RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Charlottesville, Va., has Thomas Jefferson. New York City can claim Teddy Roosevelt. And Independence, Mo., is synonymous with our 33rd president, Harry S. Truman.
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HARRY TRUMAN: Well, it's good to be back home and what I call the center of the world, Independence, Mo.
MARTIN: NPR's Melissa Block traveled to Independence for her road trip reporting project called Our Land.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: What did you get?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Blue raspberry shake. Sounds gross, but it's good.
BLOCK: We've come to Clinton's Soda Fountain, right on historic Independence Square. This is the spot where 14-year-old Harry Truman got his first job at what was then Clinton's Drugstore. He'd mop the floors, get things in order and he got some early exposure to hypocrisy. He'd serve whiskey to people who'd come in through the back door to sneak a drink behind the counter.
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TRUMAN: Most of those people were the great high-hats of Independence who were not in the frame of mind to go across the square to the saloons and buy their drinks openly. That's where I got my idea of what a real prohibitionist is.
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BLOCK: At Clinton's today - no whiskey. But you can sit at the counter, order a milkshake, a phosphate or a sundae. Tiffany Griggs might be our server.
TIFFANY GRIGGS: We have the Harry's favorite sundae. We have the Tucks sundae, the nutty turtle.
BLOCK: What's the Harry's favorite sundae?
GRIGGS: It's the chocolate ice cream with butterscotch. I've been told that he would actually come in here after he was president and he would order that.
BLOCK: Harry Truman first moved to Independence with his family as a young boy. It's where he went to school and, at age 6, met the girl who'd become his wife, Bess. It's where he became a judge in the courthouse that now bears his name. And it's where he lived out his days after the presidency. Harry Truman always called Independence the best town in the world. And in Independence today, Truman is never far out of reach.
LOIS MCDONALD: He's everywhere. If you look out the window, he's standing right there.
BLOCK: The statue by the statue by the courthouse?
MCDONALD: Yes, the statue by the courthouse. Yes.
BLOCK: We sit down to talk with a few people who call Independence home. That's Lois McDonald with the chamber of commerce. We're also joined by 34-year-old Zac Gall.
ZAC GALL: I'm a teacher at Truman High School here in Independence. And we live in the Truman boyhood home as well. So we're just hitting all the Independence strokes, I guess.
BLOCK: Gall grew up here, moved away to study writing. When his friends were settling down in Brooklyn and Austin and San Francisco, he and his wife decided to move back to Independence and bought one of the houses where Truman grew up.
GALL: The office at the top of the stairs that I have now, you know, essentially what I write and work out of was Harry Truman's bedroom when he was a teenager. (Laughter) You know, it's just kind of wild.
BLOCK: And another Zach joins the conversation, Zach Walker, the city manager of Independence.
ZACH WALKER: We're the fifth-largest city in the state, so 117,000 people. But somebody can walk in and say - oh, you're one of the Gall kids, you know. And everybody knows everyone. It's - I tell folks it's the biggest small town you'll ever be in, and I mean that lovingly.
BLOCK: The small area around Independence Square has been revitalized with new business. Now Walker is banking on high-tech jobs to come and help jump-start the economy. Lois McDonald hopes he's right.
MCDONALD: So that we don't just, you know, disappear into history - and we have to stay relevant and we have to be progressive. And I think that, you know, we have a nice balance here.
BLOCK: Yeah. Because that would be a temptation, to just pin it all on Harry Truman. And then...
BLOCK: ...What are you left with?
MCDONALD: Exactly, exactly. So we'll take Harry with us.
(SOUNDBITE OF AERATED WHIPPED CREAM DISPENSER)
GRIGGS: Peanut butter hot fudge sundae.
BLOCK: I think I need to have a sundae. Could I have a vanilla ice cream sundae with hot fudge?
GRIGGS: Yeah. Just, like, a single scoop?
BLOCK: Yeah, a small single scoop.
BLOCK: With walnuts.
GRIGGS: OK. Our - we have...
BLOCK: Melissa Block, NPR News, Independence, Mo.
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