Route 36 through Missouri connects Kansas to Illinois and showcases small towns and the American innovators and inventors who lived there
Viewed on a road map, U.S. Route 36 across Missouri resembles a belt, spanning the state at its narrowest point, 200 miles of horizontal road connecting Hannibal with St. Joseph. When the road was laid out in 1914 — paralleling a railroad line that had come through more than half a century earlier, which in turn followed a much older stagecoach trail — it was to be part of the Pikes Peak Ocean to Ocean Highway, linking New York to San Francisco, and later to Los Angeles.
By 1925 the highway had other names, creating confusion: Hell’s Gate to Golden Gate, Appian Way of America, Pershing Transportation Route and, inside Missouri, the Old Hound Dog, after the stagecoach trail. Similar problems with other highways around the country prompted the federal government that year to assign numbers instead of names. Today, Route 36 runs 1,414 miles from eastern Ohio to Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, and highways with other numbers continue the trek east and west from those points.
My husband, Guy, and I learned all this recently after we decided to follow the Missouri stretch, a divided highway that’s as fine as an interstate but without all the traffic. With fewer cars and trucks than Interstate 70 to the south, the route courses over gently rolling hills, passing wide corn and soybean fields and showcasing a lovely rural landscape.
Besides being designated the state’s VFW Memorial Highway in 2010, the route is promoted as the Way of American Genius for “the innovative gentlemen of genius who have roots along it,” according to Beth Carmichael of the Convention and Visitor Center in St. Joseph, one of 27 member cities in the Missouri Highway 36 Heritage Alliance. These “gentlemen of genius” include retailer J.C. Penney from Hamilton; war hero General John “Black Jack” Pershing from Laclede; animator and filmmaker Walt Disney, who spent five years of his boyhood in Marceline and claimed they were the best of his life; Theodore Gary from Macon, heralded as the father of the Missouri road system; and Mark Twain, who immortalized his hometown of Hannibal (as “St. Petersburg”) in possibly the best of all American novels, Huckleberry Finn.
Our trip started in the Missouri River Valley in St. Joseph, famously known as the place where the Pony Express began and Jesse James’ life ended. By 1860 the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad had reached the town, farther west than any other line. Thus, when freighting firm Russell, Majors and Waddell created a 1,900-mile overland mail route to California, the company chose St. Joseph as the starting point. The first Pony Express rider galloped west on April 3, 1860.
The Pony Express National Museum tells the story of the 19-month endeavor (ended by the telegraph and railroad) and of the men who braved weather, wild animals and difficult terrain to unite the country, delivering mail between Missouri and California in just 10 days.
Headquarters for the Pony Express was just up the street at the Patee House, built as a luxury hotel in 1858 and now a museum and national historic landmark. During the Civil War, the building served as Provost Marshal’s office, then military headquarters for the Union general of northwest Missouri. It later was a women’s college, then a shirt factory, before opening as a Western history museum in 1963, now recognized as one of the finest anywhere.
Next door is the house, moved here in 1977, where outlaw Jesse James was living with his family when he was shot dead by the “coward” Robert Ford, a member of the James gang, on April 3, 1882. The house is filled with artifacts including dozens of portraits of James and a cast of his skull, found broken into 32 pieces when his body was exhumed (to prove his identity) in 1995.
The town also offers the St. Joseph Fire Museum in one of the first (if not the first) fire stations with a sliding pole, as well as the Glore Psychiatric Museum in the former State Lunatic Asylum, the National Military Heritage Museum and the Remington Nature Center.
Take Route 36 east from St. Joseph, cross the Platte, and at Missouri Route 33, turn south for a 4½-mile side trip to Shatto Milk Company, “Milk at Its Finest.” Owner Leroy Shatto came to work at the farm nearly four decades ago, he said. After marrying the boss’ daughter, Barb, he “bought the cows.” The Shattos began bottling milk just a dozen years ago but have already won numerous awards for their products, which include flavored milks (banana, strawberry, orange, chocolate, root beer, eggnog and cotton candy), aged cheese and cheese curds, butter and ice cream.
At Madison, Wisconsin’s 2010 World Dairy Expo, Shatto root beer milk was named the best flavored milk, and the dairy won Best of Show for its Lily cheddar at the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia. Shatto’s 40 employees milk 350 cows, mostly Holsteins, to fill some 14,000 glass bottles a day. The dairy, on 400 grassy acres, offers tours Monday through Saturday by reservation. There’s plenty of RV parking.
Return to Route 36, and at Missouri Route 13, turn left to Hamilton, home of James Cash Penney. A startlingly realistic wax likeness of the famous retailer greets visitors at the J.C. Penney Memorial Library and Museum. Hundreds of photos and artifacts chronicle the story of Penney, who in 1902 founded the JCPenney chain of stores.
Continue east and drive north on U.S. Route 65 to Chillicothe, renowned as the Home of Sliced Bread and more recently for nearly two dozen colorful murals that decorate its downtown buildings. The murals, by local artist Kelly Poling, are of subjects historically important to the area such as Chillicothe Business College, Milbank Mills and, of course, sliced bread. A placard explains that inventor Otto Rohwedder’s bread-slicing machine was first used in 1928 at Chillicothe Bread Company, “setting in motion the timeless comparison of ingenuity and innovation to ‘the greatest thing since sliced bread.’”
Keep heading east on Route 36 and turn left at Danube Drive, then follow signs for 1½ miles to parking for Locust Creek Covered Bridge State Historic Site. From here it’s an easy ¼-mile walk to the 151-foot-long bridge, the longest of the four remaining covered bridges in Missouri (there were once more than 30).
The bridge, built in 1868 and a state park since 1967, once spanned Locust Creek and carried “transcontinental” Route 8, according to Merlyn Amidei of the Macon County Historical Society. Route 36, with a slightly different alignment, replaced Route 8 in 1930.
Amidei added that because floods were common, the creek channel was straightened after World War II — which explains why grass instead of water now “flows” beneath the old bridge.
Just ahead off Route 36 at Laclede is General John J. Pershing Boyhood Home State Historic Site, which interprets the life of the highest ranking U.S. general during World War I. The family moved here when Pershing was six, in 1866, and lived in the two-story frame home until 1885, the year before he graduated from West Point.
Prairie Mound School, where Pershing taught before entering West Point, is part of the historic site. Exhibits detail his outstanding military career in the American West, Cuba, the Philippines, Manchuria, Mexico and Europe in World War I, where he was sent in 1917 as commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces.
Nearby is a heroic-size bronze statue of Pershing, who (the granite base reads) “earned the highest rank ever accorded in the U.S. Army.” In 1919, by a special act of Congress, he was named general of the armies of the United States, one rank above five-star general.
Brookfield, home of the Great Pershing Balloon Derby, is ahead at Missouri Highway 11. The five-day derby, the longest-running such event in the country (38 years, so far) takes place over Labor Day weekend. We also recommend Brookfield for the lovely city campground (see “Route 36 RV Parks” on the right.) Marceline, “Where Walt Found the Magic,” is 3 miles ahead at Missouri Highway 5. Driving into the town is to enter a Walt Disney world. Signs for Marceline’s Main Street USA — inspiration for the Disneyland thoroughfare of the same name — are adorned with Mickey Mouse ears.
The lobby walls of the old-fashioned Uptown Theatre on Main Street, where Disney held the Midwest premier of The Great Locomotive Chase in 1956, are festooned with Disney cartoon characters. Across the street is a small park with a fountain, showy flower gardens and two loud speakers high on a utility pole blaring songs from Disney movies.
Elsewhere in town, there’s the Walt Disney Post Office (a Walt Disney commemorative stamp, with more than 153 million printed, was issued here in 1968), Walt Disney Municipal Park and Pool (which Disney dedicated in 1956) and Walt Disney Elementary School, for which Disney had murals of his cartoon characters created. A locomotive and caboose at the town’s E.P. Ripley Park bear the name Santa Fe & Disneyland Railway.
There’s also the Walt Disney Hometown Museum in the cavernous, restored 1913 Santa Fe Railroad Depot (the restoration was paid for by Disney’s grandchildren). The museum, which opened in 2001 (Disney’s centennial), tells his life story in dozens of photos, artifacts, placards and a two-hour film, The Man Behind the Myth.
Tour guide Inez Johnson explained that the Disneys — Elias and Flora and their five children — moved from Chicago to a 45-acre farm outside town in 1906; Walt was four at the time. The family moved to Kansas City when he was 10, but the years in Marceline had a profound influence on his life and career. Sketches of what would become Disneyland were based on Marceline’s downtown, and his films featured the barnyard animals he loved, said Johnson.
She smiled, noting a personal connection. In 1956 when Disney came to Marceline with his brother Roy and their wives for the premiere and to dedicate the pool complex, Johnson and her husband had the only air-conditioned house in town. The Disneys stayed there, and thus began a friendship that continues today with Walt’s descendents (he died in 1966), she said. Johnson’s daughter, Kaye Malins, director of Marceline Tourism and the museum, now lives in the house the Disney family had long ago occupied, she added.
Along a grassy lane near the farmhouse is Walt Disney’s “dreaming tree,” a “venerable old cottonwood where as a boy he would daydream and observe nature around him,” said Johnson. A decade ago the tree was struck by lightning and now “clings to life,” but its “son” flourishes nearby. Farther along the path is an antique-looking barn, a replica of the one Disney built as a studio in California, his “happy place,” which in turn was patterned after his family’s Marceline barn. Signatures, tributes and sketches by visitors from around the world cover its walls. A placard outside reads: “To tell the truth, more things of importance happened to me in Marceline than ever happened since or are likely to in the future. — Walt Disney.”
Continue east to Macon, home of Theodore Gary, first chairman of the Missouri State Highway Commission. He also held a patent on a dial tele-phone and in 1905 paid to have one placed in every Macon residence for a year. After that, the phones could be rented for $1 a year. The project was a success, and 70 percent of the families kept the phones.
Drive on to Hannibal, where the genius of one of the world’s best-loved authors can be explored on self-guided tours of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, an eight-building complex. We discovered that Twain was an inventor as well, with several patents to his credit, including one for a history trivia game.
Other attractions we recommend include Mark Twain Cave, which plays a role in five of Twain’s books and can be toured; Mark Twain Riverboat, offering sightseeing and dinner cruises on the Mississippi from April through November; and Mark Twain Himself, a stage show featuring Richard Garey as Twain at the Planter’s Barn Theater. The show, which re-creates Twain’s famous performances of more than a century ago, has appeared all around the country but is now headquartered here.
From Hannibal, Route 36 continues into Illinois. But for us, the west bank of the Mississippi was the end of the line, the last stop on this Way of American Genius.
Route 36 RV Parks
RV parks can be found on either end of the Missouri stretch of Route 36 — in St. Joseph on the west side, and Hannibal and Monroe City on the east side. Brookfield, in the center of the route, is an ideal midway stop.
South City Park
A large public park with a small municipal campground, South City Park has nine gravel campsites with 30-amp hookups and a bathhouse with showers.
660-258-5644 | www.brookfieldcity.com
Mark Twain Cave and Campground
Open from April through October, the Mark Twain Cave complex includes 99 RV sites, most with 20/30/50-amp hookups, plus free Wi-Fi, a pavilion and two bathhouses.
800-527-0304 | www.marktwaincave.com
Mark Twain Landing Resort and Water Park
Open year-round, big-rig-friendly Mark Twain Landing has 235 campsites, 20/30/50-amp hookups, Wi-Fi, three bathhouses, a laundry room and more. Discount for Good Sam Club members.
573-735-9422 | www.marktwainlanding.com
AOK Campground and RV Park
AOK, open year-round, has 53 RV sites with 30/50-amp hookups, among them 34 pull-throughs and some cable sites, plus Wi-Fi, picnic tables and fire rings. Discount for Good Sam Club members.
816-324-4263 | www.aokcamping.com
Beacon RV Park
Open year-round, 4-acre Beacon RV Park has 65 full-hookup campsites, including 17 big-rig-friendly pull-throughs, and 20/30/50-amp hookups. Discount for Good Sam Club members.
816-279-5417 | www.campingfriend.com/beaconrvpark
For More Information
Hannibal Convention and Visitors Bureau
866-263-4825 | www.visithannibal.com
Missouri Highway 36 Heritage Alliance
816-233-6688 | www.americangeniushighway.com
St. Joseph Convention and Visitor Center
800-785-0360 | www.stjomo.com