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Each week, KCUR's Adventure! newsletter brings you a new way to explore the Kansas City region.

Kansas City's living history museums offer an up-close and personal look at the past

A woman in garb of the mid-1860s, including a bonnet, shawl, and apron over a homespun dress, throws corn for two chickens in front of a weathered board house.
Libby Hanssen
KCUR 89.3
At regional living history museums, interpreters demonstrate how people in earlier generations lived their days in early Missouri.

Around the Kansas City region, living history museums like Missouri Town and Shawnee Town reveal how people lived in earlier eras, with collections of historic buildings, demonstrations of period crafts, and stories of the people who lived there.

This story was first published in KCUR's Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to receive stories like this in your inbox every Tuesday.

Though Kansas City is always growing and changing, it’s worth learning about our region’s past.

The city sits on the ancestral lands of the Osage, Kaw and Otoe-Missouria tribes, with even more indigenous groups that were at times relocated to and pushed out of the region. You can learn more about Native American cultural sites, museums and notable places around Kansas City in this Adventure! guide.

For another perspective on Kansas City’s past, the metro offers a number of living history museums that share what life was like hundreds of years ago. There, you can learn about the skills, struggles, and lifestyles of earlier residents.

Learn about the days when Kansas City was the start of the Wild West, populated with outlaws and lawmen, traders and rugged pioneers. Find out about the Civil War era and its local repercussions.

Or immerse yourself in the daily activities and entertainment of farming communities during the 19th and 20th centuries.

1808-1822: Fort Osage National Historic Landmark

Exterior view fo Fort Osage, a wooden fort with two level towers and wooden fencing.
Libby Hanssen
KCUR 89.3
Fort Osage, founded in 1808, was rebuilt in the 1940s and became a National Historical Site in 1961.

After the storied journey of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, Brigadier General William Clark was commanded to build a fort of the Missouri River as a garrison and trading outpost.

As part of a treaty, the United States military promised to protect the Osage tribe from their enemies, and the base, originally called Fort Clark, was renamed Fort Osage to honor the relationship with the indigenous people.

Fort Osage was considered the first white settlement in Jackson County, according to a 1908 article in The Kansas City Star, and indicated the farthest point of the frontier. When the fort was no longer used, following the Osage ceding their ancestral lands to the United States government, the structures were dismantled for their timber and stone resources.

The historic site was excavated and rebuilt beginning in the 1940s into the 60s, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961.

The museum in Sibley, Missouri, is open daily (except Mondays and certain holidays) for self-guided tours. There, you can converse with historically-dressed interpreters about the daily life and activities of the fort, and learn more about the history of the area and Osage people with exhibits in the Education Center (although many were closed for renovation on a recent visit).

1822-1860: Missouri Town Living History Museum

Interior view of a period blacksmith shop with a man in a leather apron and hat puts a metal rod in a flame.
Libby Hanssen
KCUR 89.3
At Missouri Town Living History Museum, interpreters demonstrate period crafts such as blacksmithing.

Located in Fleming Park in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, Missouri Town Living History Museum is a replica village made from a collection of historic buildings from around the region — original, restored and reproduced.

The structures come from before the Civil War era, and demonstrate styles like rough log cabins, well-appointed homes, workshops and barns. Interpreters demonstrate heirloom crafts like sewing, knitting, and blacksmithing and answer questions about the lifestyle of the era.

To give the full agricultural experience, the museum also has a farm full of animal residents: 14 sheep, 20 hens, one rooster, two cats (Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Harriet Beecher Stowe) and two oxen (named for wagon makers of the era, Weber and Studebaker), as well as a pond full of frogs.

Between April 1-Nov. 15, Missouri Town is open Tuesday through Sunday. During the off-season, the museum is only open on the weekends.

Both Missouri Town and Fort Osage are run by Jackson County Parks and Recreation, and when you visit one of the locations, you can purchase a combo ticket that is good for up to one calendar year at the other. You can see a full list of activities for the year here.

1860s: Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop & Farm Historic Site

A brown horse with a white forehead and white spot on its nose looks over a wooden fence, with a barn in the background.
Libby Hanssen
KCUR 89.3
At Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop & Farm Historic Site, animals help demonstrate what life was like along the Santa Fe Trail.

Stemming from the river towns of Independence, Westport, and the original Town of Kansas, the trail system offered connections to the far flung vistas of California, Oregon, and Santa Fe.

Wagon trade and stagecoaches served as primary transportation until the railroad came through in the 1860s, and the last working stagecoach stop left from that heyday is the Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop & Farm Historic Site in Olathe, Kansas.

The location was the family farm of James Beatty Mahaffie (who went by “Beatty”) and his wife Lucinda, who came to the nascent town in 1857 with their children. The current historic site is situated on about 20 acres of their original 340-acre farm.

Beatty and Lucinda were known for their hospitality, and eventually the Barlow, Sanderson and Company Stagecoach Line used the Mahaffie residence as a stop along the Santa Fe Trail and military road to Fort Leavenworth. During their years as a stagecoach stop, the Mahaffies served thousands of travelers.

Today, the location is run by the City of Olathe’s Parks and Recreation Department, part of the Santa Fe National Historic Trail and Freedom’s Frontier National Heritage Area.

The grounds, Heritage Center, and Agricultural Heritage Livestock Barn at Mahaffie Stagecoach Stop and Farm are open Monday-Saturday. The Mahaffie house is only open Saturdays.

Admission price varies depending on day and scheduled events. The site is busiest Wednesday-Saturday, Memorial Day through Labor Day, with blacksmith and cooking demonstrations, stagecoach rides, and farming activities.

The website recommends calling ahead for detailed information about specific activities, prices, and hours.

1807-1885: Shoal Creek Living History Museum

Long view of Shoal Creek Living History Museum, including a wooden mill, stone jail, white wooden church, and white wooden house, surrounded on three sides by forest.
Libby Hanssen
KCUR 89.3
To build the village at Shoal Creek Living History Museum, historic buildings from around the region were moved to Hodge Park and restored.

Like Missouri Town, the Shoal Creek Living History Museum is made up of historic buildings from around the area and through the decades, brought together at Hodge Park in Clay County. Many of the structures — which include log cabins and early mansions, barns, workshops, stores, a church, school house, and Missouri City’s original 1868 city hall and jail — are the last remnants from the early communities in the area.

Originally called Heritage Village, the museum opened in 1975, and it recreates a 19th century pioneer village in fictional Shoal Creek, Missouri.

The site is open from dawn to dusk, usually free of charge for self-guided walking tours and picnic lunches, with some walking trails through the surrounding woods. The buildings are only open for special events, but you can view the resident bison herd most days.

Throughout the year, the museum comes alive with special living history events (these have an admission price) featuring the “citizens of Shoal Creek,” each with vibrant backstories. Along with hearing tales from the late 1800s, you can join in a safe Trick or Treat in October and visit with St. Nicolas in December.

The museum is managed by Kansas City Parks and Recreation and maintained by volunteers.

Shawnee Town 1929

A row of replicated historic buildings in Shawnee Town 1929.
Libby Hanssen
KCUR 89.3
Near City Hall, Shawnee Town 1929 replicates the city's era as a truck farm community.

In Shawnee, Kansas, you can see a replica truck farm community at Shawnee Town 1929, located near the heart of the city in Herman E. Laird Park.

Most of the buildings in the “town” are period reproductions, though there are various historic buildings nearby, such as the Territorial Governor’s Mansion. (Learn more about Shawnee’s past and present with this neighborhood guide.)

Typically, the museum charges admission, which includes access to exhibits and self-guided tours, but there are many free events throughout the year as well. During the summer, Shawnee Town 1929 hosts Time Travelers on Tuesdays and Thursdays, interactive events demonstrating various aspects of a 1920’s community, like tending chickens, harvesting vegetables, pumping gas, or running a store.

And each June, there’s Old Shawnee Days, a festival to celebrate the community’s roots.

How to live living history yourself

A woman in early 19th century garb, including a bonnet and woolen cape over a blue checked dress, talks with two children, one in a blue coat and one in a red sweatshirt, at Fort Osage's trading post, a large counter in a wooden room with goods such as blankets, rifles, and lanterns.
Libby Hanssen
KCUR 89.3
Interpreters and reenactors help educate and entertain visitors to living history museums.

Of course, it’s one thing to visit historic sites. It’s another thing entirely to experience life first-hand. Bringing the past into the present are reenactors and interpreters, who both educate and entertain.

Reenactors dress in period clothing, adapt mannerisms, accents, and other touches from the centuries. Sometimes they create fictional characters and story arcs, while other times they embody a real person from the era and tell that story.

You also might find interpreters who may be dressed the part, but serve as knowledgeable guides rather than personalities “of the time.”

There are many ways to get involved, and most locations welcome volunteers. You can care for animals and gardens, demonstrate heirloom crafts, interact with the public, and help maintain the historic buildings.

If you are interested in learning more about era-appropriate clothing, you can get outfitted at James County Mercantile. The sutlery in historic Liberty, Missouri (a sutler was a civilian merchant who outfitted soldiers) has clothes, patterns, and other supplies for most historic costume needs.

At Fort Osage, the Men’s Academy (April 13) and Ladies’ Academy (Sept. 7) are annual workshops to teach some of the typical skills from the era, designed for kids ages 10-14 (an adult must be present).

The National World War I Museum and Memorial has a Living History Volunteer Corp, which helps with events throughout the year, including the monthly “Day in the Life” and the annual “Living the Great War” encampment weekend in October. Volunteers must supply their own outfit, approved by the museum’s volunteer coordinator, but training and guidance is available for those interested in this historic era.

One of the most popular eras for reenactors is the American Civil War. Learn more about state-wide events with the Missouri Civil War Reenactors Association.

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen is a freelance writer in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Learn more at Proust Eats a Sandwich.
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