One Thing Leads to Another

Top on my list for our weekend in Kansas City was hitting the weekend Farmer’s Market.  This time of year, I’m dreaming of anything locally grown and envisioned sharing produce like this with you:

Thai onions. Gigantic “median” carrots. Nebraska tomatoes. You get the idea. My five year old did NOT. I managed to get him out of the hotel pool only because I told him the market area was also home to a Steamboat Museum, with one of the largest collections of pre-Civil WAR materials anywhere.  Steam. Boat. War. He was “in.”

When we got to the ticket desk, Ryan picked ME to go on the partially guided hour long museum tour with him, while my husband and mother-in-law took our little one for lunch. Me! The one who likes to wander through the aromatic spice stands and and loaves of Amish deliciousness.

I don’t know what part of the brochure I read (or didn’t read) about the Steamboat Arabia. They lost me at pre-Civil War.

If I’ve lost you, let me now bring you back: In 1856, a steamboat sunk in the Missouri River, carrying over 200 tons of goods bound for points West. Imagine everything they sold in Nels Oleson’s General Store in Little House on the Prairie: fabric and lace for Nellie’s dresses and bonnets, candies Laura, Mary, Carrie & Half-pint would dream of, leather boots for Pa, all the tools and hardware the mill needed, jarred delicacies for Ma’s hearth, jewelry, china…all sunk and deemed lost forever in the muddy, swirling waters.

The tour guide told us about the Arabia’s misfortune and we watched a 10 minute movie on the five local guys, who, in 1987, set out to find the boat and its wares. A year later, they did; unearthing 132-year old jars of pickles, an entire saw mill that had been deconstructed for transport, leather boots and shoes (all intact except for the cotton threading and laces), the finest chinese silk and millions of colorful, Italian-made seed beads destined for trading to Native Americans.  Somehow almost everything was magically preserved for over a century under 45 feet of soil and silt, even yellow packing straw amid the dishes.

When the lights flickered on after the movie, a man started speaking by the screen. Bob Hawley was not just any docent; he was one of the men who dreamed of finding the steamboat and its treasures. And did.  Ryan shook hands with a real-life, non-pirate treasure finder.

We got to see everything one would need to live and work in the frontier days.

One of the treasure-finders was a restauranteur who tasted many of the jarred findings.

Bob Hawley shared some great stories of the difficult search and the joyous blessed-feeling discoveries along the way, like unearthing very elegant Wedgewood china, just when their wives were getting wearily fed up with their endless search.

Exactly 4 coins were found in the 200+ tons of "treasure" on the Arabia.

Looks pretty much like Restoration Hardware to me.

We touched leather hides and metal bolts from the cargo and even smelled perfume reproduced to the desired 1870s scents (men and women wore the same very pleasant scent). We talked to the theatre-performer turned lab technician who was re-stitching boots and freeze-drying artifacts for long-term preservation.

By this time, our lunch crew was getting ready to jump ship. I quickly grabbed a kids’ book in the gift shop and guess what? Just like my accidental visit to this gem of  a museum, the book rocked too!  It tells the story of the sunken boat from the perspective of the walnut tree whose branch struck and sunk the Arabia. The tree feels terrible for sinking the boat, but the book describes the ultimate purpose of the tree: had it not been for the tree branch, the boat would not have sunk and we would never have the opportunity to learn about frontier life from all these artifacts.

Next year in Kansas City? I know you may never make it to The Steamboat Arabia Museum but had to give a nod to digging, exploring and hunting for lost treasure.



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  1. bonnie says:

    And the thing is there are amazing museums in every city and most towns, too. I love the Connecticut Historical Museum at 1 Elizabeth St, Hartford and The Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia.

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