Annual Bash Honors Westward Trails

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A band rehearses before appearing at Santa Cali Gon Days in Independence, Missouri.
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A Flutist plays visitors to his booth at Santa Cali Gon Days in Independence, Missouri.
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A re-enactor entertains visitors to Santa Cali Gon Days in Independence, Missouri.
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Kettle corn is one treat at Santa Cali Gon Days in Independence, Missouri.

Santa Cali Gon Days is the massive annual Labor Day bash that was originally started back in the 1940s to honor the memory of the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails west, all of which used Independence, Missouri, (eastern border of Kansas City) as a jumping off point.

Every year, the talent and almost non-stop – and free – entertainment includes local groups as well as nationally known country music and tribute bands. The event also offers contests like watermelon-seed spitting and root-beer chugging, myriad children’s activities and historical re-enactors setting up at encampments with teepees, authentic cooking, crafts, and more.

More than 400 vendors jampack eight to 10 giant market vendor tents with crafts, antiques and homemade treasures. A variety of food booths, from kettle corn to shiskabobs, barbecue, ice cream and turkey legs, surrounds the historic Independence Square and a carnival midway features traditional carnival rides and more, all with family pricing.

History buffs can visit the 1859 Jail, Marshal’s Home and Musuem. The dungeon-like limestone cells with 2-foot-thick walls housed, among others, outlaw Frank James, Civil War guerilla Cole Younger and William Clark Quantrill of Quantrill’s Raiders. The Provost Marshal who oversaw the 12 cells lived in the adjoining home, fully restored and furnished with period antiques. Through a connecting door lies the museum, boasting authentic clothing, uniforms, handcuffs and irons and an exhibit of weapons confiscated from prisoners.

A few blocks away stands the Bingham-Waggoner Estate, a beautifully restored 26-room home that sits along the Santa Fe Trail. Early residents of the home stood on their porch and watched wagons depart for the West, as well as later Civil War battles. The presence of the children who lived in the historic home is evident, from the life-size doll in the kitchen highchair to buggies and children’s clothes in the bedrooms to a large display cabinet with a collection of authentic toys that belonged to the Waggoners. About 90 percent of the home’s furnishings are original to its earlier residents. Along one edge of the property, wagon swales (or ruts) from covered wagons can still be seen. Take the self-guided quarter-mile swales walking trail with nine interpretative signs along the way.

Across the street is the National Frontier Trails Museum, dedicated to the history and preservation of the three major paths to the West: the Santa Fe, the Oregon and the California trails. Besides full-size wagons, clothing, tools, artifacts found along the trail, letters and journals of travelers, and the film “West,” children can “pack” their own wagon with items they might choose to take along with them. A display on “Blazing the Way West” also includes models of Lewis and Clark boats, reproductions of drawings, maps and pages from the journals of the explorers.

Next door is the restored Chicago and Alton Depot, full of railroad equipment and memorabilia was used during the 1800s in this working depot.

A 20 minute drive south brings visitors to Missouri Town 1855, a village of 25 buildings on 30 acres with authentic crops, livestock and costumed interpreters. The village portrays rural life from 1820 through 1860 and includes a mercantile, blacksmith shop and surrey, church, law office, livery stable and stagecoach stop.

A 20 minute drive east to Sibley takes visitors to Fort Osage National Historic Landmark, a reconstructed fort built by William Clark on his return from the Pacific. Built in1808, the garrison offered sanctuary for pioneers heading West and also helped guard the frontier. It served as a trading house and also was an important resource for Indian relations. There are special demonstrations, festivals and exhibitions at the Fort during the year.

Other area attractions include the unique Puppetry Arts Institute, the one-of-a-kind Children’s Peace Pavilion, in the Community of Christ Auditorium and the ever-popular Harry S. Truman Museum and Library.

Admission for all Santa Cali Gon Days activities and entertainment (except carnival rides and concessions) is free. Parking and shuttles to and from local schools are also free. Covering 11 city blocks, the festival attracts about 250,000 visitors over its four days, Friday through Monday of the Labor Day weekend. For details, visit the festival’s website or Independence’s tourism site.