KANSAS CITY, Mo. — If Chicago was once this country's broad-shouldered butcher and stacker of wheat, this town on the banks of the wide and wild Missouri River was its muleskinner in the 1830s and '40s.
The outpost settlement that was to become Kansas City was then the farthest western point of river traffic from the East, unloading 700 steamboats in 1846 and afterward outfitting more than 600 wagon trains yearly as the departure point for the Sante Fe and Oregon trails.
By the 1870s it was a hangout for such colorful characters as Jesse James, Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson, becoming a town "where whiskey circulated more freely . . . than was altogether safe in a place where every man carried a loaded pistol."
A period of relative civility then held forth until the uproarious 1920s and '30s when, under the benevolent eye of the infamous Boss Tom Pendergast, the town's jungle of Prohibition-era saloons sprouted the Kansas City-style jazz that eventually gave us Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie and Charlie Parker.
Kansas City still retains much of its frontier spirit in a cosmopolitan and culturally rich atmosphere. As for those lyrics from "Oklahoma" that say "everything is up-to-date in Kansas City . . . they've gone about as far as they can go," don't bet on it.
Getting here: Fly United, American, USAir, Eastern, Delta and a host of other carriers.
How long/how much? Give the town at least two full days. Lodging costs are moderate, lower on weekends. By big-city standards, Kansas City's regional and haute cuisines are reasonable.
A few fast facts: Spring and fall are best for a visit. Summers are hot, winters Midwestern nippy. For $2 a day, an old-fashioned trolley will take you through the City of Fountains.
Getting settled in: The Quarterage (560 Westport Road; $82 B&B double, $59 weekends) is in the historic Westport district, once the home of trading posts on the Sante Fe Trail and now the center of many fine restaurants and bars. It's new and modern, with a health club, sauna and Jacuzzis.
Doanleigh Wallagh (217 East 37th St.; $60 to $90 double B&B) is a turn-of-the-century Georgian home converted into one of the town's few B&Bs, with eclectic furnishings from such diverse sources as the city's storied old Muehlebach Hotel and Hollywood movie sets.
Comfortable bedrooms have cable TV, private baths and telephones, some with four-posters and fireplaces. Breakfasts are generous, with eggs Benedict, French toast and lots of fancy breads.
The Westin Crown Center (One Pershing Road; $144 double, $92 weekends) is first-rate, from the five-story atrium lobby with a cascading waterfall to a fine jazz group that plays every evening. It has tennis, volleyball and badminton courts and Benton's Chop House, which is considered the city's best purveyor of steaks. The steaks are preceded by a huge bucket of shrimp.
Regional food and drink: Kansas City's reputation for steaks, chops and barbecue dates from the days when its stockyards rivaled those of Chicago and Omaha. The food is superb, and not only the 16-ounce KC strips.
Good dining: Few visitors pass up Arthur Bryant's (1727 Brooklyn), whose late owner was probably most responsible for the town being considered a mecca for lovers of barbecued back ribs. The place has been redecorated since Bryant's demise, but you'd never know it because the decor is still basic vinyl throughout. Servings are absolutely huge, and the cayenne-spicy sauce adds a near-explosive zest to the heaps of pork, beef and other barbecues.
Gates & Son's (six locations) gets our vote for the city's best barbecue. Decor is early Arby's, and the portions are also gigantic. The sausage, ribs and beans are indeed hearty. While there, pick up a few bottles of Gates' fiery sauce to take home.
American restaurant (Grand Avenue and 25th, in Crown Center) shows what can be done with fresh regional food. This place is as romantic and sophisticated as a restaurant can get, with floor-to-ceiling windows, roses on tables at plum banquettes and waiters in formal attire. The black buck antelope medallions with wild mushroom-blackberry sauce were divine, and the smoked quail and warm cabbage salad almost as good. For dessert, try the Missouri raspberries and creme fraiche .
On your own: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is a world-renowned collector of Oriental sculpture and paintings. The museum's lode of Hindu and Buddhist art from every region of India, along with a still-growing collection of Japanese screens and lacquer pieces, rank high with curators everywhere. Twelve Henry Moore sculptures are in the museum's 17-acre garden.
Country Club Plaza, started in 1922, was the nation's first major shopping center. Modeled after Seville, Spain, the plaza's 14-block district has 150 shops and 30 restaurants. Almost every prestigious and pricey name in merchandising sells among the plaza's Iberian towers, fountains and statuary.
Anything you can't find in the plaza is surely available at Crown Center, a "city within a city" made up of working, living, shopping and cultural communities first envisioned by the founder of Hallmark Cards, a Kansas City keystone industry. Nostalgia buffs should stop at the Hallmark Visitors Center, which traces the history of post cards and greeting cards since 1910.
The city is bristling with progress and culture, although one of the first outfitters' stores of the 1830s, Kelly's, still is standing as a popular saloon.
For more information: Call the Kansas City Visitors Bureau toll-free at (800) 767-7700, or write to 1100 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64105, for a visitor's guide with map, hotels, restaurants, museums and sights, plus a three-month calendar of coming events.