Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum



608 North Delaware Street

The home of Bess Wallace and her family from 1887 to 1903. Mary Paxton, who lived next door to Bess and became probably her best friend, remembered the Wallace house: "It was a Victorian house with a cupola in the front and it was quite an establishment. There was a carriage house, a stable with a hayloft, then it had a washhouse. Then they had a privy with a trellis in front.... There was a bay window in the parlor of the house.... [The neighborhood children] played under [a] great burr oak tree in front of [the Wallace] house.... That was one of our favorite places." (Mary Paxton Keeley oral history interview, Truman Library, 1966.)

Bess's parents were David Willcock Wallace and Margaret Gates "Madge" Wallace. Henry Chiles, who lived a few blocks away and often played with Bess and her friends, remembered her mother and father: "...Her mother...had [a] kind of Southern brogue.... She was a typical Southern lady--just as kind and spoke in kind of a soft voice." Bess's father "was the promising young man of the county. He led all the parades and at that time every time you turned around they had a parade of some kind.... Dave Wallace...had a big riding horse, a black horse, and he'd ride him and lead those parades.... Everybody liked him and he knew everybody.... I guess he was the most popular man in the county at that time." Chiles remembered how Bess changed from a tomboy into a lady just like her mother: "She was the first girl I ever knew who could whistle through her teeth. She could do a good job of it. The boys used to whistle through their teeth, you know, and it would make a real shrill sound. She could do that. When she was growing up, she played ball--anything a boy could do, she could do a little better. You'd think she was a tomboy, but when she was grown, she was the most gracious Southern lady you ever met, as demure as anybody can be. Her mother was a typical Southern lady and Bess was the same way. When she was growing up with all those boys--she had three brothers, and the Paxtons lived next door (they were all boys [actually there was one sister])--she had to protect herself and she was a pretty good fighter." (Henry Chiles oral history interview, Truman Library, 1961-62.)

Bess Wallace (pictured right) became a young woman in this house. Mary Paxton remembered this time in her friend's life: "We all had much the same kind of party dresses, mull with silk sashes, colored or striped, and Bess wore what the rest of us did; the difference was that she always looked more stylish than anyone else we knew. She, like the rest of us, pestered her mother to lengthen her skirts, which were let down gradually; not till we were eighteen were we considered grownup young ladies and then we could wear them full length to the floor like our mothers. We wanted to grow up faster than our mothers thought we should, just as the young do today.... Bess always had more stylish hats than the rest of us did, or she wore them with more style." (Mary Paxton Keeley oral history interview, Truman Library, 1966.)

Bess probably had many minor and major crushes when she was in high school. One of her classmates, Harry Truman, who had sat in front of her in the sixth and seventh grades, was very interested in her, but she gave him no encouragement. "[Bess] never noticed me [when we were at school together]," Truman remembered. "I went all the way to graduation in high school with her and still she never paid me any attention except on occasion to let me carry her books home sometimes." (From a handwritten manuscript written on Pickwick Hotel stationery, May 1931, President's Secretary's Files.) Truman probably walked down Waldo Street by Bess's house almost every morning on his way to school, from the sixth grade through high school. He probably saw her in the yard sometimes, or heard her voice through an open window. He probably always remembered 608 North Delaware Street as the house which held a dear, distant romantic being--the only woman he ever loved, the woman whom he would one day marry--during the years when he was becoming a young man.

David Willock Wallace committed suicide in the bathroom of this house on June 18, 1903. Mary Paxton ran next door to comfort Bess. "...My father awakened me at five o'clock in the morning [and] said, 'Go over to see Bess, Mr. Wallace has killed himself.' ...And Bess was walking up and down back of the house with clenched hands, I remember. She wasn't crying. There wasn't anything I could say, but I just walked up and down with her." Bess and her mother and brother left Independence to live in Colorado Springs for a year. Then they returned and moved in with Bess's grandparents, George and Elizabeth Gates, at 219 N. Delaware Street. Bess would live there for the rest of her life.

Bess's house at 608 N. Delaware Street is gone, but the big burr oak (pictured left), old and scarred, is still there.

 

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