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How Winston Churchill made Fulton famous

Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury on the campus of Westminster College in Fulton.

Appearances are often deceiving. Such is the case of Fulton, Missouri, located about 1.5 hours west of St. Louis in the heart of Callaway County. It’s a quaint college town surrounded mostly by farmland. Some would call it sleepy. It’s a little town with an intriguing past that catapulted it into world headlines the day Sir Winston Churchill came to town.

Churchill arrived in Fulton on March 5, 1946, a result of an invitation to speak at Westminster College. That invitation carried with it a personal note penned in the margins by President Harry Truman. It read, “This is a wonderful school in my home state. I hope you can do it. I’ll introduce you.”

The note cinched the speaking engagement, which yielded the delivery of one of the most important speeches from the 20th century: Churchill’s “Sinews of Peace,” better known as “The Iron Curtain Speech.” Churchill’s resonating line: “From [the port of] Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

Photo exhibit at the Churchill Museum
Photo exhibit at the Churchill Museum

“Churchill’s words proved prophetic, marking the beginning of the Cold War Era,” said Tim Riley, director and chief curator of America’s National Churchill Museum at Westminster College.

His words resonate even today. Because while the Cold War is over, the political landscape is still a bit chilly as Riley suggested. Another phrase Churchill used in his speech described the U.S. and Britain as having a “special relationship.” A descriptor still touted by both the U.S. and Great Britain today.

“The beginning of the story is the end of the speech,” Riley said, explaining how interest surfaced after Churchill’s visit around establishing a memorial marking the event. About 15 years after Churchill’s speech, efforts to create a memorial were launched. While exploring options, Churchill received a letter that suggested moving and rebuilding the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury to Fulton for the establishment of the National Churchill Museum.

Churchill felt the project of rebuilding the church at Westminster would be fitting – having been built by the British, bombed by the Germans and rebuilt by Americans.

It was a monstrous project, but an enticing one.

St Mary’s Aldermanbury was originally built in the 12th century, burned in the Great London Fire of 1666, then rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren in 1670 before becoming a casualty of the German Blitzkrieg. Blasted apart, with over 7,000 stones, the project posed a logistical and reconstruction nightmare. So why would the British consider losing such a relic?

“Britain’s post-war economy couldn’t afford to rebuild it or take it down,” Riley explained. “Its 7,000 stones presented a monumental task. It was considered the greatest jigsaw puzzle in the history of architecture.”

Efforts to transport and rebuild the church at Westminster College began in 1960. The task was completed in 1969, thanks to a legion of dedicated supporters including President John F. Kennedy.

It’s been 50 years since St. Mary’s and the Churchill museum opened. Over those years interest in the museum has not diminished, continuing to inspire Westminster’s core of volunteers, including more than 300 Churchill Fellows.

During the Churchill Museum’s 50th anniversary celebration last month, 12 new Churchill Fellows were named. The designation of “fellow” is an honor recognizing one’s dedication to commemorate the life and times of Sir Winston and support of the museum. Counted among this year’s honorees are members of the Churchill family and four Fellows who have West County roots. Brock Ayers, first vice president of investments with Wells Fargo Advisors; James F. Bennett, partner, Dowd Bennett Law Firm; Ken Murer, founder and CEO of APC Integrated Services Group; and the late Benjamin David Stinson, former Westminster College vice president of development who was a Chesterfield resident.

“Becoming a Churchill Fellow is a tremendous honor,” said Bennett, a Class of ’92 Westminster alum, who worked with the college to plan the museum’s recent 50th anniversary weekend.

“The Churchill Museum is such a jewel for Missouri.”

With the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the recent film releases of “Dunkirk” and “The Darkest Hour” with actor Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Churchill, museum attendance is up 25%. But Bennett said the museum is more than just a tourist destination.

Churchill exhibit
Churchill exhibit

“Our goals are to have the museum continue to serve as a platform for speeches related to public policy and world events in addition to preserving the Churchill legacy,” Bennett said. “This place, Westminster and the Churchill museum, is where we can continue to inspire future generations.”

When visiting, begin by taking in the largest artifact in the Churchill collection, the church. Look for its pre-Wren [architect Sir Christopher Wren], 12th-century stairs, which survived the 1666 Great Fire and the German shelling.

Explore its galleries, including the permanent exhibit on Churchill’s life. Displayed are rare artifacts, including World War II relics that military history buffs won’t want to miss, such as ammunition from the beach at Dunkirk and Churchill’s top hat, autographed by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin when the Allied leaders met in 1945 for the Yalta Conference. The conference cemented the agreement to demand Germany’s unconditional surrender and is where post-war strategies began.

Special exhibits give visitors reasons to return even after their first encounter with the museum. One such exhibit, running through July 7, is “Painting as a Pastime: From Winston to the White House,” a unique collection of paintings by Churchill, and presidents Kennedy, Eisenhower and George W. Bush.

“Churchill inspired several presidents to pick up a paintbrush and explore their artistic side. Harry Truman, JFK, to most recently George W Bush,” Riley explained. He suggested that perhaps it’s no surprise that Churchill began painting. “Churchill painted with words all the time,” Riley said. “He knew how one brush stroke [word] could affect the world canvas.”

Churchill did not live to see the end of the Cold War, which began with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. However, his granddaughter, Edwina Sandys, did.

An artist and sculptor, Sandys took inspiration from the graffiti-covered concrete wall that had long stood as a symbol of the Cold War. Wanting to make a sculpture for her grandfather’s memorial at Westminster, she saw the fall of the wall as her opportunity. To help accomplish her dream, Germany donated eight panels that once stood by the Brandenburg Gate. Sandys transformed them into a sculpture she dubbed “Breakthrough.” The piece illustrates a male and female figure breaking free from the concrete. “Breakthrough” was dedicated by President Ronald Reagan in 1990 and stands at the edge of Westminster’s quadrangle, adjacent to the church and the Churchill Museum.

Beyond Churchill

Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury on the campus of Westminster College in Fulton.
Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury and the “Breakthrough” sculpture on the campus of Westminster College in Fulton.

Westminster’s National Churchill Museum may be Fulton’s star attraction, but it’s not the only site to see. Fulton offers an eclectic mix of museums, historic sites, art galleries and entertainment.

History buffs will want to stop at The Kingdom of Callaway Historical Society to learn how Callaway County side-stepped the Civil War by proclaiming itself an independent kingdom. Car fanatics won’t want to miss the Backer Auto World Museum, a collection holding over 100 cars dating from an 1895 Ford Quadracycle to an Edsel to a 1963 Corvette Stingray and a DeLorean. There’s also a horse and buggy on display as a reminder of how far travel has come.

Fulton’s downtown Brick District features 57 historic buildings that house shops and eateries. It connects to the 7th Street and 5th Street Historic Districts. The district trio features galleries, theaters and brewpubs. Walk and shop the brick-lined streets, and when you need to rest, chill out at Sault’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain, an authentic 1930s soda fountain where phosphates and root beer floats are served.

Looking for something a little stronger? Some of Missouri’s award-winning wines can be sampled nearby at Serenity Valley Winery and Canterbury Hill Winery. Both wineries are minutes from downtown Fulton. The Hermann Wine Trail is just 45 minutes away from Fulton. Hermann, Missouri, sits squarely in one of the state’s oldest wine regions.

Visitors who choose to spend the night might consider the Loganberry Inn, a Victorian B&B where guests are pampered like a king or queen – or perhaps a prime minister. This is where Margaret Thatcher chose to stay during her Fulton visit.

To eat, sleep and tour like Churchill, contact visitfulton.com for a complete list of places to explore.

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