On Truman's centennial, Independence, Mo., spruces up for a tourist onslaught

Independence is dusting up and battening down for a 1984 tourist onslaught. This quiet community of antique shops and Victorian homes - the place the late President Harry Truman called home - is gearing up to celebrate what would have been its most famous citizen's 100th birthday.

But if you want to do civic leaders and yourselves a centennial favor, don't all arrive at once.

The reason: the 1862 white frame house where Bess and Harry Truman lived during their early married years and after their return from Washington opens to tourists in May - but it can't handle a crowd.

If all 250,000 visitors who now annually trek through the Truman Library here - with no specific advertising to pull them - decide to stop by the Truman Home on Delaware Street as well, the National Park Service would have to turn about 80 percent of them away.

''The home is going to be a big draw, but there's no getting around the fact that there will be limited access,'' says tourism coordinator Sarah Hancock.

Only the first floor of the home will be open. The second floor was left by Mrs. Truman to her daughter Margaret Truman Daniel. According to Roger T. Sermon Jr., chairman of the Independence Truman Centennial Commission, the National Park Service did a dry run of the house tour recently with 15 people and found the number had to be cut in half.

''These are small rooms with the furnishings intact,'' explains Mr. Sermon, whose father was a close friend of Mr. Truman in the Army and mayor of Independence for 26 years. ''There are some dead ends - it isn't possible to create aisles as it was at (Franklin D. Roosevelt's home in) Hyde Park, N.Y.''

Independence is currently weighing options - from handing out tickets in Independence Square with an assigned visiting hour on each to launching a free shuttle-bus service that would drop tourists at a half-dozen other sites to keep them busy, happy, and spending their money in the town. Ms. Hancock admits that many tourists stop only long enough to visit the library before leaving town. ''Our problem has been keeping them here,'' she says.

One way the city has been trying: showing a ''sound and light'' slide show on Mr. Truman in the very room of the Jackson County Courthouse where he once sat as presiding judge.

At one point in this polished and appealing local production, a light shines on Mr. Truman's chair which turns around as a recorded voice recreates a judicial introduction.

As a further lure, Independence and the surrounding area plan to open several new tourist attractions next year. These include the Grandview Farm where Mr. Truman spent much of his boyhood; the majestic Gothic-style Vaile Mansion (recently given the city); and the Bingham-Waggoner Estate, once the home of Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham.

''It's a conservative town, but it's getting a little more aggressive,'' notes Mr. Sermon, who says he thinks tourism can and should be increased.

Independence marks the start of the Sante Fe, Oregon, and California trails. If Missouri comes through with a grant, the city plans to start a museum focusing on that part of local history.

''Our strongest potential for economic development is probably tourism - we're working very hard at it and investing a lot of dollars in it,'' says Independence Mayor Barbara Potts, who is a member of both the local and national Truman centennial commissions.

The national, group headed by Clark Clifford, is overseeing such events as the January issuance of a 20-cent Truman stamp and the planned joint session of Congress on Mr. Truman's birthday May 8, the day when Independence plans a massive birthday party in the town square.

Mayor Potts clearly views Mr. Truman's past link with Independence as vital to its future. ''Mr. Truman put Independence on the map,'' she says. ''People all around the world connect this city with his name. He felt so strongly that this was his town . . . and we feel we have a piece of history to share.''

Almost everywhere in this city with the Southern flavor are reminders of that Truman connection. Truman Road qualifies as one of the longest in town. Many local residents graduated from the Truman High School. And Amtrak trains still arrive at the Harry S. Truman Railroad Station, last stop on Mr. Truman's 1948 'whistle-stop presidential campaign.

And in honor of the centennial, almost everyone is doing something special. Local folk have been encouraged by a new mayoral beautification committee to spruce up their front yards, plant trees, and put a fresh coat of paint on their homes.

Many civic groups are planning their own Truman programs. And the local school system intends to come out with a new fourth-grade text on local history which includes a number of pages on the 33rd President of the United States.

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction David Rock admits the project is a bit unusual: ''Our history is so vast - we just felt it was important to put out a book.''

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