By Elizabeth Hey
The spirit behind our country’s westward expansion remains strong and vibrant in the Grand Central states. Tales of valor and courage, alongside fortitude and perseverance, leave no doubt about the character of those who settled Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
The Gateway Arch reigns as a must-see whenever groups explore St. Louis. An engineering feat like no other, the nation’s tallest man-made monument is a tribute to the gutsy determination and ingenuity of its builders and their pioneering spirit.
Before boarding an enclosed tram to the top, visitors can tour the Westward Expansion Museum beneath the Gateway Arch and watch a movie detailing its construction.
“We work closely with the National Park Service to offer free programming,” said Laura Tobey, tour and travel sales manager at the arch. “Programs focus on various aspects of the West, from the Plains Indians to Lewis and Clark.”
The journey up the arch, as the car negotiates the monument’s curve, vacillates between quite thrilling and slightly nerve-racking. At the top, visitors step onto the arch’s slightly curved floor 630 feet above ground and peer through tiny rectangular windows at the miniature city and the Mississippi River below.
Gateway Arch Riverboat Cruises, on replicated 19th-century paddle-wheel boats, offer interpretation from the park service, as well as narration from each captain. One-hour cruises showcase the river’s history, the Arch and the city’s working port.
Specialty cruises visit a river town, journey through the Mississippi lock system, or offer dinner and live entertainment.
Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie
Memorializing prairie pioneers with more than 10,000 artifacts, the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie depicts the pioneers who farmed eastern Arkansas from the 1800s to 1921.
Descendants who still farm their forefathers’ land donated most of the artifacts.
A waterfowl exhibit dedicated to ducks along the Mississippi flyway displays a collection of decoys and guns. Using lighting and audio recording one display simulates a duck hunt in a duck blind and boat.
“Groups will be submerged in the life of our agrarian community that centers on rice and soybeans,” said Melanie Baden, director at the museum. “People find the sunrise duck hunt fascinating.”
Outbuildings include the newspaper shop that created the 1895 Freepress, Stuttgart’s first English newspaper; the firehouse that contains Stuttgart’s first hand-cranked fire truck; and the Prairie School, a replica of a school established by the Mennonites in the 1880s.
A two-thirds-scale reproduction of the Lutheran Church, built by Rev. Adam Buerkle, and a reproduction of an early prairie house filled with family artifacts, such as a rope bed and a pie shelf, showcase life in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Mid-May, the museum’s annual German Heritage Festival celebrates Buerkle, Stuttgart’s founding father.