Built in the 1850s in the Classic Revival style, the Watkins Home is a beautiful example of rural American living for the well-to-do. Boasting eight bedrooms and a pair of parlors, the main house occupies the prominent hilltop on the 3,600-acre farm (now a Living History Farm) and centers a number of other outbuildings. The rooms are seen by tour only.
Perfectly preserved, the 19th-century Watkins Mill sits in a depression near a small pond used presumably in times past for operating the looms and other machinery. Unlike the James Farm, no portion of the Watkins Mill State Park can be explored without paying the $2.50 admission fee. Along with the mill and home, a barn, stables, and a small flock of Merino sheep occupy the grounds.
I love historical places, and ever since I watched the 1939 Tyrone Power movie "Jesse James" on TV, I've had a romantic fascination with this particular gunslinger.
I found myself in Kearney, MO for a weekend, so naturally, a trip to the James Farm and birthplace was de rigueur. A short - and well marked - drive from my hotel, and I found myself at the farm. There is a visitor's center/museum, where you pay a nominal entrance fee. I looked at the memorabilia (the boots Jesse was wearing when he was shot, the last remaining piece of his first headstone, etc) before entering the movie theatre for a short movie about his life and death. It was an interesting movie - even pointed out several of the MANY inaccuracies in the movie I so loved.
After the movie, I joined a small group for the walk out to the farm. Our guide explained the history of the farm, and the James family, before we walked into the farmhouse. The house is small, but it was interesting to me to see the furnishings, and to imagine life there.
After walking through the house, we are lead to the back, where a white headstone is prominent. Jesse is buried here, where his mother could keep an eye from her bedroom (she was concerned about graverobbers). As noted above, this is a replacement headstone, made to look like the original.
After walking around (there is more to the grounds, including a slave cabin, and other exhibits), I went back to the visitor's center and talked for a while with the woman working there. These are people who feel a real affinity for the James family, and for Jesse in particular.
Bottom line - if you have an interest in Wild West history, gunslingers, or history in general, I think you will enjoy visiting the farm. I was there a total of 3 hours, but the entire tour could be taken in about an hour.
The attendants at the James Farm will explain that Jesse James had indeed been buried on the family property after his assassination in St Joseph in 1882. In 1902 (explain the same pundits), James was disinterred and reinterred in Mt Olivet Cemetery near I-35 on US-92. In 1995, forensic experts apparently proved that Jesse's remains in fact were still on the James property. If so, then whose clay was moved to Mt Olivet?
In the 1860s Waltus Watkins built a woollen mill as part of his farm expansion. Tools bought from East Coast manufacturers were shipped here by rail and by river, and today they remain where originally installed, the only surviving mill in the United States (and one of few on the continent) able to make the claim. Today the mill is part of a Missouri State Park.
If you drive through Missouri you'll see that most of the state is nicely forested. In the northwest however the landscape gives way to farmland delineated by pockets of trees. It was here in 1845 that Jesse James' parents built their primitive ranchhouse and farm, and where the future outlaw was born. The house, now protected by modern white siding, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
If you doubt the pundits at the James Farm, you can still see both the official and unofficial resting places of one of America's best-known outlaws. Officially, James was removed from the family property and redeposited in the turf at Mt Olivet Cemetery. His grave is toward the west edges, best indicated by a small sign and a few bushes. Both he and Zerelda James are carved in the "modern" stones here.
East of Kearney on State Road 92 is a popular picnic and hangout destination - Tryst Falls Park. At one time there was a working grist mill on the site.
Looking at the picture, you may well ask where's the falls, the water? We visited late in July, 2003 - the driest month on record in the area. And the creek had just dried up.
Jesse James' body was exhumed from its resting place on the family farm in 1902 and re-buried (in a new casket) at Mt. Olivet Cemetery. Remaining pieces of the original casket can be viewed at the museum at the Farmstead.
The outlaw's grave was again disturbed in the 1990s as a group of forensic experts dug him up to do DNA testing to make certain that really is Jesse James' remains. The findings were better than 99% positive. Some skeptics still think it's a hoax.