How Truman shaped our town, and our town shaped a President
By Seann McAnally
Although he is usually associated with Independence, President Harry S Truman said he always thought of his family farm on Blue Ridge Blvd. as “home.” Truman came of age in Grandview, and said his years here shaped his character.
“Riding one of these plows all day, day after day, gives one time to think. I’ve settled all the ills of mankind in one way or another while riding along seeing that each animal pulled his part of the load,” Truman said of his farm days.
Truman was born to John and Martha Truman on May 8, 1884. His parents moved around Missouri during his childhood, then settled on Martha’s parents’ farm in Grandview. It was a huge farm for the time, some eight times larger than the average American farm. At 600 acres, it was the size of about 450 football fields.
After two years there, they left for Independence, primarily so young Harry could go to school there. Truman graduated from high school in 1901 and began working as a clerk in a Kansas City bank. But in 1905, older family members needed help working the farm. Harry and his dad were asked to leave their banking jobs and “come home” to work the Grandview farm.
Harry was just 22 years old. But the dutiful son did just that, later saying it was because of “family loyalty”.
In describing his duties, Truman said he “...plowed, sowed, reaped, milked cows, fed hogs, doctored horses, bailed hay, and did everything there was to do on a 600 acre farm with my father and my brother.”
Truman would later describe his father’s supervision over the farm as “stern” and he learned the value of hard work as he spent almost all of his waking hours, from dawn to dusk, tending to Grandview land, crops and animals.
Folks who worked at the farm recalled Truman as a “man of the people,” working shoulder-to-shoulder with farmhands and migrant workers. He’d even help his mother, Martha, and little sister, Mary Jane, cook for the farm hands.
“The fact is, Truman was a late bloomer,” said Mike Ryan, of the National Parks Service. “Before he came back to the Grandview farm, he was shy and a little bit immature. When he was put in charge of the farm, he had to develop those leadership qualities that he would carry with him to the White House.”
“I thought maybe by cursing mules and plowing I could perhaps overcome my shyness and amount to something,” he had said.
Truman normally worked 12 hour days. During what little there was of his free time, the future president enjoyed practicing the piano, and he would often play it for his family in the evenings. He was also an avid reader.
To overcome his sense of shyness, he began getting involved in community affairs and meetings with other farmers. Truman joined the Masons, and in 1911 he organized the first Masonic Lodge in Grandview – Lodge #618. Over the years he stayed involved in the Masons and advanced in rank.
When his father died in 1914, Truman took over his father’s work as county road overseer for the area, and this was his first formal entrée into Jackson County government.
Truman accepted the job of Grandview Postmaster in 1915. In 1916, Truman added more community service to his resume when he served on the Hickman Mills C-1 School Board.
During those Grandview farm years, as Truman developed his leadership skills, lost his youthful shyness and became known for his hard work and community service, there was always a distraction on his mind…a girl with bright blue eyes who he met during his school years in Independence, Bess Wallace.
Truman would later recall sending regular love letters to Bess from the farm. To get to Independence to court her, Truman often walked from the farm to the Grandview train depot, and rode the train to Independence.
But before Truman got a chance to build his family, duty called again. World War I was raging in Europe. When his National Guard unit – the 35th Division, made up of men from Missouri and Kansas - was called up, Truman went to France, where he served as an artillery captain.
After two grueling years of war, Truman came home to Grandview. He was now 35 years old, and anxious to start a family and strike out as his own man. He and Bess were married in Independence in the summer of 1919, and he moved there to live with Bess and her widowed mother.
Meanwhile, Truman’s little sister Mary Jane stayed on the Grandview farm with her mother, and helped run it with the assistance of Truman’s brother Vivion, who lived nearby.
Perhaps because of his father’s interest in politics, Truman ran for county judge – a title that was later changed to County Executive - of Jackson County in 1922 and 1926, when he won the seat with the backing of notorious Democratic political boss Tom Pendergast.
As county judge, Truman engaged in a major building and renovation program, including an ambitious road improvement program he said would “bring Jackson County out of the mud.” He would later say it was his time on the Grandview farm that made him aware of the desperate need for road improvements.
Indeed, his old friends in Grandview soon saw their old rock roads replaced with new concrete roads.
Truman pushed through construction of 150 Highway, which opened up south Jackson County and Blue Ridge Blvd. from Independence to the Kansas state line. He would later say it was the first dependable road in southern Jackson County.
In 1934, Truman ran for the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1935 to 1945. Truman’s no-nonsense attitude in the senate attracted notice high up in the Democratic Party. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was running for re-election, chose Truman to be his Vice Presidential candidate for his re-election bid in 1944.
They won the election, and Truman himself was sworn in as the 33rd President of the United States after Roosevelt’s death.
Truman visited Grandview often during his years as President, checking in on his mother and sister.
Martha Truman had to sell the farm in the 1940s, and she and daughter Mary Jane moved into “town”— 13106 13th Street, to be precise. The house still stands, and is part of the Grandview Residential Historic District walking tour.
As one story goes, Martha became ill and had trouble sleeping. Her son, Harry, came for a visit. President Truman made some none-to-subtle changes in order to help his mother finally get some sleep. There was a train that went through town every night blowing its whistle. Harry, being a good son, called up the railroad department and told them not to blow the whistle when the train came through Grandview. Of course the railroad clerk was a little surprised at this request. He told Harry that it wasn’t possible, and “just who did he think he was asking the railroad to disrupt their usual business?”
Harry replied “My mother has been ill and not able to sleep for two weeks. I am the President of the United States and I am telling you not to blow the train whistle!”
Needless to say, the train went through Grandview without blowing the whistle, and Martha got some much-needed rest.
Later, after his presidency, Truman himself decided to sell off much of what remained of the farm, citing the need for suburban development. At the 1957 dedication of the Truman Corners shopping center, he said “…it gives the family rather a case of homesickness. While we would have liked very much to have kept the farm as home, and have used it and run it as a farm, we know very well that progress pays no attention to individuals.”
After the presidential years, local legend has it that Truman wanted to build his presidential library in Grandview, but that local politics made that impossible.
The Grandview Advocate--as the Jackson County Advocate was called then--reported in its Thursday, Feb. 12, 1953 issue that Tom L. Evans, then secretary of the Harry S. Truman Library, announced that Truman would move to Grandview and build his library here.
“I’ve had all the success and happiness and honor paid me that any man could ever hope to have, but there is one thing that I want more than anything else – a library out at my farm in Grandview to house my papers.”
In the end, large donations from Independence notables made the Independence location a more pragmatic choice. Bess also wanted to live in her longtime Independence home, so the office location would be more convenient for the Trumans.
“Had he not been married to Bess, I don’t think he would have settled down in Independence,” Ryan said. “After all, he always said that his very earliest memories were of the farm.”
Truman died in 1972, and Bess joined him 10 years later.
Regardless of where Truman truly felt his “home” was, his impact on Grandview, and its impact on him, cannot be overstated.
In its History of Grandview, the committee of the Grandview Historical Society summed up Truman’s Grandview legacy:
“The people of the community of Grandview admired and respected him, and called Harry a neighbor and a friend, regardless of their politics. He was just one of the hometown boys who grew up to make the community proud. Today, we have the Truman Farm Home to keep alive the memory of the good time and the trials of the past, and the man who changed the destiny of the world.”
The Truman Farm Home, located across the street from Sonic on Blue Ridge Boulevard, is now maintained by the National Park Service and open for tours. It’s open 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Memorial Day through Labor Day, but it will be open Saturday the 21st during those times. Tickets are $4 for ages 15 and up.
The staff of the Grandview Historical Society contributed to this story.