Sunday, April 24, 2011

Presdients' Museums--Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson Our 28th President

Being a fan of presidential libraries, I decided to visit the Woodrow Wilson Library and Museum in Staunton, Va. Modern presidents spend millions on their library/museum complexes with multimedia presentations. Older presidential libraries such as Wilson’s are done on a shoestring but still prove extremely interesting.

Our 28th president’s complex includes the house where he was born, a museum that tells of his life and times, a small library and book store. Most displays were built around pictures and commentary artfully arranged.

Wilson was born in 1856 in the Presbyterian Manse, but his father, the minister, took another position while Wilson was very young. The home has been renovated and contains items from the family and other donated items from the pre-Civil War period. The family was very musical, and their piano and a guitar were on prominent display.

In the museum, we learned Wilson was dyslexic and didn’t learn to read until he was 11. Despite this handicap, he wrote books, earned a doctorate and became president of Princeton. He became governor of New Jersey and went on to win the presidency against two former presidents, William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt. He often took rigid stances on issues and did not compromise well.

Wilson’s first wife, Ellen Axson, with whom he had three daughters, gave up a career as an artist to become a full-time mother. He was devastated when she died early in his presidency. He later married Edith Galt, a powerhouse of a woman who helped run the White House. When he had a series of strokes that left him unable to run the government, she covered for him and made many of the presidential decisions.

At first he kept us out of World War I but eventually was pressured into getting us involved. Later, he pushed for the League of Nations, but the Republicans, led by Henry Cabot Lodge, stopped our involvement. For his efforts to form the League of Nations, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.

I knew he had supported women’s right to vote, but two new facts I learned were that he had vetoed the act that created Prohibition, but Congress overrode his veto. The second fact was a surprise to me. He was a white supremacist and established official segregation in government offices. Wilson and his Cabinet members fired many black Republican-appointed officeholders.

An advocate for funding public highways, he very much enjoyed riding with the top down in his presidential 1919 Pierce Arrow limousine. When he left office, a friend bought it for him. After his death in 1924, the car was unattended for years but recently has been rebuilt and is on display.

President Woodrow Wilson’s 1919 Pierce Arrow limousine was given to him after his presidency.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Museum captures Lincoln’s spirit

Of the presidential museums we have visited, My wife Carla and I agree that the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, Ill., is the most exciting and entertaining. Although a bit like one of the Orlando, Fla., attractions, it still remains true to the history of our country, making it very palatable to visitors.

We were left with two strong impressions. First, it was like walking into a Madame Tussaud’s wax museum based on a single celebrity and the people in his life. Second, after watching their two major presentations our reaction was: "Wow, how did they do that?"

A dozen tableaus recapture scenes of important moments and people in President Abraham Lincoln’s life. These full-size figures have a startling reality with their animated expressions and life-like eyes. We saw the young Lincoln lying in front of the fireplace embers teaching himself how to read as his snoring dog slept at his feet. He shared the one-room cabin with his father, stepmother and three stepsiblings.

A young thoughtful Abe Lincoln

Later we see the young lawyer in his office reading as his two young sons tear the place apart. Several of the characters from his life surprised me when I first recognized they were not fellow visitors, but were other life-like figures. John Wilkes Booth startled me the most. Also looking very hale and healthy were George McClellan, U.S. Grant, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass.

The most disturbing tableau was that of a family of slaves on the auction block being separated by their new owners.

One room has a display of the dresses of the main ladies of society who were contending with Mary Lincoln for control of social leadership in Washington, D.C. The saddest of a number of scenes with her is the one where she sits in a depression after the death of her second son.

The Lincoln Family greets you as you enter the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois

The "wow" experience came the first time when we watched "Ghosts of Lincoln." After an introduction to the museum from a big television screen in a large room, we thought we had seen the show when suddenly the doors opened to an even larger theater.

I should have guessed something unusual was to happen since a glass wall stood between the audience and the historian introducing us to the library. He said he would explain the ways in which historical material is collected and analyzed. During the presentation, smoke would appear and slowly take the form of Lincoln or others, and voices would speak.

Once, smoke rose from one of his books and took form - sheer visual magic.

All of this did not prepare us for the final act when a wind began to blow a flag on the stage. The presenter stepped to a coat rack, put on a Union army jacket and began to tell us about his experiences in the War Between the States. The solid-looking library became a battlefield scene. As what now had to be an actor on film, he continued to talk to us as his body slowly disappeared and we were left with only his voice.

I still don’t know if the actor was really there for the first half of the program or I had just seen one the best 3-D presentations ever. Later, in an even larger theater, we saw the multimedia presentation of "The Eyes of Lincoln."

At that performance I assumed the solid-looking man moving around on the stage telling us about major events in Lincoln’s life was an illusion. This was confirmed as he moved back and forth between what appeared to be live action on the stage and action on the screen.

The same technique was used as we passed a series of windows with citizens giving their reactions to the Emancipation Proclamation. In the tableau in this room, each of Lincoln’s Cabinet members has been faithfully reproduced so we could observe the room when he puts forward his intention to free the slaves. A man dressed as a secretary walked among the Cabinet members explaining how each of them was reacting. This figure was real. I touched him. The experience does leave the visitor with a question of what is reality.

The architect has been very generous with space. Besides the large theaters and the tableaus there are such rooms as the one with walls full of cartoons attacking Lincoln as a country bumpkin, a clown or a devil; and a separate presentation on questions asked by children with answers given in Lincoln’s own words.

Part of what the museum tries to do is to take some of the myth out of Lincoln’s life and show the real man who suffered, worked hard and questioned what he was doing.

General McClellan chats with General Sherman while John Wilkes Booth hangs out. I was impressed with the life like nature of the manikins in the Lincoln Museum.


Sunday, April 10, 2011


Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage

The Hermitage in Nashville, Tenn., has been restored to the condition it was in when President Andrew Jackson and his wife, Rachel, lived there.

HERMITAGE, Tenn. - The first item discussed on the audio tour of the Hermitage mansion near Nashville is a painting of Andrew Jackson, our seventh president who served two terms ending in 1837.

Before I examined the painting, however, my attention was drawn to three large photographs of slaves who lived on the estate with a short history of who they were and what their duties entailed. Between two of the pictures, a giant chart listed by name and type of work as many as could be discovered of the 140 slaves who were the property of the plantation.

The Jacksons gave some of the slaves a great deal of responsibility and allowed them to have money. On the other hand, one of the letters in the visitor center’s museum made it clear that if slaves escaped, Jackson would do everything in his power to see that they were captured and brought back.

Jackson did not come from a slave-holding family, but once he had the money, he had no compunctions about buying and selling them. The records show that many of the slaves had a large number of children, so it was apparent that many of the 140 were born on the land.

Little mention was made of slaves in the early writings about the Hermitage. That attitudes toward slavery have changed dramatically is shown by the efforts now being made to piece together knowledge about the slaves at the Hermitage through a careful analysis of documentary sources and ongoing archaeological investigations.

The goal is to restore the Hermitage slave community to its prominent place in the story of life at this Tennessee plantation. This emphasis on the conditions of slavery was continued in the bookstore, where about two dozen books either written by ex-slaves or other authors reported on slavery in the Old South.

Slave Quarters at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage

At a number of places on the audio tour, evidence of this research and details about a number of slaves were given prominence; one in particular was Alfred Jackson. His cabin has been reconstructed, and a brief biography was given. His body is buried in the same graveyard as that of Jackson’s relatives who lived in the mansion. Other slave cabins also have been reconstructed, and descriptions are given of what life might have been like.

Audio tours are getting sophisticated, and this was no exception. At the 33 stopping points within the visitor center and around the 1,120-acre plantation, listeners had choices of when to listen, the ability to stop and restart or cancel. Although there is a main narrator, other experts often elaborate, there are sound effects and for interested visitors optional additional remarks. There also is a children’s edition.

Jackson is usually ranked among the top 10 presidents. He had a remarkable career, starting out as a penniless orphan. The battle of New Orleans against the British in the war of 1812 brought him fame as a general, the title he preferred the rest of his life. I have some negative feeling about him based his treatment of the American Indians and the resulting "Trail of Tears," the forced march west causing hardship and many deaths. I understand that even to this day Cherokee Indians won’t have anything to do with the $20 bill that his picture on it.

At the 1837 mansion, all information was given by knowledgeable guides in period costumes. The rooms of the mansion have mostly original furniture and decorations. A combination of poor management by Jackson’s adopted son and economic conditions at the time forced the plantation to be vacated and the furnishings sold.

In 1887, when the Ladies Hermitage Association took over the management, they were able to retrieve 90 percent of the sold materials. Most of the original 170-year-old wallpaper remains, but it is regularly restored.

Rachel died three months before his inauguration as president, an event that sent him into a deep depression. In his bedroom at the mansion, her picture is placed so that it was the first thing he saw upon waking in the morning. Jackson died here at age 78 after a slow decline. His last years might have been complicated by three bullets that he still carried in his body.

In the visitor center are manikins of him and Rachel. Jackson was 6 feet, 1 inch tall and weighed 140 pounds; she was 5 feet, 1 inch tall and looks as if she probably weighed more than he did. Everything I’ve read emphasizes how devoted the two were to each other. His tomb with her beside him is in the garden.

Manikins of Jackson and his wife Rachel at the Hermitage Museum

While I took the walking tour using the audio guides, I passed a wagon tour with a live guide that takes visitors around the farm. For more information, visit

Sunday, April 3, 2011


Monroe estate re-creates working farm

James Monroe’s home.

James Monroe’s plantation, Ash Lawn-Highlandre, re-creates the atmosphere of a working farm with weaving and open hearth cooking demonstrations.

President James Monroe’s plantation, Ash Lawn-Highland, is adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. Jefferson, a close friend of Monroe, encouraged him to buy 535 acres and build his home nearby. At one time you could see the Monticello dome from here, but now trees obscure the view.

The Monroe estate recreates the atmosphere of a working farm with weaving and open-hearth cooking demonstrations, but it provides a very different experience from touring at Monticello.

At the small visitors center where I bought tickets, I asked when the next tour was. The cashier explained the guide at the house was waiting and to go out, back down and around the corner to the entrance.

The tour group was smaller than at Monticello, but Ash Lawn-Highland was not built on the same scale. When Monroe’s friends visited, they all threw their pads down in the same bedroom. I can’t imagine modern presidents sharing the same floor space with their wives.

Because most people aren’t knowledgeable about Monroe, the guide gave us a brief history of his life. Monroe held more national offices than any other president in history. He negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with Napoleon, but Jefferson signed off on it, so he gets the credit.

Monroe also negotiated a truce with Britain that might have prevented the War of 1812, but neither Jefferson nor his friend James Madison paid any attention to that possibility. Monroe became so angry with both that he didn’t talk to Jefferson for months or to Madison for two years. Eventually, they were back on friendly terms.
Monroe had slaves but had strong feelings against slavery. Like Jefferson, he felt trapped by the practice. Monroe’s own slaves were treated well, but he did not have particularly good overseers and did not make the money needed to maintain the plantation. After his presidency ended, he had to sell the property.
Monroe’s wife, Elizabeth, was a petite woman. Her wedding dress and one other is on display.

Slave quarters have been reconstructed

The Monroes spent a considerable amount of time in France, and the whole family spoke French at meals. Much of the furniture in the house is original and shows a heavy French influence.

The setting is idyllic, and it is still a working farm. Our guide was delightful, so facile and quick-witted I was surprised to discover that she was an intern and had not been leading tours for years.