Walt Disney was a child full of imagination, running around Marceline, about 90 minutes west of Hannibal. Laying under the “dreaming tree,” Disney, alongside his sister, would draw pictures of animals they saw – squirrels, rabbits and deer – and then flip the pages creating a movie.

He long remembered something his mother told him when he was a child about ensuring people were happy with something if he charged them a fee. He carried that throughout his life and enforced the policy after opening Disneyland. Disney never forgot the impact Marceline had on his life and returned as often as he could. He donated items on display at the Walt Disney Hometown Museum.

With original cartoon drawings, props and more on display, you’ll want to plan to spend plenty of time at the museum. Afterward, check out the town for other Disney-related stops.

Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum

The Hannibal childhood home of Samuel Clemens

Persuading someone to whitewash a fence – or just pose for a photo there – is part of the fun when you visit the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum in Hannibal. The childhood home of Samuel Clemens, the real person behind the Mark Twain persona, provides a glimpse into the experiences that inspired

the author to write books such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “A Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Located about two blocks from Twain’s home is the museum. Among the exhibits and artifacts is Twain’s famous white jacket, which is believed to be the only one in existence. You’ll also find his writing desk and chair.

The museum also hosts special exhibits. From spring through fall, you can always hop aboard the Mark Twain Riverboat and enjoy an excursion along the Mississippi River. Who knows? Maybe, you’ll catch a glimpse of his ghost enjoying a ride, himself.

You may be hard-pressed to find another area in the United States that had so many innovative and successful people and inventions in such a small area. With interesting scenery and impressive history, it’s easy to see why Highway 36 is known as “Genius Highway.”

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