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
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
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
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.