Jefferson City may not be the first city that pops into your mind when you think of the state of Missouri, but it’s one well worth a visit! Only the state’s 15th largest city, visitors find lots of small town charm with its tree lined streets, greenway walking and biking trails, and 40+ National historic buildings.
But there’s more. In fact, Jefferson City has a number of things to see that you won’t find anywhere else in the country.
Missouri State Capitol Building
Missouri Governor’s Mansion
Missouri State Penitentiary Museum
Jefferson Landing State Historic Site
Prison Brews Brewpub
Plan Your Visit to Jefferson City
1. Enjoy Art at the Missouri State Capitol Building
The Missouri State Capitol Building sits on the banks of the Missouri River in Jefferson City, Missouri. Hopefully, three’s a charm, as the current building is the third home to the state legislature in this city, with the first two buildings having burned. This one celebrated its one-hundredth birthday in 2017. But none of that, of course, makes it significantly different than capitol buildings around the country.
What does stand out is that the construction of this last building came in under budget. How much?
One million dollars!
And how did builders spend that million? On art and decoration.
Distinctive Architecture of the Missouri State Capitol Building
The Missouri State Capitol Capitol is architecturally distinctive and built mainly from local materials. Many features, such as its dome, are inspired by the Capitol in Washington, D.C., while others are variations from the Classic Corinthian Capital style. The exterior is made with dense Ozark Gray marble from Carthage, Missouri, in a marble finishing plant erected specifically for the Capitol project.
Inside the Capitol, the floors are Napoleon Gray marble from the quarries of the Phenix Marble Company, at Phenix, Missouri. Some columns and ashlar gallery walls are also made from this beautiful material.
I’ve always loved staircases and I’ve never seen one more impressive than the 30 foot wide grand staircase in the Capitol. Bronze statues of explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who made their way down the Missouri River in 1804 to explore and map their way to the Pacific Ocean, flank the stairs. They’re in great company, as the Hall of Famous Missourians is situated in the third floor rotunda.
Hall of Famous Missourians
And who are some of those famous folk born in Missouri? The busts include Samuel Longhorn Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, Edwin Hubble, and Ginger Rogers. As everyone likely knows, Twain was an adventurer and novelist, Hubble an astronomer, and Rogers an actress, singer, and dancer.
Thomas Hart Benton Murals in the Missouri State Capitol
The abundance of marble, paintings, and sculptures create a dignified air in the Capitol. However, there’s also another more playful side to the artwork that you won’t find in other capitol buildings.
They’re the collection of social history murals that were painted by Thomas Hart Benton in 1935 in the House Lounge. Benton’s work tells the people’s story of the state: keel boats and prairie schooners, sorghum mills and turkey farming, outlaws and mansion owners. No piece of history is left unexplored.
The people of Missouri, 235 different characters pursuing their daily work, appear in vibrant colors on the thirteen panels that decorate the room. Painted in egg tempera paint, the murals have only been touched up twice in their 80 years.
2. See Inside the Home of Governors
The existing Missouri Governor’s Mansion was completed in 1871. A three-story Brick Renaissance Revival style home, it was first occupied by Gov. Benjamin Gratz Brown and his family. But of course, every state has a mansion its governors have occupied. So, what makes Missouri’s unique? Well, two things.
First, it has a long tradition of holding Christmas events. Of itself, that also sounds pretty ordinary. However, during Gov. Joseph Folk’s tenure from 1905 to 1909, those guests included the families of inmates at the nearby Missouri State Penitentiary!
Other Christmas highlights include Gov. William Stone’s (1893-97) Kentucky whisky-eggnog, Gov. Herbert Hadley’s (1909-13) lebkuchen and springele meals to share his German heritage, and the candle-light celebrations during the energy crisis of the 1970s with Gov. Christopher Bond.
Free Mansion Tours
Today’s free, regularly scheduled tours of the mansion originated with Bond during his first term, when the Missouri Mansion Preservation Inc. was formed to ensure the mansion’s preservation.
And the second thing that makes the mansion distinctive? Well, it was built, not by paid laborers, but by volunteers and inmates from the Missouri State Penitentiary!
3. Visit Missouri State Penitentiary Museum
Jefferson City may not be the only city with a State Penitentiary Museum (there are 50+ jail and prison museums in the US!), but the Missouri State Penitentiary was unique. The largest prison in the U.S. when it was built, thousands of men and women have lived behind its bars between 1836 and 2004. While Alcatraz may be the best known prison, it’s actually a century younger than Missouri State Penitentiary and only operated for 29 years.
What you might not guess about Missouri State Penitentiary is that it was once called the Bloodiest 47 acres in America! Why? In part, due to the periodic riots that occurred in its 168 years as a prison. However, the riot of 1954 stands out for its size and violence. With around 2500 rioters rampaging through the prison, it took a whole lot of law enforcement to restore order. At one point, armed troopers even opened fire with machine guns.
Finally, 245 troopers were able to regain control. It took less than 24 hours and during that time, not a single prisoner escaped. The costs, however, were high, both in dollars ($5 million) and lives (4 inmates died and 50 were injured).
As you might guess from the lack of escapees, Missouri State Penitentiary was a maximum-security prison. It also had a gas chamber where 40 men were executed.
On the Inside: Missouri State Penitentiary Museum
MIssouri State Penitentiary opened as a museum in 2013, nine years after it closed as a prison. Now, former guards and law enforcement officers take you through the grounds, tell the stories of the most infamous residents, and even let you sit in the gas chamber if you dare.
Of course, the most infamous are the headliners, often because their lives ended in the gas chamber. Some, however, were rehabilitated and went on to become famous for other things, like Sonny Liston, the world championship boxer.
Sonny Liston in Missouri State
Charles “Sonny” Liston entered Missouri State Penitentiary as a man with little to no future — and left to become what some called “the most feared man in the world.”
As the 24th of 25 siblings who shared the same father, it’s no wonder there’s a little confusion about his exact date of birth. However, most records indicate it was May, 1932. Living with an alcoholic father was tough, and Liston soon left the cotton fields of Arkansas for St. Louis. There, his brawn and strength got him noticed by police on a regular basis, as well as some work as a strike-breaker.
Liston was arrested more than 20 times before finally landing in the Missouri State Penitentiary. There, prison athletic director, Father Alois Stevens, helped him find another way to work out his frustrations with the world — boxing.
In fact, it was boxing that got him paroled from prison in 1952. A newspaper publisher, who’d seen him box, approached the parole board with a plan to give Sonny some education (he was illiterate) and get him started in the sport. Sonny moved into the Pine Street YMCA and began working at Scullins Steel, until his career launched with his knockout of Don Smith, September 2, 1953.
The museum collection includes such things as an oak clock handmade by the prisoners for Warden Swenson and a hand-carved box for one of the Governor’s maids (prisoners worked in the Governor’s mansion). My favorite items, though, were the crafts made from cigarette packages.
There are also dozens of fun facts posted throughout the museum. Did you know, for example, that a Jefferson City seamstress, Mrs. Isabelle Jobe, made the original striped suits for the convicts? This type of prison garb (Auburn Prison in New York used striped uniforms from the 1820s) helped make it easier to identify prisoners if they escaped. Nowadays, of course, bright orange is the most common color for prisoner clothing.
4. Turn Back Time to the Steamboat Era
Jefferson Landing State Historic site is, as you’d expect, located on the banks of the Missouri River. The site consists of several state owned historic buildings including the Lohman Building (built 1839) and Union Hotel (built 1855) and Christopher Maus house (built 1855). All of the buildings were restored as part of the nation’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976.
Of course, there are many other restored National Historic Buildings across the country. So what makes Jefferson Landing significant? Well, because it’s known as the “Commercial Center of the Steamboat Era.” Indeed, the restorations make it a rare example of what life was like on the Missouri River during this part of history.
As to the riverboats, well the Missouri River was a challenging one to be sure. Despite that, they provided the main transportation into the West for people and goods from the 1840s to the end of the century. Much of the activity occurred at Jefferson Landing, particularly during the golden period from 1855, when the Pacific Railroad reached Jefferson City, until three years later, when it reached Tipton.
Today, transportation is still key to Jefferson Landing, since the Amtrak station is located in the restored Union Hotel.
Dine and Drink at Prison Brews
Of course, every great getaway must include some interesting dining. And, I can highly recommend Prison Breaks for its food, microbeers, atmosphere and history. Located just a couple of blocks from the original Missouri State Penitentiary, Prison Brews is a popular brewpub.
Of course, while prison themed dining is rare, it’s not unheard of. Prison Brews, however, has a distinctive history of its own since it’s circa 1895, to help make it one-of-a-kind.
While the brewpub is now home to the whole brewing operation of the business, its early life was a little closer to the farm, if you know what I mean, since one of its early owners was a blacksmith and wagon maker. The large facility attracted businesses like a creamery and dairy later on, until it was eventually purchased and opened as a brewpub in 2008.
Inside Prison Brews
Prison Brews carries its theme throughout the brewpub, with jail bars around the booths and to separate areas. Even the restrooms have been included with an hilarious sign that reads: Gas Chambers!
The outside patio is great on a nice evening and has the advantage of letting you watch everyone playing bocce ball. While I was there, Prison Brews had partnered with the local Kiwanis Club to organize a 32-team non-profit league that raised funds for local children’s activities.
On Tap at Prison Brews
The menu at Prison Brews is one of its biggest attractions, especially if you’re a writer who loves to play with words like I do. Here, for example, is a list of their brews on tap:
- Go to Jail Ale – a light ale that was my favorite
- Rapsheet Raspberry – my second favorite, a full flavored beer
- Big House IPA – while I don’t usually enjoy dark beers, this strong flavored beer didn’t have a bitter taste
- Deathrow Oatmeal Stout – again, I’m not a stout drinker, but the caramel taste was quite appealing
- You’ll also find Big Yard Belgian Blonde, Class “A” Amber, I Aint Your Honey Wheat, and Prison Town Brown
Plan Your Visit to Jefferson City
Website: Jefferson City
Free tours of the Missouri State Capitol are given year round, seven days a week (with a few exceptions). For more information and to book a tour see: https://mostateparks.com/page/55179/capitol-tours
Check the Missouri Governor’s Mansion website for information on their free tours – https://mansion.mo.gov/tours.html
Find information on the Missouri state parks website on visiting Jefferson Landing – https://mostateparks.com/location/58230/jefferson-landing-state-historic-site
Book your tour at the Missouri State Penitentiary Museum – https://www.missouripentours.com/tours
And for Prison Brews Microbrewery, click here – https://www.prisonbrews.com/
Google Map With All Locations
My visit to Jefferson City was hosted by the Missouri Division of Tourism. See: https://visitmo.com
Article reference on the Capitol building: Marble Work in the Missouri Capitol, an article first published in Stone: An Illustrated Magazine, July 1917.
Information on Jefferson Landing is from the News Tribune article, Lohman Building has served as a cornerstone of Jefferson City since 1839, published June 15, 2014.
Information on the Missouri Governor’s Mansion is from History of Missouri Governor’s Mansion, published by Friends of the Missouri Governor’s Mansion, and the News Tribune article, Governor’s Mansion has been shaped by history, personal touches of governors (April 17, 2016).
More Places to Visit in Missouri
About the Photo
The photo in the header above was taken by Linda Aksomitis. It’s of the gardens at the Governor’s Mansion in Jefferson City, Missouri, USA.