Jesse James Legend, Site Live On
Joplin Globe  Aug. 5, 1991

    KEARNEY, Mo. - It seems that nearly everyone in Jesse James' old outlaw territory had an ancestor who met -- or was robbed by -- the bandit and his gang.

    Some of the stories may be true.

    But even if the truth has been stretched, there remains a mystique about the minister's son who fought for the Confederacy, then turned to bank, train and stagecoach robberies while in criminal exile from the Union.

    "There's something exciting about the name 'Jesse James,' both in its easy alliterative sound and the images created when those two words are spoken together," says documentary producer Ron Casteel, whose latest production is "The Life and Death of Jesse James."

    "I often wonder whether we would have taken note of the man if his name had been Arnold James," Casteel said.

    Visitors by the thousands have taken note of the James' legend, visiting locales from his life story.  The sites include his birthplace on a family farm outside Kearney, and the house in St. Joseph where James was fatally shot in 1882 by gang member Bob Ford.

    The farm includes the restored log cabin where James was born on Sept. 5, 1847.  The cabin was built in 1822 and is publicized as one of the oldest structures between western Missouri and California.

    The Clay County Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Sites purchased the structure and 40 acres from the outlaw's descendants.  It opened the James Farm Museum in 1987, and displays Jesse James' guns, boots and spurs, along with a videotaped presentation.  An outdoor historical drama about his exploits is produced each August at the farm.

    Adjacent to the farm is Claybrook House, an antebellum structure that was the home of James' only daughter, Mary James Barr.  Next to a busy main street through Kearney, shaded by a single drooping tree, is the grave in Mt. Olivet Cemetery where Jesse James is buried with Confederate honors.

    The town thrives on James-related tourism; even the Best Western on nearby Interstate 35 calls itself the "Jesse James Motel."

    Early each summer, fans of the outlaw and serious historical scholars gather in Kearney for the James Farm Reunion, a weekend of speeches and presentations.

    Casteel found a new twist on the James story this year.

    His documentary got attention at the Kearney gathering for disclosing that a frustrated Alan Pinkerton, founder of the Secret Service, apparently ordered his detectives to firebomb the James cabin to flush out the fugitive.

    The Pinkerton raid ended disastrously:  Jesse James apparently wasn't in the house, but explosives maimed his mother and killed his 8-year-old half-brother.  The detectives fled into the snowy rolling hills, but a pistol bearing the Pinkerton insignia was found at the site.

    Today, the restored cabin hewn from thick logs is open for daily tours.  It is attached to a prefabricated white wooden house, built in 1893.  Both structures have original furnishings, says Milton Perry, who recently retired as curator of historic sites in Clay County.