Five Missourians who made their mark on the world
By Lori Simms
Many notable people from the past have once lived in the Show-Me State. Some stayed a short time; others spent most of their years here. Explore the lives of an artist, an author, an activist, a scientist, a musician and a U.S. president in the place they called home.
Everyday people living their lives inspired the work of Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton who became a leader in the Regionalist art movement.
Benton was born in Neosho in 1889. From the time he was a young child, he loved to draw, and the years his family spent in Washington D.C. – after his father was elected to Congress – gave him access to the city's art. He particularly liked the murals at the Library of Congress.
Benton went on to study art in Chicago and Paris. He was living in New York City when a trip to visit his father sparked a change in the way he viewed Missouri and the Midwest. Benton painted ordinary people – working in steel mills, coal mines and cotton fields. His work also called attention to problems he saw in America, and he spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan, lynching and fascism.
One of his most famous pieces is the mural, A Social History of Missouri, which wraps around the walls of the House Lounge in the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. The mural sparked controversy because it included negative images from the state's history including slavery, the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri in 1838 and notorious political boss Tom Pendergast. You can also see Benton murals at the Inman E. Page Library on the campus of Lincoln University in Jefferson City and at Joplin City Hall.
The artist moved to Kansas City in 1935 where he lived and painted until his death 40 years later. Learn more about his life at the Thomas Hart Benton Home and Studio State Historic Site.
An 1894 advertisement describing Missouri as "The Land of Big Red Apples," lured Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband Almanzo to Rocky Ridge Farm long before Wilder wrote her first book.
Generations of children grew up reading Wilder's "Little House" books and watching Little House on the Prairie, the television show inspired by her family's adventures.
Wilder was born in Wisconsin in 1867. When she was still a baby, the family lived on a farm in north central Missouri before a series of moves to homestead in other states.
She met and married her husband Almanzo in De Smet, South Dakota, where they lived for several years before moving to Minnesota, Florida and back to De Smet. That's when that "Big Apple" advertisement caught their attention.
Missouri was the right fit for the family, and they settled into their life at a place they named Rocky Ridge Farm. Their success at farming led Wilder to her start as a writer – she penned several articles about their farm for the Missouri Ruralist.
After many years in Mansfield, she began chronicling her life on the frontier. Those stories became the books that paint a picture of how many pioneer families lived as the country began its westward expansion.
The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum transports visitors into the world of the Little House books. Artifacts include tools, needlework and Pa's fiddle. Every fan should visit at least once.
A woman from Hannibal was among the 712 people who survived the Titanic disaster. Known as "The Unsinkable" Molly Brown," she devoted much time to improving the life of others.
Brown was born in Hannibal in 1867 and attended her aunt's private school until she was 13 and began working long days at a local factory. When her sister and brother moved to Colorado, she followed.
She married a man who was superintendent at a mining company that eventually discovered veins of gold and silver in its Little Johnny Mine. The Browns' newfound wealth allowed them to move to Denver, where Molly became active in social causes, supported charities and worked to help women and children in need.
A love of travel undoubtedly led to her fame. Brown was in France in 1912 when she learned that her grandson was ill. She booked a trip home on the inaugural voyage of the RMS Titanic. When the ship hit an iceberg and began to sink, she helped other passengers into a lifeboat and worked to maintain their morale until they were rescued.
Brown continued to live a life filled with civic engagement. When the Colorado National Guard clashed with striking coal miners, she brought worldwide attention to the "Ludlow Massacre." During WWI, she donated her summer home in Rhode Island to the Red Cross to support the war effort and later traveled to France to work on relief issues.
Accounts vary on whether or not she actually called herself "unsinkable," but the term stuck and was used in a Broadway production, movie and many books about her life.
You can learn more about her life at the Molly Brown Birthplace & Museum.
Renowned scientist, educator and humanitarian, George Washington Carver was born enslaved but rose from humble beginnings to revolutionize agriculture.
Carver was born in 1864 on a farm near Diamond that belonged to a man named Moses Carver. As an infant, George was kidnapped, along with his mother and sister (his father had died before George was born). Moses hired a neighbor to retrieve them, but only George was found. Moses and his wife raised the young boy – who eventually took the last name of Carver – and taught him to read and write.
Frail and sickly as a child, George could not do much physical labor on the farm, so he learned to cook, garden and perform other household chores. He was especially interested in plants.
He studied botany at the Iowa State Agricultural School, where he earned Bachelor of Science and Master of Agriculture degrees. He quickly received an offer from Booker T. Washington to join the faculty at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.
Carver established the agricultural curriculum at Tuskegee and conducted research that dramatically changed farming. His ideas for improving soil, including crop rotation, were especially beneficial to poor farmers who couldn't afford to purchase fertilizer. His best known work was developing many products from peanuts, sweet potatoes and soybeans.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation in 1943 creating a monument to George Washington Carver – up to that time an honor reserved for presidents Washington and Lincoln. Today, you can visit the George Washington Carver National Monument, a 210-acre complex that includes a museum, nature trail and the site of the cabin where Carver was born.
Faced with blindness, poverty and discrimination, John William Boone overcame many challenges to become an accomplished pianist and composer of ragtime music.
Born in central Missouri in 1864 to a young enslaved woman, Boone lost his sight as an infant, following treatment for cerebral meningitis.
Boone's talent for music emerged at an early age. When he was 9 years old, community members came together to send him to the Missouri School for the Blind. He traveled to St. Louis to begin his education – which included music. John played "by ear," and could perform anything he heard. On school breaks he played at church and for gatherings to earn money to help his family.
A new superintendent arrived at the school and no longer allowed black students to play the piano. When John began skipping classes to perform in saloons, he was expelled from school. At the age of 15, he met John Lange Jr., who received permission from Boone's parents to take over John's career and ensure his training and care.
Boone initially performed as "Blind John" throughout the Midwest. He and Lange eventually formed the Blind Boone Touring Company and adopted the motto, "Merit, Not Sympathy, Wins." Boone's proficiency in combining many genres – classical, folk, Negro spirituals and popular music – contributed to a new sound that came to be known as ragtime.
He later married and eventually purchased a home in Columbia but continued to travel and perform. His retirement in 1927 capped nearly 50 seasons on tour.
Explore the musician's rich history at the Blind Boone Home, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Less than three months after Harry S. Truman became vice president of the United States, he rose to the most powerful political office in the world.
Truman was born in Lamar in 1884. When he was a young boy, his family moved to Independence.
Truman was considered a good student, but couldn't afford to attend college. Instead, he worked on the family's farm in Grandview and joined the National Guard.
When the U.S. entered World War I, Truman served in an artillery unit in France. Upon returning home from the war, he married his childhood sweetheart, Bess Wallace, and held several jobs before being elected to an administrative judgeship in Jackson County and eventually to the U.S. Senate.
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to seek reelection for a fourth term, he replaced his current vice president with Truman. After FDR's death, Truman was flummoxed. He had only met with the president sporadically. He knew little about the atomic bomb but was called upon to make the controversial decision to use it to end World War II.
Truman's significant policies included the Marshall Plan, which provided aid to Europe after the war. He also issued an executive order that desegregated the United States Armed Forces.
Learn more about America's 33rd president at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, which recently underwent a $33 million renovation. Visit additional sites significant to Truman's life including the Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site in Lamar and the Harry S Truman National Historic Site, which includes the Truman Home and Noland Home in Independence and the Truman Farm Home in Grandview.