The primary circulation area of RV Life is in the West, and so most of our travel articles focus on destinations in the West. But go to the blogs at rvlife.com and you will find a broader geographical range, particularly in the weekly “RV Travel Tales” blog written by Arline Chandler.
Arline and her husband, Lee Smith, are based in Arkansas and travel widely in their motorhome. Here is her recent post on the Missouri home of President Harry S. Truman.
RV Travel Tales: Mr. Citizen in Independence, Missouri
By Arline Chandler
Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States, considered Independence, Missouri, the center of the universe. He called the frame-two-story house at 219 North Delaware Street “home,” and the place where he was simply “Mr. Citizen.”
Growing up a farm boy outside of Independence, Truman lived in the house from the time of his marriage to Bess Wallace until his death on December 26, 1972. Bess Truman’s maternal grandfather, George Porterfield Gates, built the house over a period of years from 1867 to 1885. President Truman did not own the house until after the death of his mother-in-law, who lived with the couple—even in the White House in Washington.
Harry and Bess grew up in school together, but she paid little attention to him. After high school, they went different ways. Bess’s father committed suicide and she and her mother left Independence for a time. When they returned, they moved into her grandparents’ house, known then as the Wallace-Gates Home. Harry Truman’s father needed his help in running their family farm. However, as he plowed fields and planted crops, he did not forget Bess Wallace, the daughter of a prominent flour milling family in Independence. When he visited an aunt who lived in the Noland Home across the street, he used the excuse of returning a cake plate to reacquaint himself with the attractive and eligible Bess.
For nine years, Harry Truman courted Bess, writing numerous letters that are now displayed in the Truman Library and Museum. According to an interpreter of the Truman Home, Bess politely turned down two marriage proposals from the future president. However, he did not give up, despite the fact that Bess’s mother thought him beneath her daughter’s social standing. In fact, she did not change her opinion even when Harry Truman occupied the highest seat in United States government.
Today, the National Park Service maintains the Truman Home and provides guided tours on a schedule. Although there is no charge, one must obtain a ticket at the Truman Home Visitor Center and reserve a space on a particular tour. A park service interpreter packs personal information and also rules of etiquette inside the house into a fast-paced and informative half-hour tour. The home looks as though the Trumans merely stepped out for an errand and will soon return. Unlike many tour homes, there are no Plexiglas barriers at doorways. All furniture and personal belongings remain as though the couple still lived in the house. Yet, visitors must follow a carpet runner through the kitchen and dining room, and into the foyer. No one goes upstairs, but the guide said that the President’s underwear and socks are still in his bureau drawers. Despite the fact that Bess Truman lived a decade after his death, she changed nothing. At the back door, his raincoat is hanging as though he had just come in from one of his brisk mile and a half walks.
After Truman became President, the drab gray house needed a facelift. The townspeople of Independence went into action, painted it white, and named it the “Summer White House.” The guide pointed out that in the dining room, Harry sat at one end of the table; his mother-in-law, still in charge, sat at the opposite end. The Trumans had one daughter, Margaret. She insisted—after the house opened for tours—that the dining table always be set with her mother’s best china.
When the Trumans returned to Independence as Mr. and Mrs. Citizen, Margaret tried to bring her parents into the modern world. A sparkling chandelier hangs over their dining table—a gift from Margaret, sent from New York. She bought them a top-of-the line television that sits in the music room. President Truman called it a television machine. Both Harry and Bess preferred to read. In their small study, the park service discovered 1,000 books. They each had a chair in the study—not matching. In fact, the house is furnished comfortably, but with different styles and pieces of furniture. To update, perhaps in the 1970s, they had added carpet and wallpaper. Margaret, too, has passed now, but she has three sons who still frequent the house.
When Margaret was a girl, her dad bought her a Steinway grand piano. The guide said he made a down payment and paid it out in installments. President Truman, himself, played and he loved music. Margaret never really took to the piano, but she had a career as a singer, and then, a second career as a writer of mysteries.
The guide said the Trumans often had dignitaries and celebrities call on them when they returned to their Independence home. However, 30 minutes was the allotted time for any visit. President Lyndon Johnson went to President Truman’s home, and then to his office, to sign two different legislations—one to instigate Medicare, the other, to integrate the military. Harry Truman was known as the Civil Rights President. Sometimes, he preferred to receive guests in the office he maintained at his Presidential Library. He went to his office daily in retirement, often early before the staff arrived. He would answer the phone and respond to a caller’s questions. Most on the other end of the phone line did not believe they were speaking to President Truman. He was the consummate common man.
On the night of his election for his second term as President, he and Bess drove to The Elms, a resort hotel in Excelsior Springs, a town close to Independence. The President related that he drank a glass of buttermilk, ate a sandwich, and went to bed at 6:30. About midnight, he awoke and turned on the radio. The votes were still inconclusive, so he went back to sleep. At 4 a.m., Secret Service woke President Truman to tell him he had won the election, and he needed to go to Washington. Later that same morning the headline of a prominent newspaper plastered its front page: “Dewey Defeats Truman!” The editors were sure when they went to press that Dewey had the election.
After his presidency, Secret Service did not protect President Truman. A local Independence police officer was his only escort on walks around his hometown. However, later, the Secret Service set up in a house across the street and stayed until after Bess Truman died.
(To read more about President Truman and the Truman Presidential Museum and Library, see the Harry S. Truman: President and Citizen of May 2 at rvlife.com.)