Humming with the excited spark of a not completely retired teacher, a volunteer at Kansas City’s National World War I Museum and Memorial (1-816-888-8100, theworldwar.org) gets our daughter’s attention with two simple questions:
“How old are you?” asks Dave Damico. “Do you know what you would have been doing during the war?”
Pause. Twelve-year-old Katie and her twin, Kylie, have worn prairie dresses to a Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant, helped with gardening at a fur-trading post, slept in a tepee and read through “American Girl” books. But their World War I knowledge doesn’t extend much beyond soldiers crammed into miserable, muddy trenches.
“You’d probably be living in England,” Damico says. “And you would have worked in the factories, maybe making munitions. That would have made you a canary girl. The chemicals would make you turn yellow. Some had yellowish kids. Like Lisa Simpson.”
His stories, as well as the museum’s multimedia exhibits, broaden the World War I era beyond soldiers, showing how industrialization, the fall of monarchies and shifting world powers exploded into battles that rippled across continents and generations.
The entrance to the museum crosses a glass bridge spanning 9,000 poppies dotting a scarred battlefield. Each flower represents 1,000 soldiers who died in service. Inside, exhibits span weapons and uniforms, propaganda posters and the use of Harley-Davidson motorcycles on the war front.
This D.C.-caliber museum and others drew us on a six-hour family road trip to Kansas City. But the promise of K.C. barbecue — smoky, saucy tender rewards in between history lessons — tied it all together.
Doughboys and dollars
The World War I museum is tucked underground beneath Liberty Memorial, a 217-foot hilltop monument and one of the world’s biggest war memorials. Citizens raised $2.5 million in 1918 — a modern equivalent of $35 million — to build the tower with a sweeping view across the city and the zigzagging Missouri River.
A few blocks away, at the free Money Museum within Kansas City’s Federal Reserve Bank (1-816-881-2683; kansascityfed.org/moneymuseum), our daughters lift up a solid bar of gold worth $516,997.
“Hey, this can be our new allowance!” they holler, then race off to check out rare gold coins. We gawk at robotic machines hoisting enormous cubes of newly minted dollars behind nine-ton vault doors. An older man near us softly exclaims “Wow!” so often, it’s like an exhale. A sign tells us a pallet of $100 bills adds up to $138 billion. “Wow.” No one can resist the museum’s souvenirs: free bags of dollar bills — $165 worth — shredded into itty-bitty pieces.
The wows continue at the National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, the world’s largest collection of fine-scale miniatures filling the entire first floor of a 38-room mansion.
We peep into Victorian dollhouses and admire antique toys, including a 1930s plaid-shirted Paul Bunyan, but have the most fun upstairs where toys don’t require kid gloves. My Little Ponies pose by Power Rangers. Yoda hangs with the Bionic Woman. Like other parents before us, we comically fail to explain to a “Clash of the Clans” generation how dashes and beeps in a handheld Mattel Electronics football game once passed for entertainment.
A special exhibit on toys and memorabilia inspired by “The Wizard of Oz” runs through Aug. 20 (1-816-235-8000; toyandminiaturemuseum.org).
Learn, eat, repeat
The nostalgic theme continues at Crown Center, headquarters for Hallmark (plus Lego Discovery Center and Sea Life Aquarium). The Hallmark Visitors Center loops get-a-Kleenex commercials and movies while we wait for our free 40-minute session at Kaleidoscope, a wildly whimsical art studio where kids beeline between stations stocked with paper and cards, bows and cutouts. We paint puzzles and duck into the trippy black-light room while another family creatively constructs a mock campfire from wrapping paper and cardboard.
For the afternoon, Katie and Kylie cartwheel, climb and explore their way through special effects and kinetic and physics exhibits at Science City in Union Station, a few blocks from Crown Center. Built in 1914 with 95-foot ceilings and 3,500-pound chandeliers in its Grand Hall, Union Station sat at the crossroads of America, overflowing with soldiers from north, south, east and west during two world wars. At its peak, hundreds of trains whistled and chugged through every day. Union Station also hosts traveling exhibitions, a planetarium and large-screen theaters (unionstation.org).
As evening nears, close to 100 restaurants in the metro tempt us with barbecue. Woodyard Bar-B-Que (1-913-362-8000; woodyardbbq.com) becomes our favorite, with its rustic backyard and an outdoor smoker. Inside, even the walls seem infused with a fragrant smokiness. Burnt ends — Kansas City’s signature tips of brisket with “bark” on the outside, tender on the inside — rule the meal and even lend smoky deliciousness to a side of chili.
“We can have barbecue for breakfast, too,” I suggest, as we leave laden with leftovers.
Instead, City Market beckons the next morning (kcrivermarket.com). A farmers market near the Missouri River waterfront since 1857, it’s bordered by eateries including Al Habashi, where we scoop up still-warm pita bread, hummus and spices, and Beignet, a tiny New Orleans eatery packed with customers craving the powdered-sugar-dusted pastries that come with dozens of fillings.
The girls give us crazy-happy eyes as they bite into a Mr. Bacon beignet (Cajun-dusted eggs, Gouda, bacon and Cheddar) and one oozing with lemon curd and blackberries. They’re the kinds of tastes that, along with the smoky barbecue, lodge into our memories and leave us craving a return trip.
Even more barbecue
Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue has locations in a former freight house across the tracks from Union Station and in the ritzy Country Club Plaza neighborhood inspired by the architecture of Spain. It wins fans with cheesy corn bake and jalapeño cornbread (1-816-472-7427; jackstackbbq.com).
Arthur Bryant’s gets a purist vote for spare decor and meats served atop Wonder Bread to sop up sauce (1-816-231-1123; arthurbryantsbbq.com).
Gate’s Barbecue is another classic casual option, with yammer pie for dessert (1-816-753-0828; gatesbbq.com).
Be prepared to wait in line at Q39, a trendy newcomer earning raves for its sauces (1-816-255-3753; q39kc.com).
L.C.’s Barbecue on the city’s southern edge isn’t fancy, but it’s a good old-fashioned joint that’s handy for anyone heading to the Kansas City Zoo (1-816-923-4484; lcsbarbq.com).
Three Little Pigs Barbecue, in the food court at Crown Center, serves a playful BBQ Sundae — a glass jar layered with pork, baked beans, coleslaw, a pickle and a ceremonial maraschino cherry on top (1-816-421-7447; three-little-pigs-bbq.com).
Where to stay
Sheraton at Crown Center boasts a rooftop pool with a view of downtown and a handy location (1-816-841-1000; sheratonkansascityhotel.com).
Courtyard by Marriott at Country Club Plaza is nestled into an elegant Spanish-themed shopping district boasting some of the city’s best fountains (1-816-285-9755; marriott.com).
Kansas City Tourism: 1-816-691-3800; visitkc.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”