Even as he stands among the Square’s new businesses, rap music from a passing car playing faintly in the background, Gregg Higginbotham feels like a part of Independence’s history. He wears a period costume, complete with a pocket watch and top hat, and takes a swig of Polly’s Pop before leading a storytelling historical tour.
This outfit and this event both prove surprisingly routine for Higginbotham. He impersonates historical characters, most frequently Harry Truman and Frank James, at a variety of local events, from museum appearances to his current gig guiding walking tours for Mid-Continent Public Library. The job provides Higginbotham with an opportunity to draw on family stories, his own childhood in Independence and the history books and biographies he loves to read.
“If you look at the streets in Independence closely, they tell you a little bit of something,” Higginbotham shares with his audience. “For me, I see Harry Truman walking around the Square everywhere.”
Though Higginbotham knew Truman as a former president throughout his childhood, he prefers to talk about more personal memories.
Specifically, Higginbotham remembers his uncle, a mechanic at the Square’s former Firestone facility (now The Delaware event space), putting brakes on Truman’s car. Higginbotham says Truman would often sit in the Firestone parking lot to overlook the town – but really, Higginbotham insists, to “chew the fat.” During these nights, Higginbotham would peer into Truman’s suit pocket and grab a butterscotch.
“It wasn’t much to me,” Higginbotham said of these interactions. “He just looked like an old man with a top hat.”
However, now, even decades later, Higginbotham can recall and imitate the way Truman placed his hands on top of his cane. He observed this mannerism when Harry and Bess rode to Kroger. With a laugh, he recounts Bess’s signature purchase: a loaf of bread, a half-gallon of milk and a newspaper.
For Barb Keogh, a Raytown resident who attended the Tuesday night tour, these anecdotes brought amusement and a big smile.
“I absolutely love Harry Truman,” Keogh said. “This is an awesome learning experience.”
Like Higginbotham, the streets of the Square prompted both historical significance and personal memories. She grew up in Raytown and often visited Independence. After leaving at 15 and spending 47 years away, Keough just recently moved back. In the time since, she’s enjoyed visiting the Truman Library and Truman House.
According to Mid-Continent Public Library community engagement associate Denise Bozikis, this sense of personal connection and investment represents the walking tour’s goal.
“It’s about getting to know your town and community,” Bozikis said. “Get to know where you live.”