Harry Truman 33nd President, 1945-1953

Birthplace, Lamar, Missouri
Born on May 8, 1884, in rural Lamar, Missouri, Harry S. Truman grew up in nearby Independence. His family had moved to this small town of just 6,000 people in 1890, when he was an infant. Located ten miles east of Kansas City, Independence was both southern and western. It was geographically a western town where wagon trains had passed on their way to the Overland trail yet the place felt “southern.” For example, almost all of Independence’s inhabitants were American-born, and its black residents lived in a segregated part of town called “nigger neck.” Furthermore, the Confederate statue in the town’s cemetery reigned as the biggest memorial in town. Bands in the park began and ended concerts with “Dixie,” and the Daughters of the Confederacy served picnic lunches at reunions for Quantrill’s boys, those border-war veterans (now old men in the 1890s) who had fought as Confederate guerrilla raiders during the Civil War. Old Frank James, the brother of Jessie James, occasionally showed up at such events.

Harry S. Truman was born in the downstairs bedroom of a small frame house. His parents, John and Martha Truman, purchased the 20 foot by 28 foot house in 1882, four years after its completion for $685. Here, in Lamar, Missouri, John Truman earned an uneven livelihood trading mules and farming. Eleven months after the birth of their son Harry, the Trumans moved north to Harrisonville in Cass County.

Local tradition holds that John Truman planted an Austrian pine near the corner of the house and nailed a mule shoe above the front door in observance of his son’s birth. Seventy-five years later, in 1959, after President Truman’s place in history was secure, the United Auto Workers of America purchased and furnished the President’s birthplace and dedicated the site with President Truman in attendance. The house was later donated to the Missouri State Park system.

Boyhood Home, Independence, Missouri
Harry Truman lived here with his family from 1890 to 1896, when he was 6 to 12 years old. Truman remembered probably his first political event during the time he lived in this house: “There was a cupola or tower on the northwest corner of the Crysler Street house and when Grover Cleveland was elected in 1892, the rooster weathervane on top of the tower was properly decorated and my father rode a gray horse in the torchlight victory parade.”

Boyhood Home, Independence, Missouri
Harry Truman lived here from 1896 to 1902, when he was 12 to 18 years old. “We found West Waldo Street to be a most pleasant neighborhood,” Truman wrote in his memoirs. “…Our house soon became headquarters for all the boys and girls around.” Truman’s father lost a great deal of money in about 1901 speculating in commodities, and the family lost their Waldo Avenue house.

Boyhood Home, Independence, Missouri
Truman lived here for about six months in 1902 and 1903. “…It was a cute house,” Truman’s sister, Mary Jane, remembered. “I kind of liked it… It’s an old, old house… We only lived there six months and then moved to Kansas City.” (Mary Jane Truman oral history interview.)

Home, Truman Farm, Grandview, Missouri
Independence was the big small town in which Harry Truman grew up, went to school, fell in love, launched his political career, centered his private life for most of his life, and, finally, grew old and, after dying in a Kansas City hospital, was buried. By the time Truman died in 1972, Independence had over 100,000 people and spread over almost 50 square miles. The Square was in decline and many of the old neighborhoods has lost their former prominence. There is no evidence that any of this ever bothered Harry Truman. “The Independence that I knew in 1890,” Truman wrote a friend in 1950, “long since disappeared in every particular; the Independence I knew in 1928…has also disappeared; and I suppose the one of the present day will be a thing of the past in another twenty years and that is as it should be.”

Farmer Harry Truman said “we moved to the old home farm in 1906 and I became a real famer. Plowed, sowed, reaped, milked cows, fed hogs, doctored horses, baled hay and did everything there was to do on a six hundred acre farm with my father and brother.”

Harry Truman described the eleven years spent on the family farm as a time that he “tried to dig a living out of the ground.” Life here could be harsh, with days of back-breaking labor, ruinous weather, and unsure profits. As a farmer, Truman cultivated qualities that shaped his personality and prepared him for future challenges. Work hard, treat others fairly, always do your best and persevere in tough times, were his guiding principles. His mother said, “It was on the farm that Harry got his common sense. He didn’t get it in town.”

At 33, Harry left the plow to become a soldier in World War I. He did not return to farming, but would never forget his rural heritage. In 1952 President Truman wrote, “I hope I’m still the country man from Missouri.”

Home, Blair-Lee House, Washington, DC
In 1948, when inspectors discovered dangerous structural flaws in the White House, the decision was made to move the First Family across Pennsylvania Avenue to the Blair-Lee House until repairs could be completed. It was here, on November 1, 1950 that two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, attempted to assassinate President Truman. They thought the assassination would call attention to Puerto Rico and advance the cause of Puerto Rican independence. Collazo and Torresola planned to approach the house from opposite directions and shoot their way inside. In the ensuing gun battle, Collazo and Torresola traded gunfire with White House policemen and secret service agents. They wounded three White House policemen but never reached the interior of the house. One of the wounded policemen, Private Leslie Coffelt, managed to fire one bullet and hit Torresola in the side of the head, killing him instantly. Coffelt died later that day at the hospital. Two other policemen, Donald Birdzell and Joseph Downs, were each hit more than once but recovered from their wounds. Collazo reached the steps of Blair House before collapsing with a gunshot wound to the chest. President Truman was taking a nap upstairs when the shooting began. He rushed to a window and saw Collazo below on the front steps. A White House guard saw the President in the window and shouted to him to him to get down. The President obeyed.

Collazo was sentenced to death for the attempt; one week before his scheduled execution in 1952, Truman commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. President Carter commuted the life sentence of Collazo in 1979, and he was freed from prison. He died in Puerto Rico on February 20, 1994 at the age of 80.

The Blair-Lee House was originally built in 1824 for Dr. Joseph Lovell, first Surgeon General of the United States who organized the Army Corps of Engineers. In 1836, Francis Preston Blair, Sr. purchased the House. Moving for a time in the 1840s to a country house in Maryland, the Blairs rented the property to a succession of notable tenants, including the first Secretary of the Interior, Thomas Ewing, whose daughter married William Tecumseh Sherman at the house in 1850. In 1852, the Blairs moved back to the residence and constructed a house next door for Elizabeth Preston Blair, the only daughter of Francis Preston Blair. The two houses began to be used as one, almost as they are today. Today, this National Historic Landmark serves as the official guesthouse of the President of the United States.

Home, Truman House, Independence, Missouri
Bess Truman’s grandfather, George Porterfield Gates, bought the lot at 219 North Delaware Street, which probably had a small house on it, in 1867. In 1885, Gates greatly enlarged the old house. After Bess Wallace’s father, David Willock Wallace, committed suicide in 1903, Bess and her mother and brothers moved in with her grandparents. Bess lived in the house until she died in 1982. Harry Truman moved in after their marriage on June 28, 1919 and lived there until he died in 1972. Harry and Bess probably didn’t originally intend to stay at 219 North Delaware Street after their marriage, but Bess’s mother, Madge Gates Wallace, apparently wanted them to. They stayed, and Mrs. Wallace lived with them until her death in 1952. The house was called the “Summer White House” during Truman’s presidency.

Home, The Little White House, Key West, Florida
The Harry S Truman Little White House in Key West, Florida was built in 1890 as the first officer’s quarters on the naval station. The wooden duplex contained Quarters A for the base commandant and Quarters B for the paymaster. The house was built on the waterfront of the harbor of Key West. In the beginning of the 20th century, the home was converted into a single family dwelling to house the base commandant.

The house has been host to many distinguished guests. Thomas Edison resided in the house during World War I, while working on depth charge research for the U.S. Navy. In 1946, Harry Truman began visiting the island for rest and relaxation and returned for 175 days during his presidency. Quarters A was the Winter White House. President Dwight Eisenhower used the home while recuperating from a heart attack in 1956. In 1961, the Little White House played host to President John F. Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan during the Bay of Pigs incident. The house remained a living quarters for the commanding officers of the base until Truman Naval Station was closed in 1974. In 1996, President Jimmy Carter, and his family, visited the home while on holiday and celebrated New Year’s Eve here with family and friends. In April of 2000 the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the U.S., Great Britain, Germany, and France along with their wives had a private dinner at the Little White House.

Library & Museum, Independence, Missouri
The Harry S. Truman Library, the first Presidential Library to be created under the provisions of the 1955 Presidential Libraries Act, was established to preserve the papers, books, and other historical materials relating to former President Harry S. Truman and to make them available to the people in a place suitable for exhibit and research. The Library building, which cost $1,750,000 was built by the Harry S. Truman Library Inc., a private corporation, with funds donated by more than 17,000 individuals and organizations from all parts of the country. The building and Mr. Truman’s presidential papers were transferred to the Government at a dedication ceremony held on July 6, 1957 attended by Government officials of both parties. Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the principal address.

Gravesite, Truman Library & Museum, Independence, Missouri
Harry Truman lived for nineteen years after retiring from the presidency. He died on December 26, 1972, at the age of eighty-eight. After campaigning for Adlai Stevenson in 1952, he spent most of his time at home in Independence, supervising the construction of the Truman Library. Once it was completed, he usually showed up at his office each day until he was too old to work there. He continued his early morning walks, just as he had as president; and he loved receiving guests and making speeches.

His post-presidential years afforded him ample opportunity to speak his mind. He had hoped to be consulted by Eisenhower, but never was called. He thereafter criticized Eisenhower at every opportunity. He especially disliked Vice President Richard Nixon, saying that he would not be in the same room with him and that Nixon had “never spoken a word of truth in his life.” He opposed Stevenson’s nomination in 1956 and John F. Kennedy’s nomination in 1960. Once Kennedy won the election, Truman found him and his wife charming. And Kennedy frequently invited Truman to the White House or sought his counsel. He felt even more comfortable with Lyndon Baines Johnson, with whom he had worked closely in the 1950s. When Nixon became president he visited Truman in Independence and played the piano in his living room, though that didn’t do much to change Truman’s opinion of him.

Most who remember Truman in those days remember a cranky old man who loved to shock people-telling one young history professor that he had better go home and read his books before trying to interview him again. He was never far from his favorite bourbon, and he enjoyed clanking glasses with the few remaining old cronies and dignitaries who paraded through town. Always the American history buff, Truman had great fun lecturing young professors and established scholars. He traveled some, including a road trip to New York-during which a cop stopped him on the Pennsylvania Turnpike for making an illegal lane change. But mostly he spent his last days just being Harry S. Truman, the plain speaking man from Independence.

He died of old age rather than any specific sickness. Bess vetoed plans for a stately funeral and arranged an Episcopalian service in the auditorium of the Truman Library. She had a Baptist minister and the Grand Masonic leader of Missouri conduct the services. Truman was buried in the courtyard of his presidential library, with a simple stone epitaph that he had himself prepared. It listed his birth and death dates, the birth of his daughter, and his public offices from district judge to president of the United States. When Bess joined him ten years later, her marker read “First Lady of the United States.”