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Arts & Life

St. Joseph, Missouri, A City of Historic Museums, Is Ready For A Post-Pandemic Summer Surge

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Julie Denesha
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Visitors are scarce these days at The Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri. The museum celebrates the 1,900-mile-long Pony Express route that took riders from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. Before the telegraph replaced it, the Pony Express was the West's most direct means of east-west communication.

Small museums in St. Joseph, Missouri, preserve the legacies of the Pony Express, Jesse James, even bygone psychiatric treatments. After a year of slow visitor traffic, operators are looking ahead to vaccinations and summer vacations.

On a weekday afternoon, a few tourists wander through the exhibits at the Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri. The museum tells the stories of the horse-mounted riders who, starting in 1860, braved the dangers of a ten-day, cross-country journey to deliver messages between Missouri and California.

“So every seven to fifteen miles we say they got a new one, a fresh horse or a fresh mount, because that horse, going ten to 12 miles-an-hour, cannot keep that up for a great long time,” says Cindy Daffron, the executive director, reciting a narrative she knows as well as her own name.

The Pony Express Museum is perhaps the best known of a collection of small historical museums that distinguish this midsized midwestern city. Other museums preserve the histories of Jesse James, west-bound pioneer settlers, the region's early Black community — even the history of bygone psychiatric treatments.

Before the pandemic, the museums brought a steady stream of visitors to town. They have been sorely missed.

That story Daffron recites from memory? She loves telling it to big groups of tourists on bus tours. Even more, she loves the looks on the faces of school kids when they come through on field trips.

These days, she’s lucky to get a small group. Most years, the museum hosts about 40,000 visitors, Daffron says. In 2020, that figure was cut in half.

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Julie Denesha
Cindy Daffron, executive director of The Pony Express National Museum, says she looks forward to bigger crowds as more Americans are vaccinated. The museum remains open 360-days a year, but tour groups are still thin on the ground.

Still, Daffron takes pride in keeping the doors open. The museum is broken up into zones to help keep family groups separated. Hand sanitizing stations are posted every few feet.

“I wanted the right standards," Daffron says. "I wanted it done the right way and all. I wanted to do it once and I had to figure out what I had to cover with plastic, because the number two things we have are wood and leather, which you can't really clean very well. So we just have to be very careful.”

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Julie Denesha
Messages were carried beneath the rider in a mail pouch called the mochila.

Lately, there’s been an uptick in visitors. Terri and Bob Richter stopped in to stretched their legs on the long trip back home to Mankato, Minnesota, after visiting friends in Phoenix, Arizona.

“Yeah, we’ve just been hitting a lot of little museums,” Terri Richter says.

"People are saying, 'I want to travel,'" Daffron says. "'I want to connect now with my history.' I think families are more connected than they've been ever in their lifetimes. And some of them are saying, 'wow, I just really want to go see some of this stuff.'”

Across town at the Glore Psychiatric Museum, Sara Wilson manages a fascinating if unsettling collection of displays documenting the treatment of the mentally ill. The unusual museum features exhibits on lobotomies, electroshock therapy, dousing tanks and straightjackets.

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Julie Denesha
Replacing a glass cover over a display on phrenology, Emily Zeman, collections and archives manager, assists Sarah Wilson, executive director of the St. Joseph Museums. Taking advantage of a time with fewer tourists, Wilson was having much of the carpet replaced.

The Glore is part of The St. Joseph Museums, an entity which includes the Black Archives Museums, Native American and History Galleries, the Doll Museum, and the Wyeth-Tootle Mansion.

“People, you know, get tired of being sheltered at home and they want to explore. Museums are really a safe place to do that," Wilson says. "We've been very, very careful and had good success with welcoming visitors back."

With admissions down at the Glore, Wilson took advantage of the time by replacing carpet throughout the museum complex.

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Julie Denesha
Lobotomies were experimental treatments for patients with mental illness common in the 1930s and 1940s. The surgical procedure in which the nerve pathways in a lobe of the brain are crudely severed. The procedure was used to treat schizophrenia, manic depression and bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses.

Wilson’s small staff relies heavily on volunteers. Many are retirees who’ve mostly stayed away this past year.

“A lot of our older volunteers, for safety reasons, have decided that, you know, it's just best if they stay home and be safe right now," Wilson says. "We want them to do that. We love them.”

Wilson says she hopes things will get back to normal soon.

"As we know that more and more people are getting the vaccines we will be calling those older volunteers and letting them know that we're here and we can't wait to see them," Wilson says. "And we have lots and lots of work for them to do.”

Matt Edwards, a visitor in the Glore Museum, has no reservations about his safety. He is wearing a mask, but he reflects the range of attitudes regarding the dangers of COVID-19.

“Oh, I’ve been out before," Edwards says. "I don’t believe in COVID anyway."

Back at the Pony Express Museum, Cindy Daffron says small museums are the keepers of the nation’s history. She believes it’s a legacy that needs to be remembered.

“Go find it, go see it, and then make sure that you pass on what you've learned to other people, because that passing on is a torch that goes from one generation to the next," Daffron says.

One thing St. Joseph would like to leave in the past is a pandemic that has overstayed its welcome.

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