Harry S. Truman, the only president born in Missouri, has been called the "accidental president" by one biographer. Descriptions of his presidency by contemporaries often use the word "unlikely" to describe the chances of him becoming president. As a politician, he moved from a humble start to county to federal office but without having set his sights on the presidency.
Harry S. Truman was born in 1884 to John and Martha Truman in Lamar. His father was a farmer and livestock dealer. The family had moved into the little house in Lamar in 1882. They purchased the home for $685. It had a 36-foot-deep well, a smokehouse and mule barn. Eleven months after Harry's birth, the family moved to the Kansas City area, living in Harrisonville, Belton and eventually Independence.
Truman served a stint in the Missouri National Guard from 1905 to 1911. He reenlisted in 1917 when the U.S. entered World War I. He mustered out in 1919, though he remained in the reserves. He was well respected for his service as commander of an artillery battery, not losing a single soldier.
Truman operated several unsuccessful businesses before the war. He opened a haberdashery in Kansas City after the war. That, too, failed in the post-war depression of 1921. His friendship with the nephew of Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast led to Truman being put forward as a county judge in 1922. Truman won, then won again in an election for presiding county judge in 1926, holding the position until 1935. He ran for U.S. Senate in 1934 and won by a 20-point margin as New Deal Democrats continued to sweep the country.
Truman served two terms as a U.S. senator. His second election was hard fought in 1940. Beginning that year, he chaired the Senate Committee on Military Affairs, toured bases and conducted investigations on wasteful military spending. It gave him a national reputation for honesty and efficiency in government.
President Franklin Roosevelt broke tradition by running for a third term in 1940. However, Vice President Henry Wallace was considered too left leaning by many leading Democrats. They wanted Roosevelt to replace him on the 1944 ticket. Roosevelt agreed but stipulated he would accept either Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas or Truman. Truman was the choice of state politicians.
Returns to Lamar
Truman returned to Lamar on Aug. 31, 1944, to announce his acceptance of the vice presidential nomination. Surrounded by his immediate family, including his 92-year-old mother, and political supporters from around the country, Truman emphasized the "proven experience and qualifications" of President Roosevelt. He expressed the hope that voters "will not choose for president, by political chance, a man who lacks experience. It takes time for anyone to familiarize himself with a new job. This is particularly true of president of the United States."
He would be taking on that job in nine months time.
W.M. Earp owned the Truman home at the time and handled real estate in Lamar. He welcomed Truman to the home and gave him a glass of water drawn from the family's well. Lamar welcomed between 10,000 and 12,000 visitors that day.
On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt died from a stroke, which elevated Truman to the presidency. He served out that term and won the next election, upsetting Thomas Dewey in 1948 against the predictions of pundits.
In Barton County, W.M. Earp took advantage of the new president's name in his advertising. He ran Barton County property sale ads in the Globe and News Herald. The ads concluded, "Write or phone Everett M. Earp, Realtor, and owner of President Truman's birthplace, Lamar, Mo."
In April 1949, the Missouri legislature proposed a historical site be made of the birthplace. The bill would allow the state park board to acquire property and any private association to aid in setting up such a site. In June, the legislature authorized a ceiling of $15,000 for its purchase. One legislator complained it was a "run-down old house that is carried on the assessor's books at $600."
Once the purchase price was published, Earp increased his asking price to $30,000. The deal collapsed. That was the situation until 1957 when the property was put up for sale. A Lamar United Auto Workers union member notified other union officials and Democratic party leaders of the changed status. The UAW purchased the property for $6,000 in order to present it to the state. Restoration included removal of the lean-to front porch, purchase of period furniture and a monument listing Truman's government service, which cost the state $12,000 over two years.
On April 19, 1959, the dedication ceremony drew more than 7,000 persons. Leonard Woodcock, vice president of the UAW, presented the property deed to Gov. James Blair. U.S. Sen. Stuart Symington, D-Mo., lauded Truman, "... in some of her most critical years — 1945 to 1953 — America had at the helm a man of courage and vision and greatness, and ... spotless, fearless honesty."
Truman, in turn, replied that the kind words "took all the starch out of me." "I'm usually on a platform where I can tell 'em what I think of them on the other side of the fence," he asserted with a smile. The house was opened for public view after the ceremony. The line of visitors extended for two blocks.
Today, the historic site is managed by Missouri State Parks and continues to attract several thousand visitors a year.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 417-627-7261.