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The Vaile Victorian Mansion in Independence, Mo.
By Independence, Mo., Convention and Visitors Bureau | SUBMITTED
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Grasping Independence
By Nancy Pistorius

The ghost of the inimitable Harry Truman looms large over the town of Independence, Mo. — his modest, two-story white home is newly renovated and open again for tours; the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum just underwent a $22 million renovation, and Clinton's Soda Fountain, where young Harry got his first job, still serves up scrumptious ice cream sodas and hand-dipped shakes on historic Independence Square.

Harry Truman was a folksy, unassuming man who became the nation's 33rd president, and now everyone in town is just wild about Harry. But Independence also has its "girly" side, and girls who just want to have fun will find plenty of reasons to kick up their heels on a vacation there. Guided by the spirit of Harry Truman, they can make their own herstory!

"The buck stops here." With eight shopping districts, there are plenty of places to spend a few bucks in Independence. About 30 quaint gift and specialty shops line the historic streets of Independence Square, including Whispering Winds Trading Post, which provides more than 1,000 various Native American items. At Whispering Winds, you can find beads and beading supplies, turkey wing feathers and Pendleton blankets. Antiques abound on Independence Square, and you can spend many happy hours combing through the one-of-a-kind goodies found at The Keeping Room, KYS Knitcraft Yarn Shop, Mockingbird Home Furnishings and Luticia Clementine's. Browsers welcome!

Goodies of an edible sort can be found at Scandinavia Place, which specializes in food imported from Scandinavia. Girls who appreciate the "finery" things in life will adore the collectible teapots, costume jewelry and Vera Bradley handbags on sale there.

If you want to stimulate your kids' imaginations while they're on vacation, Primary Colors Gallery offers more than just a cool gallery and classes. Tuesday through Saturday, they'll provide the paint and brushes, if you bring the creativity, in their Open Studio. Get set to flex your inner artist!

The women in your group can also pretend to be "Queen for a day" in an opulent castle when you visit the Vaile Victorian Mansion, 1500 Liberty St., recognized as one of the finest examples of Victorian architecture in the United States. Featured on A&E's "American Castles" and in National Geographic's publication of "Great Homes," the 31-room estate boasted such conveniences as flushing toilets powered by a built-in, two-story, 6,000-gallon water tank! There also was a 48,000-gallon wine cellar. Be sure to look out for the infamous painting on the Vaile's bedroom ceiling of a woman in a gauzy costume. This bold work of art so scandalized polite Independence society that poor Mrs. Vaile was ostracized. Once you've gazed at the 10 marble fireplaces and the glittering crystal chandeliers, you'll understand why this place was called "The House of Gold."

After giving a regal nod to that magnificent castle, you can head to the National Frontiers Trails Museum to learn why Independence is known as the "Queen City of the Trails." Go West, Young Man and Woman! The museum re-creates the story of the daring pioneers of the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails through film, displays and exhibits, including journals and diaries that these brave men and women left behind. All three trails began right here in Independence and other points in western Missouri. Thousands of wagons rolled down the hill from Independence's Courthouse Square and passed over the property where the museum now sits. Evidence of the migration can still be seen today in the form of swales, or wagon ruts, left in the field directly across from the museum. Talk about history coming alive! It hits you right in the face.

"When you've done the best you can, you can't do any better." There's still plenty more to see and do in Independence — the Bingham-Waggoner Estate, Leila's Hair Museum, the Truman Home, the informational video at the National Park Service Visitor's Center, a Covered Wagon Tour with Pioneer Trails Adventures — but my favorite place in Independence, Mo., is the Puppetry Arts Museum.

There's a scene in Walt Disney's animated movie, "Pinocchio," that takes nearly every child's breath away when they view it for the first time. The Blue Fairy has just granted Pinocchio his dearest wish, to become a real boy, and little Pinocchio comes alive.

The fact that a little "wooden head" could suddenly feel life in his limbs and start prancing around is a concept that must occur to every child - and quite a few adults - when they first enter the amazing Hazelle Rollins Puppet Museum at the Puppetry Arts Institute in Independence.

At first glance, there are puppets everywhere - more than 150 of them — mermaids, nuns, kings, clowns, parrots and even a perfect replica of Harry Truman! There are marionettes, hand puppets, shadow puppets, rod puppets, finger puppets and paper puppets. There are puppets from all over Europe — England, France, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands. There are even puppets in the Gift Shop that consist solely of "googly" eyeballs for children to wear on their fingers!

Some of the puppet's faces are so lifelike that you'd expect them to hop off the shelves or unstring themselves from the walls and start dancing. Visitors must surely wonder what happens when the last lights go off and the museum is closed for the evening. Do the puppets come out to play?

A wide assortment of hand puppet heads lays invitingly on a table for visitors to select and paint. "Little girls usually pick rabbits, dogs or cats, but little boys love the fact that we also have dragons, skulls, eagles and devils," Diane Houk, a founder of PAI, former executive director, and current president of the board of directors said. "So we have something for everybody."

Story published Friday, July 2, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 4 )

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