Missouri, “The Show Me State”, is part of the Midwest heartland which is not often visited by foreign tourists (or American ones for that matter). This fact is probably one of the reasons why I enjoyed it quite a lot. Apart of course from the fact that is has surprisingly a lot to offer.
We entered Missouri via the interstate 44 travelling east from Oklahoma and headed straight to the centre of the state, where we decided to have a lunch break in one of the state parks, specifically in the quirky named Ha Ha Tonka State Park. I’m not kidding you, it is a real name and according to some sources it means “the laughing waters” in one of the native languages. The park preserves examples of karst geology, among them sinkholes, springs (I guess that’s where the name comes from) and a quite impressive natural bridge, more than 23 meters wide and spanning about 20 meters. But the really unique feature of this park are the ruins of a castle. Yes, a castle.
A wealthy Kansas City businessman, one Robert M. Snyder, wanted an European-style castle as his country retreat. Construction started in 1905 but when Snyder died the next year in a car accident his sons finished it and subsequently leased it as a hotel. Eventually it burned down in 1942. Since then only the picturesque ruins remain. They are located on top of a steep rock visible from across the valley and offering stunning views of the karst landscape of central Missouri. A great place for a lunch stop and a walk.
From Ha Ha Tonka we drove about 60 miles north to Jefferson City which is the capital of Missouri. Let’s face it, I simply couldn’t resist visiting yet another state capitol. And I’m really glad I succumbed to my weakness as it turned out to be one of the most interesting capitol buildings I have visited during all my voyages across America. The classic “capitol-looking” building opened in 1917 after the previous building burned in 1911. Its dome reaches 73 meters above the ground and is topped with a statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture. The most interesting aspect of the capitol design is this sort of symbolic statuary, as well as the paintings decorating the interior. Outside, either side of the impressive main steps on the south side of the building, there are two statues representing two great rivers which meet in the state, Mississippi (the male statue) and Missouri (the female statue). In front of the steps, and dominating the entrance, is a large statue of Thomas Jefferson. The columns on the south portico are 15 meters tall and really give the building the look of a Roman or Greek temple. There is also a frieze showing the history of Missouri. On the north side of the building, just by the river, there is a bronze relief, depicting the signing of the Louisiana Purchase by Livingston, Monroe and Marbois, and the Fountain of the Centaurs.
The interior of the capitol is no less symbolic or impressive. Most of the grand central hall under the dome is covered with murals depicting the people of Missouri. To give you some examples, the murals are called: “The Miner”, “The Scientist”, “The Builder” etc. Like in many capitols the similarities with the art of communist Eastern Europe is striking. In the wings of the building there are over 40 lunettes (semi circular paintings) depicting the history of Missouri and its resources.
There is so much art and architectural detail in the building that we could have spent hours there. If we were Missourians we could contact our state representative and tour even more parts of the capitol, including top of the dome. But, as we don’t have any representative, we decided that enough is enough and went to have a walk around the town. Jefferson City is a rather small but quite pleasant place, located picturesquely on a high bluff over the Missouri river. It has quite a decent main street but apart from the capitol there is not much else really to see or do. So after getting a quick bite we were on the road again.
25 miles north of Jefferson City we arrived at the small town of Fulton (population around 12,000), which was actually the main reason why we were in this neck of the woods in the first place. So what’s so special in Fulton? Well, it is home to the National Churchill Museum which includes an historic London church relocated there stone by stone. Now, I’m really interested (not to say obsessed) with the general and political history of America and with the transatlantic links, while my girlfriend is really into archaeology and building conservation. We simply couldn’t skip a place like that.
So, let’s start from the beginning. In 1946 president Truman invited Churchill to give a speech in his native state of Missouri and chose Fulton’s Westminster College as a site as he had a close aide who graduated there. Churchill gave his “Sinews of Peace” speech there in March 1946 in which he used the famous phrase: “an ‘iron curtain’ has descended across the continent.” . At the time it wasn’t seen as particularly important but it quickly became one of the most famous of the Churchill speeches.
Now, let’s move to 1962. St. Mary Aldermanbury, one of the Christopher Wren’s churches, is lying in ruins in the heart of the City of London, only its tower and shell remaining. It was bombed and burned during the war and its remains were soon to be demolished. At the same time a LIFE magazine feature on war-ravaged, soon-to-be-demolished Christopher Wren churches in London prompted the suggestion to import one of the churches to Fulton to serve as both a memorial and the College chapel. Eventually St. Mary Aldermanbury was chosen and its remains were shipped, stone by stone, from London to the tiny Fulton. Then the foundation stone of the reconstruction was laid in October 1966, 300 years after the Great Fire of London. After rebuilding the exterior walls the interior was also meticulously recreated based on pre-war photographs. And that’s how small Fulton in the rural heart of Missouri ended with a classic bit of London architecture.
We arrived just in time to get inside the church, we got there literally less than 15 minutes before closing. It was weird feeling to see a church like that in a place like this. In the basement there is a display about Churchill, his speech, war politics and the cold war but we skipped it and headed straight upstairs to see the reconstructed interior. Suddenly everything looked like we were teleported back to London, a bizarre effect. After a quick tour of the interior we had a walk around the campus. Apart from the church there is also a fragment of the Berlin Wall and a Churchill statue. Overall the whole place has a really quirky feel, especially on this small campus in rural Missouri. Fulton is way smaller even than Jefferson City and its main street was largely deserted by 5pm.
There was no point in hanging around the town for too long so we decided to head east. We needed some place to stay between Fulton and Saint Louis. In search of something more interesting than yet another motel by the freeway we stumbled upon the small town of Hermann located on the banks of Missouri river.
But more about it in the next instalment.