Museum Review: The Patee House Museum – Sharing Ties With Studebaker, The Pony Express, And Jesse James

Some things in life are difficult to categorize.  The Patee House Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri, falls into this realm.  Everything about the museum is great; it has cars, it has a train, and it has a cornucopia of local and western history.  Which it aims for is uncertain, but therein lies it’s true beauty – it doesn’t limit itself.

Even the building is hard to define.  Starting out as a hotel in 1858, it was later a women’s college, a garment factory, and is a museum after once sitting vacant for four decades.  It has witnessed grand galas and murder trials, both taking place in the same room at different times.

Of the various museums I’ve covered at CC over the years the Patee House is simply my favorite of the bunch.  So climb aboard and I’ll show you this underrated gem…

First, some perspective about St. Joseph itself would be beneficial.  During the westward expansion subsequent to the Louisiana Purchase (a huge area of land purchased from France in the early 1800s that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean) St. Joseph was the last bastion of civilization for those traveling the Oregon Trail and other westward paths.  If one needed absolutely anything, St. Joseph was the last opportunity one had to acquire it.

St. Joseph was poised to be a large city.  Now a disclaimer:  I lived in St. Joseph from 2001 to 2006 and theories still abounded about why St. Joseph’s growth was stymied and why the population is currently only around 75,000.  The most believable theory, based upon my experiences there, is the monied few of St. Joseph back in the day were worried some upstart may accumulate more wealth than them, thus diminishing their influence.  After experiencing some selective discouragement, many “outside” people instead went to a little hamlet forty miles south called Kansas City.  The theory is Kansas City became what St. Joseph should have been.

Another disclaimer:  I have been to the Patee House countless times, taking my daughter there almost weekly when she was three and four years old.  She had her routine of things to see including a carousel. However, my recent visit there was my first in a dozen years and a lot has changed.

Entering the lobby, this is what most captivates my eye.  Doesn’t this capture your attention?  Let’s walk through the door.

This 94,000 pound engine is the last remaining locomotive from the Hannibal-St. Joseph Railroad.  The railroad reached St. Joseph on February 14, 1859.  Abraham Lincoln visited St. Joseph twice that year – might this have been the engine that pulled him there?

Sitting near the locomotive was this 1927 Studebaker President.  Like everything at the Patee House, there is a distinct connection that intertwines with something else.

The Studebaker Company was founded by five brothers who entered the wagon manufacturing business.  Peter Studebaker (seen here standing on the left) had a son named Wilbur.

Wilbur moved to St. Joseph in 1871 and opened a wagon making shop, as seen in this old newspaper ad.  While here he met and married sixteen year-old Fannie Dulin in 1878, whose reverend father was running the St. Joseph Female College, a college contained within this building after the original hotel ceased operations.  The wedding reception for Wilbur and Fannie was also held in the building, with Peter Studebaker and his family being in attendance from South Bend, Indiana.

Given the vastness of the Patee House building, it’s easy to have a lot of large items on display.  One display is the nose of 207, an old city trolley that went into service in 1934.

This trolley had been stripped of its electric motors and was in poor shape when donated to the museum in 1999.  Given it’s overall state of decay only the nose was preserved.

Here’s a picture of the trolley when in service.  It’s route was such that it went by the front door of the Patee House sixteen times daily, stopping to load and unload workers when the building was used as a garment factory during World War II.

Information provided stated there were 3.5 million military uniforms produced here for the war effort.

The automotive treasures here are both big, such as this 1922 American-LaFrance firetruck which had been owned by the City of St. Joseph…

And small, such as this factory model of a Ford Maverick.

This Greyhound Scenicruiser has always been an eye-catcher.

One that is both large and small is this pair of Jeep clones.  The bigger one was built from a Crosley chassis by Gary Chilcote.  For many years Chilcote had been a reporter for the St. Joseph News-Press newspaper.  I’ve been told seeing Mr. Chilcote driving his blue rig around town in all manner of weather was a frequent site in St. Joseph.

The smaller version was built by Mr. Chilcote for his son.  It is powered by five car batteries that power the starter motor from a 1929 Dodge that is used for motive force.  Both are street legal and both have city stickers on the windshield.

As an aside, I briefly spoke with Mr. Chilcote while at the museum recently.  He deserves immense credit for his involvement with the Pony Express Historical Association, the group that formed to stop the Patee House’s scheduled demolition in the 1960s and subsequently resurrected the building into the museum it is today.

Since mentioning the Pony Express, some explanation for those unfamiliar is needed.  By the late 1850s the population of California was approaching 400,000 but there was no means of transporting mail as neither railroads nor telegraph had yet connected the United States.

Three businessmen decided to form the Pony Express, a method of delivering mail using a relay of pony riders that stretched from St. Joseph to San Francisco.  Operations began April 3, 1860.

The first run left these stables two blocks west of the Patee House.  The Pony Express Museum is unrelated to the Patee House.

First-hand experience shows the stable doors to be locked.

The business office for the Pony Express was located inside the Patee House; this can also be seen in the lead picture.  The customer counter is still in place.   Despite some arguments to the contrary there are first-hand accounts of patrons of the Patee House witnessing Pony Express riders entering the hotel on horseback to retrieve mail destined to go west.

The Pony Express ceased operations in October 1861 due in no small part to the telegraph now connecting the country.

As another aside, the Pony Express is a common theme in St. Joseph.  The centerpiece is this sculpture downtown, not far from City Hall and a few other historic buildings.  Showing a Pony Express rider at full gallop heading west, it must be pointed out this sculpture is by Gus Shafer.  While he knows how to correctly spell this often-misspelled surname, he is of no known relation to your humble reporter.

In my previous visits to the Patee House, the third floor had always been closed to visitors.  It is now open and gives visitors some distinct insight into what hotel rooms were like at the time the Patee House was new.

This is Room 305, the bridal suite.  Note the portable bathtub on the left side of the picture.

The intention of Patee House Hotel was to provide a very lavish experience for the visitor.  Water tanks on the roof supplied running water and the water was heated, both of which were quite novel in the mid-19th Century.

There were even indoor toilets, something many people likely had not experienced in 1860.

Here’s another room with a view.  The rooms facing out were larger and more expensive.

An interior room such as this was for those of more modest means.

This particular room was later the abode of Henry Corbett.  Corbett, 77, was originally from New York and had had some degree of wealth.  For reasons unknown he had lost his fortune and settled in St. Joseph by 1897.  He was working as a caretaker for the McDonald garment factory and had periodic bouts of severe vertigo.

One fateful night Corbett experienced one of bouts of vertigo and fell down three stories, through the opening of these stairs and landing about where the rug can been seen.  He was found the next morning.

St. Joseph has seen a fair number of citizens who would experience varying degrees of prominence in their lives.  Among them would be actress Jane Wyman, first wife of President Ronald Reagan, and writer/poet Eugene Field.  Field is the person who wrote the children’s poems about Little Boy Blue blowing his horn and the gingham dog’s duel with the calico cat.

Another citizen had his dentist’s office rebuilt within the museum.  That dentist is Dr. Walter Cronkite and according to information provided by the museum the Cronkite’s had dentistry offices in St. Joseph for 78 years.

Dr. Cronkite’s son, Walter, Jr., would later go to work for CBS news.  And that’s the way it is.

As stated earlier, the Patee House is hard to describe.  It’s local history, it’s American history, it’s western history, it’s automotive – it simply covers the spectrum.  Everything there is real and tangible – even the store front for the print shop contains what is still an active printing press that is used to print museum information.

There’s even a display case showing weapons used in local murders; grisly, yes, but they tell a story.  It’s all important.

Even those of more unsavory character are presented as they were, warts and all.

Perhaps most prominent among those is outlaw Jesse James.

James was born in 1847 and as a teenager found himself tangled up in all sorts of efforts related to the United States Civil War.  His life could fill volumes but suffice it to say he was often on the wrong side of the law.

Sometime before his death in 1882 at age 34, James had made a prescient statement.  In short, he said that if he were ever killed at the hand of another man, only a fellow Missourian could outsmart him and he’d have to have his back turned to the assailant.

From wikipedia; I’m not sure why I didn’t get a picture of it as I was there!

That is exactly what happened in this house.  James and his wife/cousin Zerelda (who was named after James’s mother) had purchased this home which was then located on the south end of St. Joseph.  As James was straightening a picture on the living room wall, twenty year-old cohort Robert Ford pulled out his pistol and shot James in the back of the head.

After having been moved to several locations around town, the Jesse James home has been standing on Patee House ground since 1977 and is open for public viewing.

Visiting the Patee House is well worth the trip.  As a Scottish couple who were visiting said to my wife, “I cannot believe all there is to see”.  They are right; what you’ve read here doesn’t even scratch the surface.  The museum delightfully defies simple description.