The working words of the St. Joseph, Missouri, CVB are “Saluting our heritage. Building our future.” Travel planners, though, should add a word to this phrase as they build future tours to this historic and lively city.
“People often wonder why they waited so long to come and visit St. Joseph,” says Gracia Pinzino, the CVB’s group sales and services manager. “Because once they’re here, they’re so impressed. They say they had no idea how much we have to offer.”
Consider these numbers: St. Joseph is home to 13 distinctive museums, 12 annual festivals, 48 parks, 56 houses and districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and one Kansas City Chiefs Summer Training Camp. Visitors (and residents) also enjoy great outdoor recreation, outdoor concerts, and a vibrant arts culture.
Located in northwest Missouri at the crossroads of Interstate 29 and State Highway 36, St. Joseph is within easy driving distance of over 17 metropolitan areas—and only 30 minutes from North Kansas City. In January 2021, St. Joseph was named Best Historic Tour Town by True West magazine.
“We are easily accessible, and often people will overnight and maybe catch a museum the next day before leaving town and going to their final destination,” Pinzino says. “We’re glad that they do that, of course, but I find when people commit to visiting St. Joseph as their destination, they’re glad they did. They get to more fully experience all our diversity, history, and richness.”
It can take several days to visit all the city’s museums, and art lovers should start with The Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, a premier historical mansion that houses one of the finest collections of 18th- through 21st-century art in the Midwest. Groups can enjoy private tours and art-making packages and find unique, local gifts in the museum store. Meeting and dining facilities are also available.
The original owner of the Georgian-style home was William Albrecht, a tycoon in the paper industry a century ago. “Today his home is the perfect backdrop for works by Mary Cassatt, Robert Henri, Edward Hopper, and influential regionalist Thomas Hart Benton,” says Pinzino.
What makes St. Joseph and its museums so group-friendly is the broad range of subjects they cover. After a group has filled up on fine art, they can start a fascinating walk through Western history. The Pony Express National Museum gives visitors a sense of the treacherous, 2,000-mile journey undertaken by brave riders determined to deliver saddlebags of mail from St. Joseph to California—and back again. Displays include saddles, stalls, maps, orientation videos, and a Hall of Riders, where guests can learn about the young men who answered the ad for expert horsemen … “orphans preferred.”
Continuing their journey through history, visitors can include stops at the Jesse James Home Museum, where the infamous outlaw was shot and killed on April 3, 1882; the St. Joseph Museum, which offers one of the largest collections of American Indian items in Missouri; Patee House Museum, considered one of the country’s top Western museums; and the Robidoux Row Museum, housing units built in the 1840s by Joseph Robidoux, the town’s founding father, and used as temporary housing for westward-bound pioneers.
Groups can visit the St. Joseph Museum and get admission to two more fascinating places: The award-winning Glore Psychiatric Museum, which chronicles the 145-year history of the state hospital and centuries of mental health treatment, as well as the Black Archives Museum, which showcases the achievements and contributions of St. Joseph’s African American citizens.
Other museums and places of interest include The Walter Cronkite memorial, which honors the career of the famed news anchor—and St. Joseph’s native son—with interactive kiosks and memorabilia; the Remington Nature Center, where history and nature collide for a unique and enjoyable educational experience; and Missouri Theater, a 1927 architectural gem of a movie palace, which today serves as a cultural and performance arts center.
What appeals to tour planners is the affordability of these museums, according to Pinzino. “Admission is at most $10, and that’s a combo ticket for two museums that are on the same property: the Patee House Museum and Jesse James Museum,” she says. “The quality is no less than at bigger city museums, but the cost certainly is.”
Another bonus for tour operators in St. Joseph is the short distance between attractions and activities. “Just a couple of blocks away from the Patee House and Jesse James museums are the Pony Express Museum and the Pony School, a replica of an 1860s one-room schoolhouse,” Pinzino says. “You won’t find big-city traffic here. You can get anywhere in town within 15 minutes.”
Every single or multi-day visit to St. Joseph should include a few (and maybe a few more) hours downtown. Group members can be left on their own to stroll the historical streets and revel in the remarkable architecture while taking in the Sculpture Walk, a year-long exhibit of juried, outdoor sculptures. They can browse more than 15 truly unique shops, including Nesting Goods, which specializes in locally handmade home décor, gift items, and antiques; and Mod Podge, an eclectic women’s boutique featuring a variety of clothing, jewelry, baby goods, and gifts.
“And when you’ve worked up an appetite, we have plenty of group-friendly restaurants, including BBQ, locally loved steakhouses, and catering options,” Pinzino says.
After seeing a little or a lot of St. Joseph, it becomes clear to any visitor that, while the place is steeped in history and heritage, it also combines a small-town quaintness with big-city energy. It’s the perfect combination for tour operators planning their next tour.
Photos by St. Joseph Convention and Visitors Bureau