Two 1960s Scrapbooks Document One Columbia Couple’s European Travels
BY ANGEL DONNETTE ROBERTSON
“We [had] to wait so long for dinner that we had time to observe a boy run out of the kitchens, net a trout from the pool, take it into the kitchen, and then bring it out and serve it.”
Dorothy Benson, a woman whose name would’ve been well-known in Columbia 50 years ago, wrote this apparently unexaggerated description about an experience in a French restaurant in 1960. The note appears in one of two oversized travel scrapbooks that a Prime reader picked up at a garage sale earlier this spring and brought to the magazine office.
The woman who found the scrapbooks knew nothing about Dorothy Benson or her husband, Robert, but she couldn’t see letting two 50-year-old scrapbooks filled with postcards, brochures, newspaper clippings, menus and similar keepsakes from European travels hit the trash, which is where the books’ would’ve landed had no one taken them.
Laura Jolley, senior manuscript specialist at the State Historical Society of Missouri, agrees that would’ve been a terrible shame.
“Despite the challenges of preserving the scrapbook format, we enjoy collecting them because they offer a unique insight into the lives of the creators,” Jolley says, her “we” referring to the historical society. “There are items preserved in the scrapbook that can’t be found anywhere else, and the types of items collected reflect the decade in which they were created. The scrapbook acts like a time capsule, so to speak.”
The two scrapbooks delivered to Prime — one is green, dated 1960, and the other is reddish-brown, dated 1964, but both are trimmed with gold borders and are at least three inches thick — take readers back to the 1960s to travel through Europe with one prominent Columbia couple. The books also offer glimpses into the personalities of Robert “Bob” and Dorothy “Dot” Benson, revealing a couple who had an avid appreciation for history, an interest in genealogy and a sense of humor.
Dorothy wrote the journal entries in 1960, and Robert wrote them in 1964. The following are some of the more humorous and poignant memories they shared.
While in France in 1964, the Bensons decided to visit the Moulin Rouge, as Robert had read in the newspaper that they would have the U.S. election results there. Upon arriving, the couple realized a “strip-tease joint” next to the authentic Moulin Rouge was capitalizing on its neighbor’s publicity by borrowing the name. The election returns were at the “New Moulin Rouge.”
“We went to the original Moulin Rouge,” Robert wrote, “where we didn’t get any election returns, but where we did see a very good stage show.”
The Bensons included the program from Moulin Rouge in the scrapbook.
Some of the more compelling memorabilia tucked within the pages includes a menu from the gala dinner on board the S.S. United States. As well as bone-in sirloin steak sautéed with mushrooms and asparagus spears in hollandaise sauce, the passengers were offered kangaroo tail.
The Bensons also saved a program from Dublin’s Gate Theatre’s production of “You Never Can Tell” by Bernard Shaw and a menu completely handwritten in French.
As they toured Europe, the Bensons regularly visited historical sites, collecting pamphlets and brochures as they went.
In 1960, Dorothy Benson wrote of visiting Winchester, England, the “ancient capital of Alfred the great Saxon King.” While in Winchester, the Bensons ate lunch at one of the oldest inns in England and viewed the oldest pub, which was located across the street and whose doors and woodwork were “said to have come from the wrecked Spanish Armada.”
The Bensons also visited several abbeys, cathedrals, castles and museums throughout Europe. Along the way, they researched Robert Benson’s genealogy.
According to the journal entry dated June 6 in the 1960 scrapbook, the Bensons attended D-Day ceremonies on Utah Beach. Dorothy wrote, “Bob explored the area and relived the never-to-be-forgotten invasion experiences.” The Bensons ended the day in Saint-Lo, France.
Later, in 1964, Robert walked the streets of Liege looking for the spot where he had discovered his brother, George, 20 years earlier. When Robert had checked his brother’s barracks, he had been told George was “somewhere downtown.” Robert’s army buddy assured him that he would never find his brother in a town with more than 300,000 people.
“Sure enough,” wrote Robert, “it wasn’t twenty minutes after we got to town that I spotted him.”
In the journal, Robert admitted that he found the street more cold and uninviting than he had in August 1944, when American soldiers had filled the area.
A few hours later, the Bensons were in Huy, where Robert walked towards the river, recalling a particular Sunday morning during the Battle of the Bulge when “Hitler sent one of his jets to bomb the bridge.” Robert added that it was the first jet the American soldiers had ever seen and it had “left quite an impression.”
Scattered throughout the journal entries are moments of humor, such as when Dorothy shared an experience after the group had decided not to attempt driving in London: “I called the agency,” she wrote, never naming the particular agency, “and they sent out a very weird person, who gave us one of the wildest rides we have ever had — it was so bad that when we got out of the car at the hotel, we forgot half of our stuff in the car.”
Their possessions were returned the next day.
In 1964, Robert tells of the couple taking a wrong road and finally landing at a “small third-rate hotel.” While the Bensons were eating in the restaurant, a music group started “playing the St. Louis Blues and some song about Kansas City.”
Apparently unimpressed, Robert wrote, “They were like Elvis Prestley (sic), but even worse.”
On the ship, as they returned home, the Bensons resided in first class, curious as to whether they would enjoy the experience more than the trip over in tourist class. In the end, they found the food of equal quality, although in more variety, and the people “stuffier” with everybody “trying to make an impression on everybody else.”
In particular, Robert was skeptical of two women in their 60s, or “sophisticated phonies” as he wrote, who had taken a Lincoln Continental with them to England and France.
“How they ever got that big car around on those narrow roads,” he wrote, “I’ll never know, but they were trying so hard to make an impression, they just ignored how inconsiderate it was on those small roads.”
The Bensons arrived back in Missouri on Nov. 11, 1964. The second scrapbook ends with the two arriving home for a “very pleasant home-coming dinner on the porch.”
Introducing Mr. & Mrs. Benson
Born in 1923 in Pleasant Hill, Robert Benson left the University of Kansas City in 1942 to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II, landing on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. He was part of the first wave onto Utah Beach.
Later, Robert obtained his bachelor’s degree and partnered with his brother, George Benson –– the brother he had discovered on the streets of Liege in the middle of a world war. The two brothers owned Benson Building Materials and Benson Lumber Company, as well as several lumber yards, including one in Columbia.
In 1918, Dorothy Benson was born in Grand Forks, N.D. Before the United States entered World War II, Dorothy volunteered in the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army, plotting air planes. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she was a secretary for the Selective Service, and in 1943, she enlisted in the U.S. Women Marine Corps. In April 1944, she was called to service.
After the war, she obtained her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Eventually, after her marriage to Robert on May 8, 1954, she worked at Stephens College in Columbia.
Both Robert and Dorothy were involved in the local community. Robert was a member of the Mid-Missouri Development Council, the American Forestry Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Native Sons of Kansas City, and the Country Club of Missouri. He was also on the Board of the Southwestern Lumbermen’s Association.
Dorothy was a member of the Board of YMCA at the University of Missouri, the Friends of the Library, the Missouri Historical Society, the King’s Daughters and the Country Club of Missouri. In 1958, she was the president of the League of Women Voters. In the scrapbooks, she wrote of receiving flowers from the League of Women Voters as the Bensons started their first journey.
In 2010, Robert and Dorothy Benson died within three months of each other, Robert in January at the age of 86 and Dorothy in March at the age of 91.
The Bensons’ Travel Itineraries
May 7 — Left Columbia by car.
May 10 — Arrived in Arlington, Va.
May 11 — Arrived in New York City
May 12 — Boarded S.S. United States
May 17 — Arrived in Southampton, England (rented car)
May 19 — Arrived at Torquay, England
May 20 — Arrived at St. Ives, England
May 22 — Arrived in Wells, England
May 24 — Arrived in Lancaster, England
May 25 — Arrived in Dumfries, Scotland
May 26 — Arrived in Edinburgh, Scotland
May 27 — Arrived in Corbridge, England
May 30 — Arrived in London (returned rental car)
June 1 — Left for Paris (took boat train either to ferry or ship)
June 2 — Arrived in Paris
June 5 — Drove out of Paris (rented another car)
June 6 — Visited Utah Beach, ended the day at Saint-Lo, France
June 8 — Arrived in Poitiers, France
June 11 — Arrived in Strasburg, Germany and ended day in Heidelberg, Germany
June 12 — Arrived in Weisbaden, Germany (returned rental car)
June 15 — Left by train for Norway, going through Denmark and arriving in Oslo
June 17 — Arrived in Bjorkelangen, Norway, by rental car
June 18 — Returned to Oslo (returned car)
June 19 — Arrived in Gothenburg, Sweden (perhaps arrived on train)
June 20 — Sailed for Copenhagen, Denmark
June 21 — Sailed for U.S. (destination unclear but probably New York City)
July 6 — Arrived in Columbia
Sept. 23 — Left Columbia by car
Sept. 29 — Arrived in Washington, D.C.
Sept. 30 — Took train to New York City
Oct. 1 — Boarded S.S. France
Oct. 6 — Landed in Southampton, England
Oct. 10 — Arrived in Holyhead, Wales; boarded boat to cross the Irish Sea
Oct. 11 — Arrived in Dublin, Ireland
Oct. 16 — Arrived by train in Limerick, Ireland
Oct. 19 — Left Limerick by rental car
Oct. 20 — Arrived at Dublin, Ireland
Oct. 22 — Left Dublin by train; Arrived at Dun Laoghaire, Ireland; Left Dun Loaghaire by boat; Arrived at Holyhead, Wales
Oct. 23 — Arrived in Chester, England
Oct. 26 — Arrived by train in London, England
Oct. 30 — Arrived by train in Port of Dover, England; Boarded boat to cross the English Channel; Arrived in Ostend, Belgium; Took train to Liege, Belgium
Oct. 31 — Arrived by train in Luxembourg, Belgium
Nov. 1 — Arrived by train in Paris, France
Nov. 5 — Left Paris by boat train (boat train destination unclear)
Nov. 10 — Arrived in New York City
Nov. 11 — Arrived in Columbia
Military Memories From Bob And Dot
Both Bensons wrote about their experiences during World War II. According to his obituary, Robert Benson “wrote three booklets on his Army days, which he gave to members of his company and to libraries and historical societies, while Dorothy Benson wrote a copyrighted booklet, “My Story of World War II Service in the U.S. Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.” Dorothy’s booklet is available in the reference section of the Columbia Public Library.