Northeast News Travel Guide: A daytrip exploring Hamilton, MO

Dorri Partain

Join our Northeast News staff this summer as we hit the road and share with our readers a new weekly feature on where to go and what to do, just a few miles or hours away from home.

For our next adventure, Dorri Partain took her son Ian to Hamilton, Missouri.

Before earning the nickname “Quilt Town USA”, Hamilton, Mo., was better known as the birthplace and hometown to department store mogul J.C. Penney.

Founded in 1854 due to its proximity to a rail line, town planner Albert G. Davis selected the name Hamilton to honor two early American patriots: Alexander Hamilton, first Secretary of the Treasury, and Joseph Hamilton, military leader killed during the War of 1812.

Just 12 miles east of Cameron on U.S. 36, my son Ian and I set out for Hamilton on a sunny Saturday morning for our last day trip of the summer, but before we entered the city limits of Cameron, we hit a nasty thunderstorm with high winds and blowing rain. Like several other drivers, we eventually found a place to exit the interstate to wait out the heavy rain and even wondered if we should continue our journey.

We had two museums we planned to visit, but on Saturdays, the first one would close at noon, and the other at 2 p.m. If the rain didn’t let up, our trip thus far would practically be for naught.

After about a five minute wait, the rain let up enough that we decided to continue and we were back on the interstate. Once on U.S. 36, there was a detour that led us into Hamilton as Missouri 13 was closed. Nevertheless, we made it into town and found the J.C. Penney Museum with 15 minutes to spare before closing time!

The library attendant on duty had already closed the museum, which shares building space with the town library, thinking the storm would keep any more visitors from arriving, but graciously unlocked the doors and turned on the lights so we could have a quick peek at the exhibits inside.

The exhibits tell the story of how James Cash (J.C.) Penney Jr. (1874-1971) grew his business from one store he opened in 1902. His 500th store was opened in Hamilton in 1924. While he had moved from Hamilton by 1897, Penney visited often, owned a livestock farm nearby, and contributed to the town’s endeavors, such as the high school built in 1951 named in his honor.

Visitors can sit at Penney’s desk from his New York office and peruse stacks of vintage Penney catalogs. I shared with Ian how my brother and I would search those catalogs to figure out which toys we wanted Santa to bring us for Christmas, but we wanted the attendant to be able to close on time so I didn’t get to make my wish list this time.

It was still raining when we set out to find a place to have lunch. We could have walked, as there are several cafes intermingled with the town’s 12 quilt shops, which were down the street from the museum, but we wanted to see what else was in town and didn’t want to walk too far in the rain.

Eggo’s Cafe looked like our best option, and if not for the rain, we could have dined on the patio that faces the mural devoted to the town’s railroad heritage. The menu features breakfast items from 8 to 11 a.m. and several sandwiches and burgers for lunch, as well as ice cream.

Diners order their meals at the counter and seat themselves. While we waited for our orders, I chatted with a quilter who was visiting town with some friends and had driven from Kirksville for the day. The cafe soon filled with shoppers from the Missouri Star Quilt Company next door who sprinted over in the rain.

Ian ordered the patty melt combo for $12.99 and I ordered the gourmet fries, topped with cheese and bacon. With a large drink, our total came to $22.27. Before we left, Ian added a cup of cookies & cream ice cream to his meal. We finished at 1 p.m., which gave us an hour to hustle over to our next stop before they closed.

Again, we could have walked the three blocks but drove because the sky hadn’t cleared yet, and there were lots of puddles to navigate. As we arrived at the Missouri Quilt Museum, we were greeted by the World’s Largest Spool of Thread, which sits at the corner of North Ewing and East Bird streets – more about that icon later.

The museum opened in September 2019, but was built as the Hamilton School in 1903/1920. The school closed in 2006 but still serves an educational purpose, as the museum offers quilting classes for all skill sets and is home to 300 quilts, including the Missouri State Bicentennial quilt completed in 2021.

Galleries on three levels showcase the handwork of Missouri quilters during the past two centuries, with the oldest quilt dating to 1834. One room is entirely devoted to rows and rows of doll and dollhouse sized beds displaying quilts made for each bed by modern day quilter Pat Kuhn.

In addition to well-known quilt patterns, modern quilters have created some unusual designs using the latest technology; two eye-popping examples on display are the digitized image quilt featuring noted scientist Albert Einstein and a colorful quilt that gives the viewer an optical illusion when viewed with 3-D glasses.

In addition to the array of quilts on display, the museum houses a full spectrum of sewing machines, from the foot powered treadle style, to the earliest computed models. The collection of thimbles numbers over 7000, and a room filled with toy sewing machines contains over 600.

I was a bit worried that Ian wouldn’t want to visit the museum but he was intrigued by the old school building and the bits of knowledge offered by staff member Bob Highes, who we chatted with a good thirty minutes after the museum’s closing time.

Now we had plenty of time to check out that giant spool of thread, which stands 22 feet tall, with an 8 ft circumference. Donated by Aurofil, a thread company well-known to quilters, it’s wrapped with 1 million yards of colored thread. Visitors are invited to bring their own spool of thread and add to the wrapping, but I must admit that’s not as easy as it sounds. One has to climb onto the base of the spool, which is at least two feet off the ground, then go around and around. After a couple of laps, I called it quits. It would have been easier with two or more people, but Ian had opted out on that experience. Despite the day-glo color of thread I had used, I couldn’t tell where I had wrapped my thread.

We headed back to Davis Street so I could get a photo of the mural, and that’s when we noticed the small house that was the childhood home of J.C. Penney was open. It only took a few minutes to walk through the four room house, outfitted with furnishings used over 100 years ago; the size of the home reminded me very much of the home of my grandparents.

Ready to head back home, Ian and I were both glad that the skies had cleared and we wouldn’t have to deal with Missouri’s “wait 5 minutes” weather, but agreed that overall, our day trip to Hamilton had been quite the experience.

Visit Hamilton, MO

Missouri Quilt Museum
300 E. Bird St.
Open Tuesday-Friday
11 5 p.m.
Saturday 10 2 p.m.
Admission $12, Seniors $10

J.C. Penney Museum
312 N. Davis St.
Open Monday- Friday
9 a.m.- 5 p.m.
Saturday 9 noon
Free, donations accepted

Eggo’s Cafe
116 N. Davis
Open Monday-Friday
8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Saturday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

J.C.Penney Jr. Boyhood Home
107 W. McGaughy St.
Free, donations accepted

More to do:
Airing of the Quilts event, Friday August 18, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday, August 19, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 600 quilts will be on display, indoors and out, throughout the town.

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