Try a historical Jesse James getaway in Clay County, MO

History and Notoriety

A couple builds their getaway around their fascination with Jesse James

By Jackie Tucker

I’m not sure where my husband, Allen’s, fascination with Jesse James first started. Maybe it’s the thrill of adventure, the danger of an outlaw or nostalgia of boyhood tales, but for the 30 years we’ve been married, he has had a keen interest in Jesse James and the history of the wild, wild West. So, when Allen started talking months ago about the Jesse James Festival in Kearney, Missouri—just north of Kansas City—I knew we had to make a trip of it.

Festivals, food and a celebration of history

Less about remembering an outlaw, the Jesse James Festival is more about celebrating a historic era that had a significant impact on our country. And celebrate Kearney does—this is the birthplace and resting place of Jesse James, after all. From a colorful carnival and parade to a rodeo, a fishing tournament and a barbecue cook-off, the folks here sure know how to throw a party. The hunger-inducing aroma of Kansas City-style barbecue permeated the air over Jesse James Park as we strolled through the rides and games, where Allen almost threw out his shoulder winning me a bright pink teddy bear. 

We followed the scent of barbecue to the cook-off and I tried some of the best pulled pork I’ve ever had in my life. “Well, I can go home happy now,” I said. “Not yet, we’re just getting started!” Allen replied as he wiped his face clean of barbecue sauce.

Allen headed to the fishing tournament while I wandered down the aisles of the arts & crafts fair, picking up a few gifts for the grandkids. At dusk we met back up at the carnival for a romantic turn around the Ferris wheel. It was like we were kids again.

“Thanks for planning this trip, sweetheart,” Allen said with a grin as we looked out over the park from the top of the Ferris wheel.

“Just wait and see what I’ve got in store tomorrow,” I replied.

The country’s first daytime bank robbery

“Imagine a cold February afternoon in a sleepy town in the 1800s,” the tour guide began. I had brought Allen to the Jesse James Bank Museum in Liberty, where the nation’s first-ever daytime bank robbery was carried out by the James gang. The guide gave us a thrilling reenactment, helping us to understand what it would’ve been like for the tellers in the bank that day.

Jesse James Bank Museum

It was easy to imagine because the bank looks just as it did that fateful day on February 13, 1866 with period furnishings like the original green vault. There is even a Seth Thomas clock set to the exact time of the robbery. “Kind of eerie, isn’t it?” Allen asked as he examined the clock.

“Just think,” the guide said, “You’re working your shift when a few horsemen wander in from the cold. They are warming themselves by the stove when suddenly they point their guns at you and demand all of the money! This has never happened before. What do you do?”

While pondering that question, we admired the historic photographs, letters and documents lining the walls of the museum, located on Liberty’s charming historic square. In the gift shop, Allen picked up a copy of Jesse and Frank James: The Family History. “You need another book about Jesse James?” I teased. But then I bought it for him anyway because I knew we were about to get an even closer look at that history.

Outlaw origins

We headed to the birthplace and childhood home of Jesse James to see where the legend began. Allen was beside himself with excitement. Before the tour, we watched a fascinating 20-minute film that fused emotion into facts, giving Allen and me new insight into how Jesse and his brother, Frank, sons of a Baptist minister, became our country’s most notorious outlaws.

Jesse James Farm

After the film, we wandered through the museum, which houses the largest collection of James family artifacts in the world. I loved watching Allen’s face light up as he examined artifacts like the James brothers’ guns, saddles and clothing. His voice grew softer in awe each time he pointed out something new to me. “Those are his actual boots,” he whispered. “And here are parts of his original casket.” A few minutes later, I heard him let out a low whistle and say, “Wow, that’s Frank’s letter of surrender.”

Leaving the museum, we took the winding trail to the James’ farmhouse, which was so well-preserved that it felt like Frank and Jesse could’ve just stepped out of the door. The floorboards and wallpaper are all original to the house, and they still have the bed that Jesse was born in. “It’s amazing to see it all just it was back then,” Allen remarked.

A fateful end

We spent a few moments in the yard of the family home, where a large stone monument stands tall, marking the place where Jesse was originally buried after being betrayed and murdered by a friend. I was fascinated to learn that his mother used to sit on the porch and sell stones from his grave for 25 cents apiece!

Jesse James Monument

Years later, after Jesse’s wife, Zerelda, passed away, his body was exhumed and moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery to be buried beside her in the family plot. So, we headed there to see the end of the story of this infamous historic figure.

The gravesite at Mount Olivet is marked with a white marble gravestone signifying Jesse’s service with Quantrell’s Regiment and a stone for both his and Zerelda’s dates of birth and death. Our guide at the museum had told us that after Jesse’s body was moved, Frank continued their mother’s tradition of giving tours of their family home for 50 cents.

“It’s amazing to see all of this in person after reading about him for so many years,” Allen said as we walked out of the cemetery. “As a thank you for planning this trip for me, I’ve got a little surprise for you,” he added.

A perfect evening

I’m usually the one to put our vacations together, so I was certainly surprised that Allen had planned anything at all. But I was very impressed with what he had in store.

Ladoga Winery

First he took me to Justus Drugstore in Smithville, a farm-to-table style restaurant that’s in an old converted drugstore. I had read about it recently and had been dying to go. The menu is so well thought out, and the servers are extremely knowledgeable about the food. I had the local goat cheese salad, which was divine. And Allen ordered the rabbit because he thought it “would’ve been something Jesse James probably would’ve eaten.” Jesse James may have eaten rabbit, but I’m sure it wasn’t plated like Justus did it! They served it in medallions with pistachio nuts, and it looked absolutely amazing. Allen gave me a taste… Delicious doesn’t even begin to describe the dish.

I was about to order a second glass of wine, but Allen told me to hold off because he had one more treat for me. And what a treat it was! We arrived at Ladoga Ridge Winery just as the sun was starting to set. The owners have pulled out all the stops to create a lovely space for people to enjoy their wine. The tasting room on the west side was the perfect spot to watch the sun dip below the horizon as we tasted five of their spectacular wines. 

We ended up buying a bottle of their Sulley’s White wine, a semi-dry, blended white, and taking it over to the Adirondack chairs to enjoy. As we sipped the light tropical flavors of Vignoles and stared up at a stunning sky, Allen leaned over and gave me a peck on the cheek. “Thanks, sweetheart, for a great weekend.”

With a delighted smile, I raised my glass, and said, “And to many more to come.”

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Produced in cooperation with the Missouri Division of Tourism.