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

Want to explore Liberty, Missouri? Start with this beginner's guide to the city

Streetview of a row of two story buildings, with cars on the road in front of the buildings and people on the sidewalk.
Historic Downtown Liberty Missouri
Downtown Liberty has many options for dining and shopping.

In the city of Liberty, Missouri — the second town to ever be incorporated west of the Mississippi — you'll find history, hiking, ghost hunting, and a quaint town square with plenty of shopping and dining.

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

While Liberty, Missouri, is sometimes seen as a suburb in the sprawling Northland, its history actually predates that of Kansas City.

In fact, Liberty is the second oldest town to be incorporated west of the Mississippi (the first is St. Genevieve, Missouri). While settlers had lived in the region before 1820, Liberty was officially incorporated in 1829 — over two decades before Kansas City, Missouri, was incorporated in 1850.

Liberty has a rich and complex history. While the city’s name is synonymous with freedom, many early settlers brought enslaved people with them, and prominent town founders like Alexander Doniphan and David Rice Atchison were enslavers.

In 1850, African Americans made up roughly 20% of Liberty’s population, and according to the census that year, there were only 14 free Black individuals in all of Clay County.

Organizations like Liberty African American Legacy Memorial have chronicled Black history and experience in Liberty, to ensure that the town’s history in the Civil War era and beyond is accurately depicted to the public.

Students and faculty at William Jewell College in Liberty (whose founders profited from slavery, and which was built in part by slave labor) created the Slavery, Memory, and Justice Project to reckon with that part of their campus’ history.

The best way to learn more about Liberty’s past and present is to take a day trip.

Read on to find where you can shop, find where Joseph Smith — the founding prophet of the Latter-Day Saints movement — was once incarcerated, see a (perhaps fraudulent) painting of George Washington’s baptism, and perhaps even spend the night with some ghosts.

Downtown Liberty

Liberty has a population of roughly 30,000, and like many small towns, it has a walkable downtown with a historic Main Street feel. You can plan your visit to coincide with First Thursdays, when downtown shops stay open late until 8 p.m., and you can enter into a raffle to win a gift card from a local shop or restaurant.

While you’re there, you can stop at one of Liberty’s many locally owned shops, like Catfish + Tater Boutique at 4 N. Main Street, which sells fashionable women’s clothing and accessories.

Main Street Goods and Goodies is a gift shop at 16 N. Main Street that sells a unique combination of antiques, home goods, as well as treats like candies and sodas.

Lemonality is around the corner at 10 W. Kansas Street, selling quirky gifts and home goods, like boutique candles, etched glasses, cute cards, and other paper goods.

Hammerhand Coffee, located at 249 West Mill Street, is a 10-minute walk outside of historic downtown Liberty. There, you can enjoy a matcha latte or pour-over coffee made with some of their locally roasted beans. Their first location was in the heart of downtown Liberty, but in 2016 the building’s roof collapsed. After weathering the building challenges and the pandemic, Hammerhand finally settled into its permanent location in 2021.

When you get hungry, 3 Halves Brewpub and BBQ at 110 E Kansas Street serves up traditional barbeque fare like brisket, pulled pork, and slabs of ribs. They also have more adventurous dishes, like the Mr. Rib sandwich with flash-fried rib meat, or Meat Mac with your choice of BBQ meat mixed into macaroni and cheese.

Oh yeah, they also brew their own beer, with a roster of year-round flagship beers that include the Cervesa Peligrosa Mexican Lager. They also make smaller batches of different styles — you can currently have the Piña del Encanto, a pineapple coconut sour.

If barbecue and beer sound too heavy, you can get breakfast or lunch at Huey’s on the Square at 18 N. Main Street. They are only open until 2:30 p.m. (and are closed on Sundays). Huey's serves breakfast all day, and have diner staples like biscuits and gravy and build-your-own omelets. Their lunch menu has deli offerings like a BLT or tuna salad sandwich.

Another option is Luigi’s Italian Restaurant at 8 E. Franklin Street. Their massive menu includes pasta dishes like Spaghetti "OGB" with olive oil, garlic, and basil, or shrimp diavolo — shrimp in sherry wine tomato sauce served over linguine. You can also grab a pizza with any number of toppings, or try their homemade lasagna.

Make sure to take one of the city’s self-guided tours of Liberty’s notable sites. The Historic Downtown Walking Tour will bring you to 22 different locations, including the Jesse James Bank Museum, at the site of the former bank that the infamous James-Younger Gang is said to have robbed in 1866.

The tour also stops by the Historic Liberty Jail, now owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. That’s where Joseph Smith was imprisoned from 1838-39, after the Missouri governor issued the infamous "Mormon Extermination Order."

The African American History Tour is a one-mile self-guided tour that shows Liberty’s pivotal sites of Black history, such as the Garrison School, which was opened in 1877 to educate the area’s Black youth. Or you can see homes that embody Liberty’s architectural heritage with the one-mile Dougherty Historic District Neighborhood Walking Tour (the neighborhood is less than a 10-minute walk from downtown).

Aside from First Thursday, downtown Liberty frequently hosts other events that you can coordinate your visit with. Every Saturday in May through October, from 7 a.m. to noon, you can find Historic Downtown Liberty Farmers’ Market at Liberty Square. Vendors sell items like produce, meat, pickled foods, and honey, and you can also buy crafts and gifts.

Make Music Liberty on June 21 is a citywide festival dedicated to making accessible music. You can see free concerts all across town, from porches to downtown sidewalks. It’s a great excuse to explore the area.

On July 27, put on your Santa costume in the sweltering heat and head to the annual Christmas in July Beer Crawl from 1 to 5 p.m. For $30, you can purchase a wristband that allows you to sample at least 25 beers. There will also be places to buy snacks, and you can also stop into downtown Liberty shops to browse (and also cool down).

William Jewell College

Exterior view of Jewell Hall, a three story brick and stone building with white columns and a cupola. It is on the top of a hill with steps leading up the building, behind a sign reading William Jewell College.
Zach Bauman
The Beacon
William Jewell College was founded in 1849.

William Jewell College, established in 1849, is one of the oldest private colleges in Missouri. You can take a walking tour of the scenic, 200-acre campus as a way to immerse yourself in Liberty’s history.

The oldest standing building on campus is Jewell Hall, completed in 1853. The colonial-style building, with its statuesque white columns, looks like it could reside on an East Coast campus.

The building has been through a lot: It housed Union soldiers during the Civil War in 1861 during the Battle of Blue Mills Landing. Because William Jewell’s founder and namesake was an enslaver, William Jewell's students and faculty have called for Jewell Hall to be renamed after the enslaved individuals who constructed the building.

While you’re on campus, you will also have to head into Gano Chapel to see a controversial painting of George Washington being baptized. Gano Chapel, built in 1926, is named for Washington’s Revolutionary War chaplain John Gano.

While Washington was known to be a member of the Anglican Church, some claimed that the Baptist minister baptized the first President during the Revolutionary War. Other historians, however, dispute the claim. Either way, it is an unusual piece of history to check out.

Mt. Memorial Cemetery is a stone’s throw from Gano Chapel, but it is technically owned by the City of Liberty. In any case, it is also worth a visit if you like history. The cemetery was Liberty’s first official burial ground and the first burial there is believed to have taken place as early as 1819. It's a nice place to take a walk in keeping with the 19th-century convention that cemeteries should be park-like spaces where a family would want to visit their deceased loved ones.

To get the lowdown on all the buildings on campus, Liberty has another self-guided walking tour that will meet your needs. This one-and-a-half mile tour highlights the William Jewell campus as well as notable homes and historic sites in the surrounding neighborhood.

Recently added to the William Jewell campus is the “Freedom Walk," centered around a series of bronze plaques that discuss the enslaved people who built the campus, Black employees who worked at the school but couldn’t enroll, the integration of the school, and other parts of the campus’ history with slavery.

Belvoir Winery

Exterior view of Belvoir Winery, a three storied multi-winged building.
Emily Standlee
KCUR 89.3
The grounds of Belvoir Winery and Inn were once home to a fraternal organization known as the Missouri International Order of Odd Fellows.

Belvoir Winery is a must-visit if you like history, wine, ghost hunting, or a combination of all three. This winery, hotel, and event venue is located at the old Missouri Odd Fellow’s Home.

The Independent Order of the Odd Fellows is a fraternal order whose first North American chapter dates back to Maryland in 1819, though its roots go back even further to 18th-century England.

The Odd Fellows were committed to building facilities that could care for orphans, the elderly, and indigent members of society. In 1900, the Missouri chapter of the Oddfellows began building the Odd Fellows Complex at the 240-acre site now located at 1325 Odd Fellows Road in Liberty.

The complex eventually grew to encompass a farm, a cemetery, and many buildings, including a school, hospital, administration building, and “Old Folks Home.” Most of the Odd Fellows’ buildings like the school and orphanage were closed in the 1950s, but Belvoir Winery has maintained a detailed overview of the complex’s history.

The three major buildings that remain embody the grand Jacobethan Revival-style architecture that characterized the complex, making it a scenic wedding venue.

But while the Odd Fellows were dedicated to helping society, Atlas Obscura also discusses the Odd Fellows’ more sinister rituals that took place at the complex. This history (and the fact that there are 600 people buried in the cemetery there) is why we listed the complex as one of the creepiest places in the Kansas City region.

This haunted history also makes Belvoir a fun place to stay the night, or if that sounds too scary, maybe you can just head there for the afternoon to try some locally-made wine. They have a range of options, including Norton’s Missouri Dry Red or Boo’s Red Dessert wine.

But, if you really want to get spooky, you can buy a ticket to attend a paranormal investigation with a team of Paranormal Research Investigators at Belvoir. For about $65, you can attend one of these intimate events from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. The next scheduled tour will be on July 13, and you should buy tickets soon because each tour sells a limited number. Or if you want to wait for a more appropriate season, it’s an especially great activity to do around Halloween.

Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary

A person in a black coat and blue hat, carrying a tote bag and walking stick, hikes on a path covered in fallen leaves though a forest.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
There are four miles of trails at Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Preserve.

If you are looking for a new place to take a hike, Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary is at 407 N. La Frenz Road, located only a four-minute drive from the William Jewell campus.

Operated by the Missouri Department of Conservation, the 100-acre sanctuary has four miles of trails, including two asphalt trails and one ADA-accessible trail.

There is a Nature Center where you can see live rescued animals or taxidermied Missouri wildlife like a bobcat and great horned owl. They also sell some pretty cool bear T-shirts.

It is free to visit the nature sanctuary, but they have a requested donation amount of $5 per vehicle or $2 per person for groups of four or more. Their hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and they ask that you do not bring pets.

Hannah Bailey is a cultural studies scholar and a freelance writer for KCUR. You can email her at hannah@coneflower.org.
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