American history

Lowell, Massachusetts: Lowell National Historical Park

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Lowell National Historical Park was another National Parks site that reopened just in time for our visit.  It was admittedly a last minute addition to the itinerary, when I realised how near it was to Boston, and thought, “The birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America?  Sure, why the hell not?!”  I definitely remember learning quite a bit about Lowell at some point, probably at the university level, though I can’t really remember anymore (maybe AP US History?  Seems like the sort of thing that would have been in there.).  Anyway, it doesn’t really matter, the point is that I was aware of the history of the mills, and was eager to see where it all went down.

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Lowell is kind of cool because the historic buildings are spread throughout the modern town, so you get to explore a bit whilst finding them, and follow the canal paths (any time I’m near a canal, I get that “15 Miles on the Erie Canal Song” stuck in my head, and entertainingly for passersby, usually burst into song).  It appeared to be the day Lowell was having trick-or-treating (bizarrely, in the middle of the day, which is no fun at all.  Health and safety can bite me if it means lame daytime Halloweens.), so the streets were heaving with costumed children and their parents, which made it slightly tricky to get around (pun?).  The main sites are the Visitor’s Center, the Mills Girls Exhibit, and the Boott Cotton Mills Museum (which is $6, and the only site you have to pay for), although there is an historic trolley route running through town that does tours, and occasional canal tours that do cost extra.

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We began our visit in the Boott Mills Museum, which, like all the National Parks we visited, had remarkably friendly staff.  The ground floor of the museum holds the old mill machinery, which still works!  Unfortunately, we arrived during lunchtime, so the machines were silent when we walked through the factory room, after punching in on the old fashioned time clock.  We headed straight upstairs, which holds most of the exhibits, and watched the introductory video, which featured the voice of an amusingly southern Thomas Jefferson.  I mean, I know he was from Virginia and all, and the history of accents can be difficult to trace, but I don’t think the Southern accent was that well-defined at that point in time, especially for someone from the upper classes – I certainly never pictured Jefferson as being full on, Doc Holliday style “well, I declare!” Southern, so it cracked me right up.  Video aside, the rest of the exhibits were much more sombre in tone.

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They detailed the history of the Industrial Revolution, starting in Britain, and only really taking hold in America when British entrepreneurs came over with their mechanical expertise (I was just forced to memorise facts about Richard Arkwright for the dreary “Life in the UK” exam.  Not something I want to ever have to take again).  The experience of working in the mills was illustrated by more videos, featuring elderly people who had actually worked in the mills (the videos were recent-ish, as in, made at some point in the last 30 years, which meant conditions must have been pretty crap for much longer than I would have thought).  I was fascinated by these, especially because my grandmother worked at a suit factory in Cleveland in the ’40s, and although she had some fond memories, I realised her working conditions must not have been very pleasant.   Of course people in developing countries still work in similarly horrible conditions, which is a sobering thought, and one mentioned in some of the exhibits.  There were lots of interactive things where you could practice the steps of cloth-making for yourself; they were intended for children, but we were the only visitors so of course I gave them a go (I’m awesome at carding wool thanks to my short-lived Hale Farm internship).  There were also examples of the range of finished cloth produced by the mills, which I had to examine in detail, because, c’mon, Victorian fabric patterns that might have been used by the Ingallses ( I didn’t see any “turkey red” fabric with a big yellow pattern, but some of the calicoes could have been plausibly used by them, especially because Lowell fabric was on the inexpensive side, so it would have been affordable for Pa’s broke ass.  I am such a nerd)!

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The museum took us right up to the story of modern Lowell, which became the home of a computer factory (called Wang Computers, I couldn’t help snickering).  By the time we finished with the upstairs exhibits, the machinery downstairs was up and running (we could actually feel it start whilst we were watching the film, as there was a steady rumble underneath our feet from that point on).  They offer ear plugs, as the machines are very loud, and they only turn on a few of them, so I had some idea of the cacophony that must have resulted when the whole factory was operational.  It’s a wonder that not everyone went deaf.

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Although the Mill Girls Exhibit was right next door, it didn’t open until 1:30, so we decided to wander over to the Visitor’s Center on the other side of town to kill the 15 minutes or so until opening time.  On the way, we passed the historic trolley and train depot, though we didn’t come at the right time for the free tour.  The Visitor’s Center was small and filled with trick-or-treaters, but there were exhibits on the trolley, and Jack Kerouac, who I didn’t even know was from Lowell (not that I’m at all a fan of the Beat Generation, so I don’t know why I would have known).  There wasn’t much else to see, so we made our way back through the hordes of children.  I also noticed a few textile related museums on our walk, which looked interesting, but we had a flight to catch that evening, so we didn’t have much time to spare.

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I was excited for the Mill Girls Exhibit, because the stories of the girls working in the mills is more appealing to me than the history of the mills themselves.  The exhibit was housed in one of the old dormitories, where the girls lived under the supervision of a landlady who cooked their meals.  The dining room was set up, ready for a meal, and some of the foods the girls would have eaten were tacked up in a display (some of the “potatoes” had fallen to the bottom of the case, which amused me).  Climbing the narrow staircase, I found another room devoted to the mill girls that explained the the layout of the dorms, which would have had larger apartments on the corners for the families of higher-ups. Although the grand intentions of Lowell, which was initially conceived as a wholesome environment where girls could make some money whilst enriching themselves mentally and socially, eventually went awry, as these things do, many of the early girls (who were often from the middle classes) clearly enjoyed the social aspects of their time there.  It was only later, when immigrants came to work, and wages dropped, that the highfalutin ideas on education and good working conditions completely went down the toilet.  All of this was discussed in the upstairs room, but I would have liked to hear more, as the experiences of only a few girls were highlighted.

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The next section had a timeline of immigrants (with some nice old-timey photos), and then downstairs, we learned about the modern immigrant communities in Lowell, which seems to be a veritable melting pot.  I think it’s nice that they talk about the cultural background of Lowell, but I could have done with more historical exhibits and fewer modern ones.  That’s just my personal preference though – everything was arranged very nicely, and they’d clearly made an effort to engage with the local community with their displays.

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I definitely delighted in our visit to Lowell, and was glad I tacked it on to our itinerary in the end.  It was really neat to see all the old buildings still standing (it looks like some of them have been converted into flats), and they kept the mill heritage alive throughout the town, which was ringed with sculptures of spools and bobbins.  I like how they’ve integrated the historic buildings into the modern community, and have managed to preserve the often troubled history of the mills.  4/5, for the Lowell experience, and if I ever return, I’ll definitely check out the other museums in town (and maybe go on a canal tour!)!

Plymouth, Massachusetts: Pilgrim Hall Museum

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Although I honestly wasn’t planning it this way, I seem to have written this post just in time for Thanksgiving, so consider it my holiday offering.  Happy Thanksgiving!  When we were on our American roadtrip, my boyfriend, despite being British, was for some reason keen to see one of the most iconically American objects: Plymouth Rock (even though it is just some random rock that they’ve stuck in a cage and loaded down with symbolism).  Honestly, being a cynical type with little respect for totemic objects (certainly not ones with no basis in fact), I was less enthused, but went along for the ride, as I’d never been to Plymouth before either.  As predicted, the rock was a total bust, and I wasn’t about to pay to go on the replica Mayflower, so we were ready to cut our losses and leave when I spotted a sign advertising the Pilgrim Hall Museum, which assured me I could “touch a piece of Plymouth Rock.”  Well, forget everything I just said about not caring about the rock, because I’m not a monster…of course I wanted to touch it!  We hastily made our way over to the museum to see if it lived up to its promises, or if it was a load of tommyrot (yeah, I’m bringing tommyrot back, I think it’s time).

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It was surprisingly expensive, coming in at $8 each, but it is the oldest continually operating museum in America (as Google has informed me), so I guess they’re trying to ensure funding for its continued operation.  The gentleman at the admissions desk gave us an overly detailed overview of the museum (he was basically addressing us as though we were 5 years old and had never visited a museum before), and made a stab at humour with some weird, slightly sexist comment about how my boyfriend would have to steer me away from the gift shop to look at the museum (because obviously souvenir tea towels are better than history?), which was kind of bizarre, but he was pretty old so I let it slide.  There was a temporary exhibition on about the tourist trade in Plymouth, showcasing souvenirs through the centuries.  A lot of them related to a supposed love triangle between Myles Standish, Priscilla Mullins, and John Alden (John and Priscilla dolls, woot!) or were slightly boring looking history games that I would admittedly totally buy and play if they were still available. Lots of platters and other tat too, really, nothing too remarkable here.

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We then progressed downstairs, where we were instructed in no uncertain terms by the desk man to watch the video before doing anything else, so we obligingly plopped ourselves down for the show, which was a history of the Pilgrims.  To be fair, although I read William Bradford‘s writings in both high school English and some Early American Literature class I took as an undergrad, I hadn’t really learned much about the Pilgrims since grade school, so some of the basic facts about them had somehow escaped my notice.  For example, I had no idea they came from Scrooby (or where Scrooby was, for that matter.  Turns out it’s in Nottinghamshire and is tiny), and although I’d certainly heard of Myles Standish, I also didn’t know about the aforementioned love triangle (I guess we were too busy in elementary school re-enacting the Victorian idea of the first Thanksgiving with crudely made, historically inaccurate Pilgrim hats and “Indian” headdresses, to learn about anything even vaguely sordid.  Because I was in no way cool, I always got stuck being a lame Pilgrim, in a gross white paper bonnet.  Not that I’m salty about it or anything).  I was kind of eager for the video to finish so I could examine the objects in the case at the end of the room, which proved to be gen-u-ine Pilgrim possessions, including a cradle that was actually carried over on the Mayflower.  Despite making it clear that I don’t buy into the whole Pilgrim mythology (and seriously, screw the Puritan work-ethic – I enjoy being lazy, and two weeks of holiday is really not sufficient (not that I’ve ever had a full-time job, but still)), seeing some of the first surviving European artefacts brought to America was the bee’s knees.

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I actually did enjoy the downstairs galleries quite a lot, maybe because, like I said, I’m not particularly well-versed on the Pilgrims, outside of William Bradford and King Philip’s War et al, so it was interesting learning more about their quotidian lives.  There were a surprising amount of original documents and charters in their collection, as well as surviving furniture and whatnot (though not actual whatnots, like the one the Ingallses build with Mrs. Boast in By the Shores of Silver Lake), and I made sure to plunk myself down in the replica of the Bradford chair.

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Going back upstairs, I somehow managed to restrain myself from running straight into the gift shop (jeez), and instead took time to peruse the collection of paintings, mostly Victorian (as that was when the Pilgrim mystique really started to take hold), portraying the early years of the Plymouth settlement.  There was a fascinating display in the middle of the room that showed the evolution of our ideas on what the Pilgrims actually wore – the early Victorian paintings tended to portray them clad in sumptuous fabrics, outfits far more suited to the wealthy, and the late Victorian portrayal went to opposite extremes, with the weird buckle outfits and hats that we all know so well (exactly like the ones I was describing earlier that we were forced to construct from paper every November), because what better to accent your decidedly austere and drab clothing than a big shiny gold buckle?  The modern conception is probably more historically accurate, (or so we think), and shows them wearing normal 17th century clothes for poor-to-middling folk.  It was also here that they were hiding the chunk of Plymouth Rock, and you better believe I touched the hell out of it.  Mmmmm, rocky.

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Finally, we did head over to the gift shop, which was just fine, but seriously, not anything I would skip a museum to go see.  In spite of the slightly odd welcome, I’m glad we did find this museum, because it made the trip to Plymouth worthwhile, at a point when I was ready to give up on the town altogether. I’m still troubled by the American reverence for a random rock and the Pilgrims in general though (or more to the point, what the Pilgrims and the rock represent).  3.5/5 for the museum, and I hope everyone who celebrates it has a grand Thanksgiving, despite my Scrooge-like attitude!  Actually, I was planning on at least making a special meal this year, but a TMJ flare-up means although I’m still cooking it for my boyfriend’s sake,  I won’t be able to enjoy it without enduring horrible jaw and inner ear pain, so I guess I’ll just carry on being the Grinch of Thanksgiving in future!

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Hyde Park, New York: FDR Library and Museum!

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As soon as we approached Hyde Park and I saw the town sign adorned with FDR’s silhouette, I knew I was going to love it.  I adore FDR (even though he was a bit of a cad to Eleanor) so I’d been looking forward to our visit to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum for some time, and after stressing out about the unexpected government shutdown which threatened to ruin our planned trip, for once fate smiled on me, and the government got their act together enough just in time!  (Good thing, as I think I would have cried for about a day if they hadn’t).

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As you might have guessed from my remarks, the FDR museum is run by the National Park Service, who charge $9 admission for just the museum, or $18 for the FDR’s home and the museum.  There’s also a cottage on the property, but it was already closed for the season when we visited, and Val-kill, Eleanor’s cottage is nearby (though has a separate admission charge) so you can spend quite a lot of time immersing yourself in the world of the Roosevelts, if you’re so inclined (it’s kind of like Roosevelt Disneyworld), but FDR’s house pretty much ate up our whole day, so I didn’t have time to see Val-kill.  Hopefully next time!  You can wander through the museum on your own, but naturally, FDR’s house was by guided tour only, so I had to subject myself to the torment that is being part of a tour group.

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Our group was fairly large, and most of the hour-long tour was eaten up by an interminable talk the guide gave on the walk to the house (I mean, really, at least the ranger at Lindenwald spiced things up with amusing Van Buren anecdotes.  The Roosevelt guide was, by contrast, very serious, and didn’t really give us any inside information), so there wasn’t much time left to look around the interior.  There were two of FDR’s custom designed wheelchairs inside the home, which is of course worth noting, but another thing that attracted my attention was a large collection of Georgian cartoons, which made me think perhaps FDR and I would have something in common (other than our history degrees, of course).

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Once we were inside the house, the tour ceased to be guided, and became more of a free-for-all, as everyone crammed in trying to look around.  They divided us into two groups to go upstairs so we could see the bedrooms, all in a row with connecting doors, of Franklin, Eleanor, and his overbearing mother (poor, poor Eleanor).  Eleanor’s was pretty spartan, to reflect the fact that she considered Val-kill her true home (and probably couldn’t deal with her mother-in-law popping into her bedroom all the time).  We also saw the bedrooms where King George VI and Elizabeth (who became the Queen Mother) stayed during the visit which was immortalised in Hyde Park on Hudson (I’m guessing not that many people went to see it; I was the youngest person in the theatre by a good 50 years when I went).

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Only a portion of the house is open to the public; there was obviously a back hallway that was closed off, as well as an additional floor, which I think held the nursery and the children’s bedrooms, as well as maybe the servant’s quarters.  Apparently FDR used a secret ramp to get inside his home;  it was assembled when he needed it, and then quickly disassembled so that visitors didn’t see it.  I feel bad that he had to go to such lengths to hide his disability, but clearly he felt the need to.  There were a few outbuildings, I think a carriage house and stables, off to the side, that no one else seemed to be visiting, so I had a peek.  It was pretty much just an empty set of stables, with a few saddles and things that had belonged to FDR’s horses.  The building was cool looking though.

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There’s a rose garden in the middle of the grounds, which are free for the public to visit, where FDR, Eleanor, and Fala (FDR’s Scottish terrier) are buried.  Obviously, FDR and Eleanor have a large headstone, so it’s clear where their graves are, but I read inside the museum that Fala was buried in the garden as well, near the sundial, which appears to be unmarked.

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There’s also some sort of peace garden just outside the museum, opposite the rose garden.  It features a sculpture carved from a chunk of the Berlin Wall, and busts of FDR and Churchill facing each other.

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And now, to move onto the museum.  FDR himself designed the building, and had an office inside, so it has the distinction of being not only the first presidential museum, but also the only one that was actually used by a sitting president.  He favoured a Dutch Colonial style to pay homage to his Roosevelt lineage (honestly, I can’t say I agree with his architectural choice, as I’d probably choose some kind of imposing Queen Anne of Second Empire style Victorian mansion (American Victorian, please!) but to each his/her own), which seems to mean sharply sloped roofs, and a lot of stone.  Although it didn’t really look that huge from the outside, the museum is fairly large on the inside, and so densely packed with fascinating stuff that you really do need a few hours to give everything your full attention.

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There was a temporary exhibit to one side when we walked in, which we ended up visiting last, though I would recommend probably stopping in first, or, if you’re running short on time, just popping in quickly at the end, as it seemed to contain an overview of the rest of the museum’s collections; the official title is “The Roosevelts: Public Figures, Private Lives.”  As I said, if you’ve seen the rest of the museum, it is just a lot of repeat text in here from elsewhere, but it is definitely worth checking out the photographs, both on the walls, and in the little albums scattered around.  I happen to think Franklin was pretty adorable as a young man (though I have a weird habit of developing crushes on historical figures…man of the moment is Lt. James Sturgis, who was killed in the Battle of Little Bighorn, as he looks a LOT like Benedict Cumberbatch), and the pictures of Franklin and Eleanor as newlyweds (before he started cheating on her a bunch) are probably the cutest things I’ve ever seen.

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There’s lots of other family photographs to be found here, and their sons weren’t too bad looking either (at least as young men…they definitely didn’t age as well as FDR), though they had that sort of sporty air of privilege that you see in William and Harry, which to be fair, FDR probably would have exuded as well had Edwardian styles lent themselves more readily to athleticism (though, I’m glad they didn’t; I much prefer the pasty, be-suited look).  I’ll restrain myself from gushing on about FDR’s looks any more, but for those of you who don’t share my odd tastes, no worries; there are also plenty of photos of their travels, and ones taken with various other historical figures of note.

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The first room in the permanent galleries (which just received a $6 million revamp this year, woot!) is devoted to FDR’s entrance into politics, and contains some of the best FDR artefacts, including his hat, pince-nez glasses (which he started wearing to emulate his distant cousin TR), and one of the bullets from an assassination attempt made on FDR in 1933 (which he obviously survived, but the Mayor of Chicago was killed).  You can even stand at a podium and read out a copy of one of FDR’s speeches in your best upper class New Yawk accent.

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The next room was about FDR and Eleanor, including some background on their childhoods, and how they met – they were fifth cousins once removed, and only met once as children, so their relationship isn’t creepy at all (as some people seem to think, anyway).  Eleanor was Theodore Roosevelt’s niece (he gave her away at her wedding, as her father was an alcoholic who died young), and as such was part of the Oyster Bay branch of the family, and Franklin belonged to the Hyde Park branch, the branches having split back in the early 18th century.  Anyway, lots more lovely pictures here, and interesting stuff about FDR’s time at Groton (private school).

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A little annex/video room discussed Franklin’s struggle with polio, and had a pair of his leg braces, which were insanely heavy.  For FDR to walk to the podium and deliver a speech, he leaned heavily on both a cane, and the arms of an aide, and swung his hips using the strength in his upper body; his son Elliott later said he’d been left with bruises on his arm for days thanks to FDR’s strong grip.  I read with great interest a letter FDR had written in which he described the limitations of his body after polio, and the effect the disease had on him.

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Moving on from FDR the man, the museum next detailed the career of FDR the politician, tracing chronologically through his lengthy presidency, with a large room covering each term, moving from the Great Depression into WWII.  Honestly, it wasn’t all praise for FDR – the museum tried its best to present a balanced view, and as such had posters and interactives that discussed the opinions of his critics, and they didn’t shy away from the darker moments of his presidency, like the Japanese internment camps, for example.  Although you were clearly  going to walk away with the overall message that FDR accomplished some amazing things, at least they didn’t try to gloss over his flaws.  Of course, it wasn’t all seriousness; plenty of amusing caricatures and FDR themed collectibles were included amongst the displays to lighten the mood.

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As we moved into the war years, the displays included much of the correspondence between FDR and Churchill, showcasing the nature of their relationship.  There were even a few letters from Stalin, who tried to crack a few jokes, but it’s difficult to reconcile a lighthearted Stalin with the mass-murdering dictator we all know so well.  I especially loved looking at the drafts of FDR’s wartime speeches, with hand-written corrections and notes.  This is why you’ll need loads of time to look round the place; there’s a tonne of stuff to read!

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As I mentioned earlier, FDR actually had an office inside the building that would become the museum, and you can of course look inside, though the room is behind glass.  Another one of his wheelchairs was in here, along with some of his art collection.  A statue of Fala is also pictured below, which was in the museum, but perhaps should have been in the office, to add a whimsical touch.

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We finally reached the end of the first floor, but there was still a basement to explore, which I was dreading in a way, as the upper floor had taken us up to 1945, and I knew FDR’s death would be coming soon (this is why having a good knowledge of history can sometimes be unfortunate, as you know exactly when people are going to die).  Of course, FDR developed his “terrific headache” as soon as we walked down the steps, and that was it for the poor guy.  Massive cerebral hemorrhage, followed by equally massive outpouring of grief on the part of the nation.  They had a few sympathy letters written to Eleanor by members of the public, and I have to confess that I was tearing up a little as I read them.

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FDR’s desk has also been preserved, and is sitting in the centre of the room for all to examine.  The man evidently liked knickknacks as much as I do, as his desk was absolutely crammed with them, and also had pictures of his sons in uniform (though no picture of his daughter, don’t know why).  The other basement rooms had other war-related materials, and there was an exhibit on Eleanor and her post-FDR life, which I was glad to see, as I really do like Eleanor very much.  The rest of the building is the library and archives, which I believe are free to use, though you have to make an appointment, so I couldn’t peek inside.  They did have a few highlights from the archives on display, FDR’s car, and some of his art and furniture collections, which I guess are not really what I think of when I hear the word archives.  Neat.

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Back inside the visitor’s center, there was more information on the construction of the house, and a rather magnificent tiled floor depicting all the Roosevelt properties in Hyde Park.  Naturally, I stopped in the “New Deal Museum Store” (ha!) and managed to resist the allure of the FDR dolls (I already have a talking one (with airplane boxers!), though the dolls were awfully cute), though I did succumb to a FDR badge and a few postcards.  I would like to see them improve their postcard selection, and have some made of the Franklin/Eleanor honeymoon photos, as I think those would go down a storm.

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I think it should be fairly obvious that I’m crazy about this museum.  I’m sure it helps that I already was a fan of FDR, but I think anyone with an interest in presidential or American history would find the museum enthralling.  I do think they need to work a bit on their home tours (and if you’re short on time/money, I would just go see the museum), but I enjoyed this museum so much, I really can’t give it anything less than 5/5.  I was walking around with a giant, stupid grin on my face the whole time I was there, which is very unlike my usual sourpuss expression.  Also, the grounds are gorgeous, especially in the autumn, which was when we visited, which just enhances the experience even more.  Really and truly a must-see.

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