For some visitors, a look at the early environments of people who become famous can amplify the remarkableness of an individuals’ achievements. Here’s a glimpse at the humble beginnings of famous Missourians from North Missouri — outlaws Frank & Jesse James, retailer J.C. Penney, World War I General John J. Pershing, President Harry S. Truman, author Mark Twain, and cartoonist Walt Disney.

One of the scenes painted by Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975) featured in the Missouri State Capitol at Jefferson City features outlaw Jesse James in a mythical train/bank robbery. Benton’s work adorns the House Lounge on the third floor of the Capitol. The murals were commissioned by the legislature in early 1935 for $16,000 and completed in December 1936.

Outlaws Jesse and Frank James made a living robbing banks and trains. Apparently, their mother also knew how to rake in the money, although in a legal if crass way.

Not long after an assassin shot Jesse James in 1882, Zerelda James Samuel began giving tours of the home where she raised her boys. She even sold souvenirs. For 25 cents, visitors could buy a pebble from Jesse’s grave in the front yard. And when the rocks got low, she simply replenished them from a creek bed.

Zerelda Samuel may have been o­ne of the first Missourians to promote the birthplace of a famous — or in this case, infamous — native son. She certainly wasn’t the last. Now, the Clay County government promotes her family home as the Jesse James Farm and Museum, charging admission to tour the home and a nearby museum and still selling pebbles for 25 cents alongside shirts, books and toys.

In the city of Hamilton, the municipal library shares a building with the J.C. Penney Museum, which offers tours of the home where the businessman was born. The federal and state governments also run parks promoting the birthplaces of such famous Missourians as President Harry Truman, author Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain) and educator George Washington Carver.

The J.C. Penney Memorial Library-Museum is located at 312 North Davis Street in Hamilton, MO

Other sites have been created to promote the childhood homes of Truman and Twain, whose families moved not long after their births, as well as those of Walt Disney and World War I General John J. Pershing, whose birthplace is disputed but whose elegant boyhood home still stands in north Missouri.

Most of the houses passed from o­ne owner to another over the years, undergoing alterations and gaining more modern conveniences. Except for the James home, it was o­nly later — after their former residents gained fame — that someone seized o­n the tourism potential of the humble beginnings and repaired the deteriorating childhood homes as public showplaces.

For some visitors, a look at the early environments can amplify the remarkableness of an individuals’ achievements. For others, the homes provide insight into the circumstances that shaped the famous figures.

Jesse James’ boyhood home, for example, remains relatively secluded in the countryside northeast of the small town of Kearney. It’s not hard to imagine how the young Jesse James became familiar with guns, especially when o­ne learns how he joined the Confederate Army during the Civil War after Union soldiers beat him, attacked his mother and tried to hang his stepfather at their home.

Later, after Jesse James graduated to a career of armed robbery, private detectives who were hired to find him and Frank threw a smoke pot into the family home, killing a younger brother and costing their mother an arm. No o­ne knows if Jesse and Frank James were even home at the time. Yet, the event helped shape public sympathy for James, who was reported to have spared women, working-class men, and former Confederates from bullets during his holdups. That’s partly why Charles Rhodes, touring the James home with his grandson o­ne summer day, is among the many who feel a strange mix of curiosity, respect and pity for James, who might have been branded as a mass murderer in another era.

“In my opinion, he got off to a rough start — that’s what built him into a local hero. The Civil War was a hell of a place to be in Missouri. It made him what he was, and he fell right into it,” said Rhodes, of Platte City, who recalls receiving a personal tour of the home from a James relative over 35 years ago.

The family continued to give tours for decades after the deaths of Jesse James and his mother. For many years, Frank James even led the tours — perhaps telling of the gang’s exploits after being acquitted of criminal charges in an 1883 trial held at Gallatin, MO. It was Frank James who began charging 50 cents for tours around 1910, according to directors at the Clay County historic site.

When Clay County began overseeing the James Home in 1978, the roof had sunk to chest-level, the wooden floors had become buried in dirt and the house was held upright by ropes and trees. But after two restorations, 75% of the original materials remain. The 2-room cabin, which family members expanded after James’ death, still contains a parlor table from the outlaw’s childhood and other furnishings used by the family.

The grave site no longer contains Jesse James’ body, which was moved to a traditional cemetery alongside his wife. But it is still stocked with pebbles.

The James home is perhaps o­ne of the most authentic birthplace sites. There is no home, for example, at the birthplace of George Washington Carver near Diamond in southwest Missouri. Instead, the National Park Service has constructed a replica log cabin foundation at the approximate site where Carver is believed to have been born a slave. Mark Twain’s and J.C. Penney’s birthplace homes both have been moved from their original foundations. Penney’s home was transported from the country to downtown Hamilton and contains no original items other than a few family photographs. Twain’s 423-sq.ft. birthplace home was moved from the tiny town of Florida to the shelter of a museum constructed in the nearby Mark Twain State Park. It, too, lacks any verifiably original furnishings, although it does include a cradle owned by the town that might have been used to hold Twain.

Truman’s birthplace home sits o­n its original site in Lamar but lacks original indoor items, largely because the future president’s family moved when he was just 11 months old. As it is, Truman’s hometown is most commonly considered Independence, where an adulthood home also is open for tours.

While the original site and furnishings of a house may be important to historians, many tourists are simply looking for an impression of what life was like in a famous person’s formative years. Childhood historic sites are trying to convey that vague, warm quality of “home.” For General John J. Pershing, home was always the 9-room Gothic house where he lived from age 6 until he entered the U.S. Military Academy in his early 20s. Although his family had long since moved, Pershing still would stay in the home when he returned to Laclede as a general.

World War I General of the Armies John Joseph Pershing GCB, nicknamed “Black Jack”, was a senior United States Army officer. He was born in 1860 at Laclede, MO. While still a teenager, he got a job teaching at a school for African American students. After seeing an advertisement for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Pershing applied and won acceptance in 1882. He graduated four years later, ranking 30th in a class of 77.

For Walt Disney, “home” was the nearby north Missouri town of Marceline, even though he o­nly lived there from ages 5 to 11 and went o­n to gain fame in California. That’s because Disney’s childhood doodling gained form in Marceline, which he used as a prototype for some of his alter film and amusement park scenes.

Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966) was an American animator, film producer and entrepreneur. A pioneer of the American animation industry, he introduced several developments in the production of cartoons.

Disney’s boyhood house is not open for tours, but its current occupants encourages visitors to walk o­n the property to a large cottonwood tree under which Disney would lie down to draw. A mowed trail with interpretative signs also leads to a barn — modeled after Disney’s — where tourists are encouraged to scrawl messages o­n the walls.


Located just off U.S. Hwy 160 in Lamar, MO. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sundays. No admission is charged. Operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, phone 417-682-2279. Notes: The future president spent the first 11 months of his life in the 2-story house bought by his parents in 1882 for $685. Four rooms downstairs and two upstairs, plus smokehouse and outhouse. Listed o­n the National Register of Historic Places.

The Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site is a state-owned property in Lamar, Barton County, MO, the childhood home of Harry S. Truman, the 33rd President of the United States. The future president was born here on May 8, 1884, in the downstairs southwest bedroom.


Located in downtown Hamilton, MO, at U.S. Hwy 36 and Hwy 13. Open 9:30 a.m. to noon and 12:30 to 4 p.m. weekdays. No admission is charged. Operated by the City of Hamilton. Notes: At the J.C. Penney Museum, which shares a building with the city library, ask the museum attendant for a tour of the simple, white house about 2 blocks away. It has been moved from its original farm site and has no original furnishings.

The boyhood home of J.C. Penney at Hamilton, MO


Located from Laclede, MO, o­n U.S. Highway 36, go north o­n Missouri Hwy 5 into town and follow signs. Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is charged (kids 12 and under free). Operated by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, phone 660-334-6945. Notes: Site includes the home where the future Army general lived from age 6 until he went to the military academy, as well as a large statue of Pershing previously displayed at the state Capitol. Also o­n the property is a o­ne-room school where Pershing o­nce taught, now a museum.

This is the boyhood home of General of the Armies John J. “Black Jack” Pershing (1860-1948). He was and is the highest ranking military officer in U.S. history. Pershing lived in this home at Laclede, MO, from age 6 (1866) until 1882, when he left for West Point.


Located a few miles northeast of Kearney o­n Missouri Hwy 92. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Admission is charged (children age 7 and under free). Operated by the Clay County Parks Department, phone 816-628-6065. Notes: Birthplace home of Jesse and Frank James stands o­n original site with some of its original furnishings, including a parlor table. Family provided tours for decades before the county took over the site and added a museum.

This is the farm home of the James family, where Frank & Jesse James grew up east of Kearney, MO, and later a place of refuge as the boys became wanted outlaws. Today the James Farm is a historic site and museum maintained by Clay County.


Located downtown Hannibal, MO. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through August; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in September and October; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays in November and December. Admission is charged (age 6 and under free). Operated by the City of Hannibal, phone 573-221-9010. Notes: Samuel Clemens spent about nine years of his childhood in this home, where he drew the inspiration for such characters as Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher. Tour also includes a museum, the home of Thatcher inspiration Laura Hawkins and other historic buildings.

The Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum is located on 206-208 Hill Street, Hannibal, MO, on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Hannibal is one of Missouri’s and the region’s best tourism destinations. As the boyhood home of Mark Twain, Hannibal is famously known as the setting for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.


Located near the northern city limit sign of Marceline o­n Missouri Hwy 5, just a few miles south of U.S. Highway 36. Not open for tours, but property generally is open to the public. No admission is charged. Contact: 660-376-2332. Notes: Disney’s childhood home is now the private residence of some of his former friends. Visitors are welcome to walk down a path to a cottonwood tree under which Disney used to draw and are encouraged to scrawl messages in a barn.

The boyhood home of Walt Disney (1901-1966) is at 100 West Broadway Street in Marceline, MO. Although born in Chicago, this the home where Disney first began to sketch his cartoon characters and dream the dreams that eventually created some of the world’s most lovable icons. His family moved to Marceline when he was four years old.

— This article was prepared and distributed by the Associated Press