St. Joseph – Missouri's city of museums

An important spark for America's growth, St. Joseph today preserves its past as a way to tell its story

by Leigh Elmore

The city of St. Joseph has a history that touches many of America's most important themes – Westward expansion, the Civil War and its aftermath, and the colorful characters that emerged. Plus, St. Joseph served as a touchstone in the rise of the country's transportation and communications infrastructures.

Overland stagecoach at the Patee House Museum. (photos by Leigh Elmore)

"St. Joseph was the major jumping off point for Western migration in the 19th century," said Joe Houts, senior vice president for community development for Commerce Bank in St. Joseph, as well as historian and author.

"St. Louis says it was the gateway to the West, but it was really St. Joseph that served in that capacity. By 1859, St. Joseph was the western terminus of America's railroads and the next year it became the eastern terminus of the Pony Express," Houts said. "The city actually served as the lynchpin for communications going east and west."

During the 20th century, St. Joseph became a burgeoning manufacturing and regional business center. However, with the decline of the local industrial economy, historical tourism has grown in importance for local civic leaders.

In fact, St. Joseph today boasts at least 19 museums that help to tell the story of St. Joseph's role in American history as well as providing meaningful cultural diversions. You might say that St. Joseph is Missouri's city of museums.

A 19th century locomotive at the Patee House Museum.

"Heritage tourism is a very large part of our tourism efforts here in St. Joseph," said Beth Carmichael, director of project development for the St. Joseph Convention and Visitors' Bureau.

"And I would say that in terms of museums, we have quite a few for a city of our size. There is a lot of variety, though," she said. "In addition to our history, the Albrecht-Kemper Art Museum offers a wonderful experience. And our newest, the Remington Nature Center, gives a great overview of our area's natural history as well."

St. Joseph is important for more reasons than the Pony Express and Jesse James, acknowledges Kathy Reno, public relations officer for St. Joseph Museums, Inc., an organization that administers five museums covering a wide range of subject matter. The St. Joseph Museum, established in 1927 is the oldest of the facilities administered by Reno's organization. "It is dedicated to the cultural and natural history of St. Joseph," she said. It is located at 3406 Frederick, in a building that once served as part of the state mental health facility.

That's why the building today also houses the Glore Psychiatric Museum, a Doll Museum and Black Archives Museum. St. Joseph Museums, Inc. also administers the Wyeth-Tootle Mansion at 1100 Charles St. near downtown, representative of the many beautiful mansions built in town during the 19th century.

"We think we offer something for everyone's taste at our Frederick Avenue site," Reno said, noting that many people are attracted to the Glore Psychiatric Museum for the broad perspective it reveals about the treatment of mental illness in this country.

"And some are attracted by the shock value it provides in showing just how far we've come in that treatment," she said, as some of the treatments outlined seem strange, if not outright cruel.

"We've come a long way since this facility was known as State Lunatic Asylum No. 2," she said.

April 3 is important

The date of April 3 looms large in St. Joseph history. On April 3, 1860 the Pony Express began its one-year existence as the nation's fastest means of communication between California and the East. And while its life was cut short by warfare, the telegraph and the railroad, the Pony Express stands as one of America's almost mythical institutions, launching the careers of Buffalo Bill Cody and others.

Twenty-two years later, April 3, 1882, the legendary outlaw Jesse James was gunned down in his own house in St. Joseph, launching another great American legend that still resonates.

Those two events are commemorated frequently in St. Joseph, but nowhere more exhaustively than at the stately Patee House Museum, 1202 Penn St., which is, surprisingly, St. Joseph's only National Historic Landmark. Opened in 1858 as a luxurious hotel, The Patee House served as the administrative headquarters for the Pony Express, housing the offices of its founders, Alexander Majors, William Waddell and William Russell.

When Jesse James was killed in his home just one block away in 1882, his widow was interviewed in the hotel by the sheriff the next morning. The Jesse James Home has been moved from its original location and is now standing adjacent to The Patee House.

The Historic Patee House Museum.

The Patee House is considered one of the top Western museums in the country. Much of that reputation can be accorded to Gary Chilcote, who was one of the founders of the museum in 1963. He has served as its voluntary director for the 52 years ever since.

"When we began our effort in 1963 the building had been abandoned. We have spent much of the last 50 years putting it back together again," Chilcote said. "We had two things going for us – the Pony Express and Jesse James."

The Patee House is an impressive edifice restored to much of its original glory on the first two floors. Chilcote and his collaborators have created much more than memorials to St. Joseph's two most famous subjects. The Patee House Museum also shows how people lived and worked during its heyday and impressively maintains a steam locomotive engine in its transportation section. It wouldn't be hard to spend most of the day at the Patee House if you are a Western enthusiast.

Gary Chilcote, 52-year Patee House director.


"This was a very busy place in the 1850s and '60s," Chilcote said.

Children are bound to love the Patee House, not only for its Western lore but for the extensive collection of toys, model railroads and a full size operating carousel, the "Wild Thing," where kids can ride a lion, a unicorn or a dolphin rather than a horse if they wish.

The Jesse James Home at the Patee House tries to put some perspective into the legend of Jesse James' death at the hand of Robert Ford, displaying sections where souvenir hunters enlarged the hole in the wall allegedly made by the bullet that killed James and places on the floor where James lay that have been carved away. Artifacts from James' grave, exhumed in 1995, are also on display.

The Jesse James Home.

Pony Express fans can also get a good look at that American icon at the separate Pony Express National Museum, 914 Penn St. It is housed in the former Pikes Peak Stables, from which the first Pony Express rider left on horseback April 3, 1860 bound for Sacramento, CA.

Displays at the Pony Express National Museum.

Although no major battles were fought in St. Joseph, Civil War buffs aren't forgotten here. Historian Joe Houts helped to lead the effort to excavate and restore Ft. Smith, an artillery redoubt on the bluff above the city that was rediscovered in 2003.

"We realized that there were redoubts up there and we raised the money to restore it. There are four cannon up there now," he said, along with signage and explanatory panels that tell the story of St. Joseph's Civil War involvement.

"It's also a place where visitors can come, relax, picnic and see a wonderful view of the city and beyond," Houts said.

St. Joseph's roots go way back and residents have not lost sight of the man considered to be the city's founder, Joseph Robidoux, a fur trader. He recognized that new settlers to the area needed temporary housing after they arrived. In the 1840s Robidoux built a series of connected apartments on the north side of town. It soon took on the name of Robidoux Row.

Robidoux Row.

Today, after surviving many years of neglect, the remaining units of Robidoux Row have been restored. The rooms that housed Robidoux and his wife serve as a house museum. The quarters are furnished with some of his belongings and of other family members.
Much of St. Joseph's 19th and early 20th century glory lies in its architecture with many elegant mansions and townhomes surviving still.

"The Wyeth-Tuttle Museum is a great place to learn about our architecture," said Kathy Reno. "

The Wyeth-Tootle Mansion.

It was designed by famous architect E. J. Eckel for William and Eliza Wyeth to resemble castles they had seen on the Rhine River as they were traveling in Germany. That's the kind of thing that makes St. Joseph architecture so much different than much of what you see in the Midwest. It's monumental. There's a lot of stained glass.

"Today, many of these buildings are being used for different purposes. Preservation is a big deal here in St. Joseph," Reno said.

Leigh Elmore can be contacted at

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