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Exploring The Parks: Harry S Truman National Historic Site

Harry S Truman house

The Harry S Truman house was in his wife's family. The small red house was occupied by the Secret Service since President Truman didn't want them in the house. Photographs by Danny Bernstein

Harry Truman may be our most quoted president.

The buck stops here!

If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.

It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.

Harry S Truman was sworn in as the 33rd president of the United States only three months after becoming Franklin D. Roosevelt's vice president. During his presidency, President Truman authorized the atomic bombing of Japan, created the Central Intelligence Agency, desegregated the armed forces, fired General McArthur, and ordered U.S. forces into Korea. He was the first world leader to recognize Israel.

Yet, the Harry S Truman National Historic Site in Independence, Missouri, shows little of these accomplishments. Visitors understand President and Bess Truman as well-loved members of this small town who were crazy about each other their entire lives.

The Harry S Truman National Historic Site is located four miles from Interstate 70, past shopping centers and strip malls. Your first stop should be the Visitor Center and gift shop in an old fire station to watch a 12-minute slide show showing Harry Truman's life in Independence. This is where you get your ticket to tour the Truman house; it costs $4, but is free with an America the Beautiful National Parks and Federal Lands Recreation Pass.

The Truman house is five blocks from the Visitor Center at 219 N. Delaware Ave. in a comfortable neighborhood of single-family houses with small lawns. A ranger greets you for a 20-minute tour. The Park Service is very protective of keeping the house as the Trumans left it after their death. The ranger gives you all the rules:

Stay on the carpet, don't walk on the lawn and no photography.

The Truman house, built around 1867 by Bess Truman's grandfather, was the largest house in Independence. The Wallaces, Mrs. Truman's family, were well-to-do and not in the same socio-economic ladder as the Trumans. Though both Harry and Bess graduated Independence High School in 1901, it wasn't until nine years later that their paths crossed again and they started courting. Harry Truman proposed but Bess turned him down. They finally married in 1919 after Mr. Truman came back from fighting in World War I. Once married, he moved in with her family. They then lived in this house the rest of their lives, except for their time in Washington.

Harry Truman, the last U.S. president not to have a college degree, went through a series of businesses, most of them unsuccessful, until he entered politics.

During your tour, the ranger points out that the lawn and bushes are not manicured on purpose. The Park Service wants to leave the grounds historically accurate like they were when the Trumans lived here. President Truman had been a farmer, not a gardener, so the lawn has crab grass and the bushes are straggly. National Park Service maintenance personnel have to be reminded not to make the garden perfect.

Visitors enter the house like friends, through the side door, and into the kitchen. The cabinets are apple-lime green. Though Mrs. Truman lived in the house until her death in1982, she never had a dishwasher or microwave installed.

This is a real 1950s kitchen. When the linoleum cracked to expose some of the flooring, the Trumans didn't replace it. The President banged in some nails to keep the rest of the linoleum tight. It's a shame that photography is not allowed in the house. The nails in the linoleum would have made a great picture.

The dining room is the only room that is staged. The table is set for a formal dinner. Madge Wallace, Bess Truman's mother, expected everyone to dress for dinner every evening, men and boys in suits and ties and women and girls in dresses.

Madge Wallace was the bane of the President's existence. She lived with the Trumans in Independence and then followed them to the White House. Even when he became president, Harry Truman was never good enough for her daughter. A mother-in-law tongue house plant sits on the window sill. It's long and sharp and lives forever.

When the Trumans left the White House in 1953, they got into their car and drove themselves home to Independence. He became a private citizen again, reading five newspapers a day and working on his library. He took his signature daily walk through town, often with a local police officer who became a friend.

A year later, the Trumans did something no other president has done before or after. President and Mrs. Truman packed their car and hit the road. They drove to New York to see a Broadway show and visit friends, without press coverage or Secret Service protection. After all, he was retired and many retired folks plan long road trips. President Truman loved to drive.

But after Kennedy's assassination, Secret Service protection was extended to former presidents and their families. Harry Truman's interaction with the Secret Service deserves an article or maybe a book of its own. The Secret Service tried to move into the Truman house in Independence. President Truman would have nothing to do with them and threw them out.

President Johnson was not amused and called Mr. Truman to explain the importance of this protection. So they compromised and the Secret Service agents moved into a small house on the corner. The government invoked eminent domain and took over the red house. But Truman went about his daily routine and drove himself everywhere. Since agents had to be with him at all times, he was driving them around. Truman kept these guys busy; they painted and wallpapered his house.

Harry Truman died in 1972 and Mrs. Truman in 1982, at age 97, the oldest surviving presidential wife. The National Park Service then obtained the house and it opened to the public in 1984.

Across the street, you can visit the Noland house where President's Truman's aunt and uncle lived. President Truman spent a lot of time at the house as a young man when he and Bess were courting. No ticket or tour guide is required.

A few blocks away, the Harry S Truman Library and Museum has exhibits and videos on the President. The Trumans are buried in the courtyard of the Presidential library.

For a better flavor of President Truman's life, take the Truman Historic Walking Trail in downtown Independence that goes to 43 sites connected with the President. Or just walk around the Jackson County courthouse square. One side of the courthouse has a statue of Truman. The opposite side has a statue of Andrew Jackson, donated by Harry Truman in 1949.

Downtown, every other shop seems to connect with the President. One store is named "Wild about Harry." A cafe offers a huge sundae, named appropriately "The buck stops here" sundae.

The Harry S Truman site is one of the most entertaining historic sites I've visited, probably because President Truman sounded like a fun guy. I would have loved to have him as a neighbor.

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We visited the site a few years ago and were fortunate enough to have an excellent ranger guide. My sons really enjoyed a story about the Truman grandsons 'ambushing' the Secret Service agents with their toys guns.

The Truman farm home in nearby Grandview is also part of the NHS; it's open during the summer.

I visited Truman's Home and Library in April of this year and loved it! There was a charm about the house and an "everyman" quality that permeated its furnishings. The Library was wonderfully done and the personal exhibit on the lower level had personal items from the family, including Bess Truman's Wedding Gown and President Trumans clothing. I highly recommend stopping and investing a few hours, you'll be rewarded without a doubt!

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