Around 1968, my family–at the time, just my parents, my sister, Marilyn, and I–moved to St. Joseph, Missouri. We rented a modest home on Trevillian Drive, a little loop of a street that starts and ends at the Belt Highway. The semicircle of earth between our house and the Belt was empty land, populated only by a few trees; one directly across the street from us was felled by an ice storm. At the north end was a small tourist attraction–the home where outlaw Jesse James was shot and killed in April of 1882.

St. Joseph, Missouri, Looking South from Wyeth Hill

St. Joseph has clung to James’ notorious life and death since that day as one of its claims to fame. Another is the Pony Express. Both remain as powerful symbols for this small midwestern city of about 76,000 people on the bluffs above the Missouri River in the northwestern part of the state.

Like all cities, St. Joseph is a place of leftovers. Stunning buildings from the town’s prosperous early days, restored Victorian homes (and some waiting to be restored), a still handsome high-rise that houses a retirement home, a 1920s-era movie palace, three columns salvaged from the Roubidoux Hotel before it was imploded in the 1970s, a defunct downtown department store, and the stockyards: all stand as testament to St. Joseph’s booming past.

Presiding over all of this history is the image of the Pony Express rider, straining forward, riding forever west with his packets of mail at his side. It’s an image that gets a lot of mileage in St. Jo. The archetypal statue in downtown went up in 1940. Across the street, the Southwestern Bell building features a triptych relief illustrating the role of the Pony Express and then the telegraph in opening the American west–ironically, the very technology that ended the novel mail delivery system. A few blocks west a mural depicts a Pony Express rider morphing into a jet airplane. The German-American Bank building now houses the Pony Express Community Bank. Out on the Belt Highway, just down the road a mile or so from where I grew up and near my high school, the Pony Express Motel long boasted a sign with a Pony Express rider astride a horse. The horse’s legs pumped furiously in red neon.

Older cities, like St. Louis, have long histories of shifting community symbols and identities. Over St. Louis’ 200-plus years, it has been the Mound City, recognizing the Native American lands which once dotted the area; the land of the Crusader King, named for the statue of King Louis XIV left over from the 1904 World’s Fair; and of course the Gateway City, due to the glorious Gateway Arch.

The Missouri Theater, Completed in 1927

In contrast, St. Joseph has stuck to its identity as a town of yore bound to both vision and violence–in other words, the Old West. A few years ago visitors traveling west on Interstate 70 toward St. Joseph found signs reading “Rails, Trails, and Mail.” Earlier the signs neatly joined the yin and yang of the town’s history: “Where the Pony Express began and Jesse James ended.”

Sold: 2840 Plattsburg Avenue, Winter 1970-1971

In 1997 I went back to St. Joseph for a week to help my dad paint our family home. About twenty-five years earlier we had moved from Trevillian Drive to the first and only home my parents would ever own. It was bigger than the Trevillian Drive home, and it needed to be. My brother Paul had been born in 1969, followed by David in 1971. Another brother, Chris, would come at the end of 1972. The house was at the end of a block-long street called Plattsburg venue. It jutted off of South 28th Street, which was the city’s eastern limit in the late 1890s. I still remember seeing the stop sign at the intersection of South 28th and Agency Road on our early (maybe the first?) visit to the house, and rummaging through the home with my sister to find odd-colored rocks and other goodies mysteriously hiding in the closets.

Not much had changed since I left home in 1984. The boulevard system that abutted our property line was still a stunning monument to 1920s-era urban planning. The twenty-seven-mile system of gently curving boulevard was still nestled among a carpet of green and criss-cross of creeks, one of which flowed very near our house. The city was still sharply divided along racial lines, with the black community largely where it had been before, west of 22nd Street, north of Mitchell, and south of Krug Park. The wealthier neighborhoods still looked wealthy, the poorer neighborhoods still looked poor, and home still looked like home.

The lack of change shouldn’t have surprised me. More than half a century ago, the WPA Guide to 1930s Missouri described my hometown like this:

The Idyll: Our house is somewhere among the trees in the center of this scene, taken from the boulevard above the Parkway.

St. Joseph (814 alt., 75,711 pop.), which covers the bluffs that overlook the Missouri River and the grain and grazing lands of the western prairie, once bestrode the roaring trade lanes to California and Mexico. Today, it is Missouri’s third largest city, and an important grain, livestock, manufacturing and wholesale center. Here is the center of the fifth largest meat-pacing industry in the world, out of which has risen a modern city of skyscrapers and chromium-plated facades. But even in the maturity of its development, St. Joseph keeps its sidewalk lounging chairs, and clings to the river and to memories of the wagon trials and the Pony Express of its early days.

From whose labors did this metropolis arise, this curious place of both modernity and memory? Answering that requires a trip back 235 years and across the state, to St. Louis.

Down by the River: St. Joseph, Part 2