After tornado, Liberty hopes to lure tourists back

Monday, June 30, 2003

LIBERTY, Mo. -- Note to tourists and shoppers: Liberty's downtown square is open for business.

A tornado that hit the Clay County town on May 4 destroyed one building and damaged 10 others on the square. Most businesses quickly reopened, but merchants took a financial hit as people stayed away in the first weeks after the storm.

As the tornado fades into memory, the town's historic sites and eclectic shops continue to offer visitors a pleasant day or weekend getaway.

"People get into the habit of going somewhere to shop," said Doug Bratcher, owner of Bratcher Coopery and Gifts. "When they think they can't go, they head somewhere else. I think it's been long enough that people are putting the tornado out of their minds."

A trip to the square and its surrounding area emphasizes the history of a town first settled around 1817 as a frontier post on the Missouri River. The center of the town's life soon moved to the square. The current courthouse, built in 1835, is surrounded by several buildings with early 19th century architecture.

Many of the buildings -- and homes surrounding the square -- are local or national historic sites.

Those not particularly interested in history will still find something to do in the square's several antique stores, two bookstores, restaurants and other shops. Lodging can be found in bed-and-breakfasts in historic homes just off the square.

"In a very small area, the square offers something for people with a lot of different interests," said Julie Lawless, historic preservation planner for the city.

Tourists often are first drawn to the square by the Jesse James Bank Museum and the Liberty Jail.

The bank museum, the oldest building on the square, is the site of the first recorded daylight bank robbery in U.S. history, carried out by Jesse James' gang (although Jesse's exact role in the crime is debated). The museum is set up as it looked during the Feb. 13, 1866, robbery, with the same safe and vault and some of the furnishings.

During a recent tour, guide Michele Poynter's vivid description of the crime helped visitors easily imagine how two members of the gang stole between $60,000 and $72,000 and killed one witness. No one was ever arrested, but authorities were certain the James gang was involved. The James family farm and Jesse's grave are only 10 miles away in Kearney.

Just north of the square is the Liberty Jail, which is not a jail at all. It is on the site where the first president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith, and four other church leaders were jailed in the winter of 1838. The men were arrested as state and federal leaders drove a growing Mormon community out of northwest Missouri.

A tour of the visitors center includes a replica of the miserable jail where Smith and others were held. The site is a sacred place for Mormons, said the director, Elder Dale Thorpe, because Smith received important revelations while jailed there.

While most visitors are Mormons, Thorpe said others are welcome.

"Some of them do look around and say, 'so, where do you keep the prisoners?"' Elder Thorpe said with a laugh. "But I think many find it interesting and learn something about our faith."

Civil War and Old West buffs will want to visit the James County Mercantile, which sells anything needed for 19th century re-enactments. The Clay County Museum and Historical Society and the Clay County Archives also cater to history buffs.

And just south of the square is Bratcher's cooperage, where Bratcher practices the old trade of making barrels, buckets, kegs and churns by hand.

Nearby is the Corbin Mill, which was built in 1889 near the spring around which the city began. Other shops at the site include a quilt shop, Old Mill Stitchery, a restaurant and a French antique and gift shop.

"When the women go into the quilt shop, we get their husbands," Bratcher said, adding that his shop is also a favorite stop for school groups and senior citizen tours.

After hitting all the historic sites or shopping, visitors can cool off at a custard store or dine at restaurants with their own particular character.

For casual dining, try The Fork 'N Spoon or The Hardware Cafe, which is housed in a 100-year-old former hardware store and regionally famous for its desserts. For a slightly more upscale experience, there's Sherlock's Home, a combination bookstore and restaurant that offers lunch and an old English afternoon tea.

Visitors ready for a quieter time need to drive only a mile east of the square to the Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary, which offers hiking trails and an interpretive center.

"We all work together very hard to get people to enjoy Liberty," said Elder Thorpe, who has been in Liberty only since January. "We try to get them to go down to the square because there's a lot there."

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