NOTE: This article has been corrected to reflect that the organization instrumental in the Bingham-Waggoner preservation was the Independence Chamber of Commerce.
This Christmas season, visitors from around the world will tour the beautifully decorated three-story Bingham-Waggoner Estate and marvel at its elegance, thanks to a “fortuitous thing” that occurred nearly half a century ago while three Independence Jaycees were scouring the Queen City of the Trails for a storage site.
As Steve Schreiber, past president of the Bingham-Waggoner Historical Society and longtime tour guide, tells the story, the Independence Chamber of Commerce – actively involved with Santa-Cali-Gon Days – knew there was a vacant house for sale just south of Independence Square. So they decided to see if the chamber could purchase the house to store Santa-Cali-Gon equipment, pallets and other things.
At that time, two years had passed since the death of the last Waggoner family member. So fearing the three-story house – with its 26 rooms – would probably be sold on the steps of the Jackson County Courthouse, the Jaycees decided to act immediately, fearing the nearby Allis-Chalmers plant might purchase the property for employee parking or for storing farm equipment.
With Dr. Jim Austin, an Independence veterinarian, the chamber met with the estate attorney at the stately house at 313 W. Pacific to take a peek inside. Upon entering through the east door of the unoccupied house, “They were flabbergasted at what they saw,” Schreiber says, causing Jim Austin to utter to himself, “This place will never be used as a storage for pallets.”
What they saw wasn't a vacant house. Instead, the historic structure was “entirely as it was when the (Waggoner) family lived there. … and was absolutely filled with 100-year-old antiques.”
Realizing the necessity of preserving this historic Independence treasure, the three chamber members eventually formed the nucleus of the Bingham-Waggoner Historical Society, launched a fundraising drive and raised $280,000, Schreiber says, adding: “The attorney and heirs asked $500,000 for the estate, but this group managed to raise $280,000. So they donated $250,000 to the purchase and kept $30,000 to purchase the contents.”
Schreiber says the group seeking to purchase the historic estate made its proposal to the city because it didn't have enough money to purchase it. The city obtained matching funds from the State of Missouri for the other $250,000.
In 1980, the Bingham-Waggoner Historical Society signed a lease agreement with the city of Independence that it would be deemed owner and the Historical Society would be the historian and operate the estate, whose uniqueness is this: it never functioned as a hospital, or a school, or an insane asylum or apartments or anything else other than a single-family residence from its beginning in 1852 to the last Waggoner resident in 1976, says Bill Chapman, chairman of Bingham-Waggoner research and restoration. It was the residence of two prominent families: George Caleb Bingham and the Waggoner family, whose business partner, George Porterfield Gates, had a granddaughter – Elizabeth Virginia Wallace – who married Harry S. Truman, who would be the nation's 33rd president.
Noting the Waggoners were the last residents of the estate spanning almost 100 years, Chapman says the family's successful flour mill across the street facilitated the purchase of furniture, arts, silverware and linens, which are still exhibited in the house and are being inventoried.
“We are in the process of inventorying all the personal property of the estate, and we will ultimately have an active inventory of all the house and the Carriage House,” he says, noting that with two rooms completed, “We are taking a break for Christmas and come back after the holidays.”
Also making the estate unique, Chapman says, is: “We didn't have to refurbish the property when we bought the house. All the stuff was there – the furniture, the silverware, the china, the correspondence. It was like a time capsule. There is no other Independence property that has that legacy. And that is what makes it unique.”
The historic significance of this magnificent structure is threefold: its connection with Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham, whose most famous painting, “Order No. 11,” was painted in a studio on the front lawn of the estate after Gen. Thomas Ewing's Order No. 11 that drove thousands of border residents from their homes and farms; its association with the Waggoner-Gates Milling Co. and the Santa Fe Trail, which not only abutted estate property on the east, but also passed directly across the southeast corner of the 19-acre estate toward the southwest.
And what does the Bingham-Waggoner Estate say about itself? In material submitted for a 2018 grant, the following is stated: “The 165 year history of the Bingham-Waggoner Estate is a tangible legacy of pioneer days. Beginning as an undeveloped wilderness, its location on the Santa Fe Trail, is told in the panorama of the Civil War gives witness to the rise of the American middle class. This property stands as a monument and tribute to those merchants, missionaries, trappers and adventurers who pass through on their way to the west, and the 21st century. The adjacent Waggoner-Gates Milling Co. was purchased by the State of Missouri and became the National Frontier Trails Museum. The estate is now on the national Historic Register."
Admission is $6 for adults and $3 for youth (6-16). For more information, call 816-461-3491.
-- Retired community news reporter Frank Haight Jr. writes this column for The Examiner. You can leave a message for him at 816-350-6363.