Patee House Museum
St. Joseph, Missouri
If it wasn't attached to the house where Jesse James was shot ("See the Bullet Hole!"), we'd likely have skipped the Patee House Museum. From past experience with like-named landmarks, it seemed to hint at a potential trip time-sink of period furnishings or an exhaustive collection of lace doilies. But we're glad we stopped in.
Gary Chilcote is the director of the Patee House Museum. He's in his seventies. "This place is filled with stuff," he says over his shoulder as he leads in brisk strides from room to room. Gary was among the Museum's first employees when it opened in 1963. He's still here.
The Patee House was a luxury hotel in the 19th century, with its upper floor a sanitarium for epileptics. The building stands four stories tall, resembles a red brick warehouse, and occupies a full city block. There's a lot of room here for a lot of stuff.
We asked for an accelerated tour, so Gary is creating one on the fly. He keeps several steps ahead, firing off a steady stream of descriptions as the exhibits whirl by. There's the 1920s gas station. There's the Olympic torch that was carried in St. Joseph in 1996. Over there's the dentist office of Walter Cronkite's dad. We pass a display of spittoons, a World War I howitzer, a history of Missouri license plates. Gary stops at a case filled with old steam whistles, toots them by pushing a button, and resumes his forward march.
We turn a corner and see a wall of pistols and shotguns. "Stop, Gary!" we yell.
"Those were used by people here in St. Jo to murder people," he tells us matter-of-factly. Gary points out an axe that a housewife used to kill her husband, and a lynching rope that was used to hang a black man accused of raping a white girl.
"What's that electric drill?" we ask.
"The preacher's son murdered the janitor with that hammer -- beat him to death -- and then drilled holes in him," Gary says. "It's still got the blood and hair on it." Then Gary is on the move, stepping through a portal out of the local murderers gallery and into "an 1880 general store, and there's the photographer's shop...."
Gary leads us into a large hall in the center of the building that shelters a full-size steam train, still sitting on its track. Gary tells us that the museum had a pit dug, knocked down one of its four-story brick walls, dragged in the train, then built the wall back up. "It took us about four days," he says with a shrug. "People don't realize how big these things are."
To the right of the train, next to an old horse-drawn hearse and a fire hydrant, we notice an illuminated window. Behind it, spot lit in a black void, is a 1,050-pound ball of string. "We've had that for 35 years," Gary says. "It belonged to a guy here in town. Called himself, 'I Buy Anything.' It's an interesting thing, but, you know, it doesn't really tie in much with this museum. Now over here is an 1877 railroad station that we brought from the town of Union Star...."
To Gary and the Patee House Museum, all exhibits are equally interesting. And it doesn't matter where they end up. After a few minutes on our tour, it no longer surprises us that a display of Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix (which was invented in St. Joseph) is next to a prison gallows and a noose. Gary tells us that no one died on the gallows because local hanging was outlawed in Missouri in 1915, just after it was built. "The trap doors still work," he adds with a curator's pride. "We keep the handle bolted so someone don't get up there and test it."
Upstairs, around the corner from a case full of adding machines and old telephones, is another seeming inconguity: an exhibit on Robert Wadlow, the world's tallest man. Wadlow lived hundreds of miles away from here, but Gary tells us that he came to St. Joseph to sue a local doctor for writing an article that was critical of giants. "I was there when he came to the courthouse," says Gary, recalling an event that happened in 1939. "My mother took me." A life-size photo of Wadlow is affixed to a wall, while a mirror on the opposite wall encourages visitors to stand and compare their sizes. Gary nimbly demonstrates how the giant, nearly nine feet tall, had to stoop to get into an elevator.
There is far too much at the Patee House Museum to absorb on a breakneck tour like ours. We left with as many questions as answers. How old were those glowing filaments in the display of ancient light bulbs? Who was that strange-looking country singer with his guitar and hat in a display case? What are the 1960s-vintage cameras and sets from KQTV doing here? Is it because someone in St. Joseph was murdered on television with a hammer and a drill?
Our queries must be left for a future visit, as Gary is already ushering us to the door. "You rate museums by The Wow Factor," he tells us. "If people have fun, they'll soak up the history. Whatever works."
And what about Jesse James? That's another story.