What to see, do in Kansas City: beyond BBQ

How much do you care about preserving your era of history? Maybe the answer depends upon how and when you assign value to whatever is within reach.

When the steamboat Arabia in 1856 hit a toppled walnut tree and sank in the Missouri River, about 10 miles north of Kansas City, all people on board survived. That was a relief, and little was done to retrieve the vessel’s cargo of ordinary merchandise used in frontier life.

“We think of it here as a floating Walmart,” explains Tyler Banks. Nothing of such great value would make it worth risking life against the muddy river’s nasty currents. “At the time, there were boats like this leaving Kansas City almost every hour.”

Too thick to drink and too thin to plow: This was the Missouri River’s reputation. Its rhythms and route veered with the passage of time.

So the Arabia’s whereabouts were dismissed, then the topic of nothing more than folklore – until David Hawley in 1987 decided to scour a cornfield with a strong metal detector.

He had a hunch that he’d find where the Arabia sank, based on old river maps and fleeting historical accounts. The adventure began as a treasure hunt.

When the digging got serious, and the steamer uncovered, scavengers were amazed by the amount of cargo intact but muddied. What they unearthed is the world’s single largest collection of frontier artifacts.

“They weren’t thinking about a museum but had a change of heart,” says Tyler, a tour guide at the Arabia Steamboat Museum, which opened in 1991.

“I think their definition of ‘treasure’ changed once they got onto the boat.”

The Hawley family discovered axes and awls to wagon wheels and Yellow Bank pipe tobacco. Coffee beans came from South America; 3.5 million seed buttons (made of hand-blown glass) came from Italy.

About two-thirds of the 200 tons of findings are on display. The rest sits in storage, awaiting painstakingly careful cleaning and restoration.

The project has earned attention from many circles, including wood to textile preservationists. Museum visitors watch and quiz at-work laboratory staff such as Judy Wright, a retired high school English teacher.

She pulls out a bolt of cotton fabric, produced by New York Mills in the 1870s, noting that tight packing and fabric density prevented disintegration.

Besides fabric preservation, Judy pursues “the day-to-day discovery of the way individual garments are put together – there was no quality control like today,” and she has learned to distinguish the habits of one seamstress from another.

“Beads from Italy, beaver pelt hats – it certainly changes your idea of what the frontier was like,” she observes. About 80 percent of the merchandise was everyday necessities, and the rest classified as “international luxuries” of the era.

For more about the Arabia Steamboat Museum, 400 Grand Blvd., Kansas City: www.1856.com, 816-471-1856.

Other ways to get acquainted with Kansas City:

– Watch a weekend cooking demo and tour the new, 12-acre “edible landscape” of Heartland Harvest Garden, at Powell Gardens, 1609 NW Hwy. 50. Expect vineyards and orchards to greenhouse gardening and examples of food garden designs and trends. A Garden Café uses the garden harvest in its menu. Visitors also sample the bounty as they walk. This addition is part of 915 acres of gardens and nature trails. For more: www.powellgardens.org, 816-697-2600.

– Stay at the art deco Hotel Phillips, 106 W. 12th St., open since 1931 and a magnet for celebrities (including the Barrymores) and political leaders (such as presidents Truman and Eisenhower). For more: www.hotelphillips.com, 800-443-1426.

– Take a camera to the top of Liberty Memorial Tower, at the National World War I Museum, 100 W. 26th St., for spectacular views of city life and architecture. Inside the museum, dynamic dioramas and lighting make a video introduction feel real. For more: www.theworldwar.org, 816-784-1918.

– Harken back to the era when flight attendants were “stews,” plane rides included a hot meal and commercial aircraft toted no more than 50 passengers for a flight across the ocean. Many of the artifacts and planes at the Airline History Museum, 201 NW Lou Holland Dr., are associated with the now-defunct TWA. For more: www.ahmhangar.com, 816-421-3401.

– Ride a bicycle above ground, along a wire rope, at Science City at Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Rd. Many of the 125 exhibits encourage hands-on learning in unusual ways. For more: www.sciencecity.com; 816-460-2020.

– Let the kids order a peanut butter and jelly wrap or mini turkey corn dogs at the colorful Crayola Café, 2450 Grand Blvd., inside the Crown Center, also home to Hallmark Visitors Center, the starting point for self-guided tours about the greeting card manufacturer, celebrating its centennial year. For more: www.crayolacafe.com, 816-398-4820; www.hallmarkvisitorscenter.com, 816-274-3613.

– Treat yourself to a meal designed by a celebrity chef: James Beard award winners Debbie Gold of The American Restaurant, 200 E. 25th St., and the namesake of Michael Smith’s Restaurant, 1900 Main St., For more: www.theamericankc.com, 816-545-8001; www.michaelsmithkc.com, 816-842-2202.

– Work off calories at the College Basketball Experience, 1401 Grand Blvd., where all ages learn about the sport as they test their abilities at fun skill stations. The site also houses the NCAA Basketball Hall of Fame. For more: collegebasketballexperience.com; 816-949-7515.

– Learn about baseball as more than a sport at the poignant Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, 1616 E. 18th St., which shares a building with the lively American Jazz Museum in the neighborhood where a part of the music genre was born. For more: www.nlbm.com, 816-221-1920; www.americanjazzmuseum.com, 816-474-8463.

– Take a seat at The Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., for a (typically free) jazz jam on Monday and Thursday nights. Can’t sleep? Head to the humble confines of the Mutual Musicians Foundation, 1823 Highland Ave., for the Friday and Saturday jams that go from midnight to 5:30 a.m. (The proud tradition began in 1930; expect to cut the chatter – this one’s for serious music fans only.) For more: www.americanjazzmuseum.org, 816-474-2929; www.thefoundationjamson.org, 816-471-5212.

For more about planning a Kansas City vacation: www.visitkc.com, 800-767-7700.

Want an insider’s view of how to explore the city? Download the travel app “Kansas City Uncovered” for $1.99 through iTunes; it was put together by my friends and colleagues Bruce and Diana Lambdin Meyer, who are longtime residents of the area.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.