CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship - Winter 2010

Review Book


A President, a Church, and Trails West: Competing Histories in Independence, Missouri

Jon E. Taylor, Columbia, Mo: University of Missouri Press, 2008; 274 pp., hardcover, $39.95.

It is often in the finer details of life that we discover the most salient lessons of history. Such details often contain the most practical and cautionary lessons about the preservation of history itself. In A President, a Church, and Trails West: Competing Histories in Independence, Missouri, Jon E. Taylor provides a bounty of just such details about Independence, Missouri and its multiple historical narratives; evolving preservation priorities; contending religious institutions; elected officials; landowners; and the federal, state, and local bureaucracies that are all involved in the historic preservation of this Mid-western county seat and Kansas City, Missouri suburb.

Independence is one of those unheralded American communities where multiple, significant historical events entwine upon a single geography. Established as the county seat of Jackson County, Missouri in 1827, it was a jumping-off point for the California and Oregon Trails, and it was a key provisioning point for the Santa Fe Trail. It is the location that Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, proclaimed to be Zion. And it was the hometown of President Harry S. Truman, who by the 1980s was still, in the words of one former Independence mayor, “the only president in modern times to have returned to his hometown to build his presidential library and live out his life.” (p. 162)

In his introductory pages, Taylor provides a thoughtful account of Independence’s various historical legacies. Regarding early Mormon history in Jackson County, Missouri, he notes the later evolution of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS, since 2001 called the Community of Christ) which stayed in the Midwest when Brigham Young and his followers headed on to Utah, and the physical development and redevelopment of the original 63 acres in Independence purchased in 1831 on behalf of the nascent Mormon church. He likewise chronicles Independence’s endeavors to market its trails history, and the players involved in this process. But the central story of Taylor’s work surrounds the efforts to preserve the home, neighborhood, and cultural landscape of Truman in Independence through the establishment and management of a presidential library (1957), national historic landmark (1972), and national historic site (1982), all within the context of a fluctuating locally-designated historic status.

Taylor sets out to create a work that demonstrates how “one community has transitioned through . . . stages of preservation thought” (p. 9) while “plac[ing] the role of preservation in Independence not only within the larger context of preservation in the United States but also within the context of American environmental history.” (p. 11) While he is successful in placing his narrative within the larger context of preservation thought, he limits discussion of the “environment” to the human-constructed landscape, and at key points often offers frustratingly little in the way of analysis. He likewise does not leverage the large personalities, high passions, and often parable-like storylines into sweeping narrative. Indeed, this might have been an engrossing William Cronon type of story that many have grown to expect of urban history. But what the work lacks in ecological dialogue, analytical ingenuity, or narrative flourish, it more than makes up for with its detail-driven descriptions of the on-the-ground complexities and essential minutiae of the community process of historic preservation.

Through impressive research into public and private papers, interviews, oral histories, newspapers, and other myriad sources, Taylor takes the reader, step by step, through the realms of local bureaucratic processes, interactions, and decision-making. He shows how the administrators of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum chose to give approval to a 1970s redevelopment project that razed 345 buildings located in the front approach of the Truman Library and necessitated the relocation of 179 families. (pp. 106-7) Taylor underlines without passion but with explicit detail what it functionally means when the local First Baptist Church (located one block from the Truman Home) asserts that heritage preservation interferes with their First Amendment-protected rights. He also details the competition of this congregation with a factual review of the participation of the RLDS church: while in favor of historic preservation in locations where “church history had already been made” officials felt that in Independence, “history . . . was still being made” (p. 48) and as such, should not be hindered by other historical narratives. And the author’s research reveals the interactions between those who, in Taylor’s words, feared “a federal takeover of Truman’s neighborhood,” and those who admitted, in the words of one resident, “[l]ocal control, for whatever reason, seems ineffective.” (p. 175)

The reader is likewise given insight to the struggles of preservationists to explain to a skeptical public in the 1980s how “bungalows and other 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s homes were historic” (p. 150) and “how homes that were not ‘mansions’... could be important.” p. 150) Taylor further describes their struggles in the 1990s to prove how “historic landscapes such as the Truman Neighborhood . . .included sidewalks, driveways, and overhead electrical utility systems” (p. 216-7) as part of the overall historic landscape of this internationally significant neighborhood.

Most notably, Taylor demonstrates how governmental agencies worked to save, not a battlefield or a single building, but the full walking environment of a president, during a time when presidential libraries as well as newly institutionalized federal, state, and local historic preservation bureaucracies were still figuring out how to function, and when historic preservation as a field was rapidly evolving at national, regional, and local levels.

Taylor’s evenhandedness is of particular merit. Truman’s neighborhood transitioned from a national treasure, to having its locally designated historic district boundaries reduced in 1983, to, in 1996, becoming one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “Eleven Most Endangered Places.” (p. 205) Even in good times it has been often plagued with the intrusion of “the false sense of history” (p. 216) through continued introduction of questionable elements and practices. This author writes about even the most regrettable of these events with laudable professional detachment, refreshingly free of vitriol.

In A President, a Church, and Trails West Taylor has proven his talents as a public historian, creating a work bulging with information, a rich source for present and future preservation scholars, students, and public officials. Most importantly, if, as Taylor states, “[c]ollective memory is composed of personal memories of a community’s residents … refreshed by public policy” (p. 243) then this book provides an essential series of practical and cautionary lessons for communities seeking to preserve, through public policy, nationally important yet locally competing memories like those found in Independence, Missouri.

Jason Alexander Hayter
University of Arizona