presidential history

Canton, OH: The Pan-American Exposition @ the McKinley Museum

I blogged about the McKinley Museum about four and a half years ago, back when this blog was all shiny and new, and that post was based on a visit from 2011 (I was anxious to get a lot of posts up quickly when I started blogging, so I covered pretty much everything I’d visited in the relatively recent past). I’ve been to the McKinley Museum a few times since that post (and yet I still don’t have a better picture of the monument than the one I used in my initial post, as you may notice), because I think it’s actually pretty entertaining (see the vacuum chair, street of yesteryear, spinny thing, and interactive science displays from my original post), but this is the first time I’ve seen a temporary exhibition there that I thought made it worth blogging about again. So here we are.

  

Admission to the temporary exhibition (which runs until February 2018) is included with general museum admission, which is $10 (I think it was only $8 on my first visit, but things haven’t really gotten any better for museums in the intervening years, so I can’t begrudge them the extra $2 too much). I was visiting with my mom, and of course we walked around the rest of the museum as well, which was much as I remembered it. The upstairs part is still the history floor, with a timeline of Canton’s history, illustrated by many fun and interactive objects, and the picture of a young McKinley inside one of the displays gave me the chance to show my mother a young Rutherford B. Hayes, who unlike McKinley (who was sadly never attractive) was straight-up smoking hot until he got old and beardy (I also think he could have done better than ol’ Lemonade Lucy, who frankly seemed like kind of a dud). The street of yesteryear is still amazing (and I am still too damn scared to slide down that fireman’s pole), and of course, the McKinley room is still there, with animatronic William and Ida McKinley (they’re real blurry in that picture because they’re in motion). This time, there was actually a guide in the McKinley room as well, and he told us many fascinating things about the objects in the room, even going so far as to take my mom’s camera behind the velvet rope so he could take pictures of McKinley’s presidential desk from the front, which is the side the public doesn’t normally get to see (sadly, I forgot to get the photos from my mom, so I can’t show them to you). He also told us a story about how McKinley’s barber’s great-grandson came to the museum one time and talked about how his great-grandfather was killed under mysterious circumstances – he went out one day for a walk and never came back, and the family thinks it may have been because McKinley told him presidential secrets that someone didn’t want to get out (maybe Marcus Hanna was responsible…? I’ve been unable to verify the barber story, but it’s still intriguing). Anyway, he was an interesting guy, and clearly very keen on McKinley, and it was nice to see that kind of enthusiasm in a museum.

  

But onto the Pan-American Exposition exhibition (wow, that’s hard to say). The museum’s special exhibition space is simply one smallish room (I remember it being full of antique ornaments when I visited around Christmas), and most of the exhibition was in the form of blue and white posters on the walls, but they did have a few cases full of relevant artefacts as well.

  

The Pan-American Exposition, held in Buffalo, New York in 1901, is primarily famous for being the place where McKinley was assassinated. The assassination tends to overshadow the exposition itself, which is unfortunate, because from what I learned in this exhibit, it sounded amazing! Just look at some of the attractions: A Trip to the Moon, which I picture as being like an interactive version of that creepy Georges Melies film which freaks me out so much that I can barely watch the Smashing Pumpkins’ video for “Tonight, Tonight” (Billy Corgan doesn’t help matters); the Upside Down House, which was a fully furnished Victorian mansion, flipped upside down; Venice in America, which was a gondola ride through the whole damn park (they had a film taken on the ride, and it looked rad); and Darkness and Dawn, which followed the journey of a “departed spirit” from hell to heaven. Of course, this being turn-of-the-century America, there were some hella racist exhibitions too, like a mock-up of an old Southern plantation and lots of “happy” slaves, and some offensive stuff involving Native Americans.

  

Like all World’s Fair type events, many things were created specifically for the exposition, including, apparently, Ohio’s unusual state flag (we’re the only state to use a pennant or “burgee” shape), which I feel is something I’d learned about during Ohio History in 4th grade, and then promptly forgotten; and of course, a most enticing range of souvenirs, many adorned with buffalo. They erected a number of buildings for the event, though the only one that survives is the New York State Building, which is now the Buffalo History Museum. It also was an opportunity for inventors to showcase new technologies, like the x-ray machine, and incubators for premature babies. Interestingly, the fair started in May 1901 and ran until November, despite McKinley being assassinated there in September, so even though his death is all people know about the expo today (if they know anything about it at all), it wasn’t even enough to close it down at the time.

  

Of course, this being the McKinley Museum, they talked a lot about the assassination too – when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz (who lived in Cleveland for a while) queued to shake McKinley’s hand, and then shot him twice in the stomach. There was video footage of McKinley’s last speech, which took place just a couple of hours before he was shot, as well as the last photo ever taken of him. But the most interesting thing had to be the many ironies of McKinley’s treatment, which were covered here. In a place showcasing new technology, including, as I mentioned, the x-ray machine, and electric light bulbs, McKinley’s treatment was primitive. His doctors refused to use the x-ray machine on him, as they didn’t trust the technology, and the operating theatre at the exposition hospital didn’t have electric light, even though the outside of the building was covered in light bulbs!  He was operated on by a gynecologist, as he was the only doctor available (the official exposition surgeon was operating on another patient at the time, and refused to leave mid-surgery, which was kind of a shame as he was actually a really good surgeon for the time, and had previously saved the life of a woman with gunshot wounds almost identical to McKinley’s). McKinley rallied at first, but gangrene set in and he died a week later from what would today be a highly survivable wound with proper treatment.

  

To illustrate all this, the museum had copies of a number of telegrams between his doctors discussing McKinley’s condition, so we could see that at first he was expected to make a full recovery (Teddy Roosevelt, McKinley’s vice president, who was on holiday when McKinley was shot, actually returned to his holiday because he thought McKinley would be fine), and then he rapidly declined. Although it was small, it was a very interesting exhibition, and I’m glad I got to see it, because there doesn’t seem to be a lot of information about what the exposition actually contained out there on the internet, and it was nice to see photographs, souvenirs, and descriptions of the attractions, even though it made me wish more than ever that I could go to some kind of excellent Victorian exposition of this nature (why don’t we still have things like this? I mean, sure, there’s health and safety regulations, and people aren’t likely to be all that impressed by light bulbs, but I would still be extremely happy with an upside down Victorian house and a dark ride to the moon).

  

We finished our visit to the museum by checking out the basement science gallery again (which still has animatronic dinosaurs and a collection of small (live) animals like frogs and snakes, but did seem to have been rearranged a bit since my last visit) and playing with all the excellent interactive science games, which also appeared to include a few new machines I didn’t remember, like a green screen where you could choose a natural disaster background and pretend to be a meteorologist reporting in front of it (we had a lot of fun with that one, and played around with it for a good fifteen minutes). (I had to also throw in a couple pictures of the new mannequins in the street of yesteryear, above, because I loved them so much.) And of course, no visit to Canton is complete without a stop at Taggart’s for ice cream (it’s right down the road from the museum) – I went for the chocolate chip ice cream pie with caramel sauce, which was most delicious, and I think Tina Belcher may have sat at our booth at one point, because it had the word “butts” carved into it.

I’d still give the museum 4/5 for sure, just for its eclectic mishmash of anything and everything Canton (plus dinosaurs), and the Pan-American Exposition exhibition, though on the small side, was actually very informative and well-worth seeing, so I’ll give that 3.5/5, and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back to this museum again within the next couple of years!

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Dallas, Texas: The Sixth Floor Museum and the Old Red Museum

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When you think of Dallas, you think of the Kennedy assassination, right?  I mean, judging by the queue at the Sixth Floor Museum (the former Texas School Book Depository), I have to believe that JFK getting shot is the only thing people associate with Dallas.  Morbid as I am, and as much as I enjoyed the music of Danzig-era Misfits in my youth (and still do, around Halloween), I was actually not all that keen on seeing this museum, since I have very little interest in the history of the  second half of the 20th century, and I assumed (rightly) it would be a tourist trap.  But in the end, we thought we might as well go, since we might never be in Dallas again, which is how we found ourselves in a breezeway next to an overpriced parking lot, standing in the world’s longest queue.  Well, not really, the one at Dismaland for non-ticket holders was definitely longer, but this was probably the longest I’ve waited for something I wasn’t all that interested in in the first place (lines for rides at Disney World don’t count; I wanted to ride those).  The only benefit was that at least we were out of the sun, since it was about a million degrees outside, and I don’t really cope with heat very well.

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When we finally (FINALLY) got to the front of the stupid queue, which probably took over an hour, we then had to part with the absurd $16 admission fee, and join another line to take the lift up.  Of course, you can avoid most of this queuing if you have the foresight to book tickets online (dunno whether there’s a booking fee).  We clearly didn’t, and when we saw the online ticket people skipping to the front, we briefly thought of booking them then and there on our phones, but were quickly warned off by one of the employees, as you can apparently only book them at least two hours out from the time you want to go, and I was certainly not coming back to this place.  So we eventually got up to the Sixth Floor, with our free audio guides (they’d better be free, after paying $16 to get in), only to be met with the mass of people who were in the queue in front of us.  There was no way you could get close enough to most of the signs to read them, so we were left pretty reliant on the audio guide, which you know I hate.  Anyway, even if we could see the signs, this was a lame museum.  The only artefacts to speak of were a model of the assassination site, and a suit one of the cops escorting Lee Harvey Oswald was wearing when Jack Ruby appeared and shot him (Oswald that is, not the cop).  The actual corner where Oswald stood and fired those shots (depending on what you believe I guess, though conspiracy theories are given fairly short shrift in the museum) is behind glass, so you can’t get close to it, though you can see roughly what his view of the grassy knoll would have been from the window a few feet over.  Today the grassy knoll (really just a small patch of grass in the middle of a plaza) is full of idiots who dart between gaps in the traffic to stand on the x in the middle of the road that marks the spot where Kennedy was shot.

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The whole thing was grim really, and not because of the assassination.  I hate being forced to part with that kind of cash for something as uninspiring as this.  The seventh floor, which was the only place you were allowed to take pictures, was even more of a bust.  All it had was some murals of the Kennedys, and another window where you could try to capture the view.  This was an awful tourist trap, and I would not recommend it to anyone, which is really a shame, because they could have done so much more with a building with this kind of history.  Just take a picture of the plaque in front of the building acknowledging that this was the Texas School Book Depository, and spend the money you saved on an ice cream or something else that would actually be enjoyable.  1/5.

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I was more enthusiastic about the Old Red Museum, simply because I’d spotted the building from the highway without knowing what it was, and thought it looked really cool.  Turns out it is both a working courthouse, and a Dallas history museum.  I immediately got annoyed, however, when the guy at the admissions desk disappeared right after we walked in.  We waited around for ten minutes, and were just about to take our chances heading up the museum without a ticket, when he reappeared and sold us our $8 tickets, complete with a hefty free dose of attitude problem (I know that’s rich, coming from me).  There was a temporary exhibit on the ground floor about Mexicans living in Texas that sounded pretty good, but it was just a couple of Mexican dolls in a small room.  Dallas was not going well.

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The actual museum upstairs was a bit better, but still fairly meh.  We ended up watching a couple of the videos, just because our legs were tired from queuing so long over at the stupid Sixth Floor Museum, and we wanted to sit for a while.  One of them promisingly opened with a line about how, “John Neely Bryan was the founder of Dallas.  He would eventually be committed to a mental institution, where he died, but for now he was just a farmer.”  With an intro like that, my expectations were high, but it just gave a very boring history of the early years of farming in Dallas, and never said anything more about Bryan’s alleged lunacy.  This summed up my problems with this museum.  It promised a lot, but it didn’t really deliver.

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Sure, they had Clyde Barrow’s gun, the handcuffs used on Lee Harvey Oswald, and Larry Hagman’s hat from Dallas, the TV show, as promised on their website, but most of it was just your standard local history museum affair, albeit on a slightly larger scale (everything is bigger in Texas, after all).  I would have been fine with that if we’d only paid maybe $3-$5, but for $8, I was expecting something more.  And one of the world’s first frozen margarita machines wasn’t going to cut it, much as I find frozen margaritas the only vaguely palatable way of drinking tequila (perhaps if they’d been giving out free samples of margaritas, it would have improved my mood).

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So it’s fair to say I was not overly impressed with Dallas’s museum offerings.  I do hear very positive things about the Perot Museum, but we could go to a natural history museum anywhere; this was why we opted for things more Dallas-centric, which was clearly a mistake.  The Old Red Museum fared slightly better than the Sixth Floor Museum, because it was half the price, almost empty, and contained more artefacts relating to Kennedy than the stupid Sixth Floor thing did, but it still wasn’t anything I’d go rushing out to see.  Maybe just skip them both and buy two (or four, at least ice cream is affordable here) ice creams.  You’ll need them in that heat.  2.5/5.

Austin, TX: LBJ Presidential Library and Museum

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I’ve always gotten the impression (probably from my mother, who hates the man, even though she was a bit too young to have been part of the whole Vietnam/hippy generation) that Lyndon Baines Johnson is one of the more reviled modern presidents, after Nixon and George W Bush, at least, depending on your political leanings.  But you all know I adore presidential history, and given the other presidential museum options in Texas (the Bushes…I’m sorry, but it happened too recently…I just can’t bring myself to give money to Dubya), LBJ was really looking pretty good.  Besides, we share a birthday (August 27), so I’ve always felt an affinity with the man, despite some of his unsavoury personal habits.  And Austin is pretty much the only city in Texas with a reputation for being vegetarian friendly (and how!  You must get the “popcorn tofu” from Wheatsville Co-op), so that settled the matter.  LBJ it was.

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Unlike some other presidential sites, because the LBJ Museum is also a library and archives, it is run by the National Archives and Record Administration, rather than the friendly rangers from the NPS.  So they made me pay the full $8 for admission, even after I mentioned that we share a birthday, which I still think should have been good for some sort of discount (though I did learn that the museum is free to all on our birthday, and you even get cake (which I will keep in mind for future birthdays)).  Anyway, the museum is on three different levels (the rest of the building is archives, as you will see), and they have a special exhibition space on the ground floor for temporary exhibits somehow relating to LBJ’s presidency.  Currently, it is on the Beatles, since he was president in the 1960s and all.

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I like the Beatles fine, but I’m not a super Beatles fan, like some of the people visiting the exhibition clearly were, so it was good for a quick walk-though (to be honest, I probably liked Elvis’s guitar better than the Beatles’ stuff) to admire those excellently mod Beatles sneakers (they even had a pointy toe, and I LOVE a pointy toe) and get a drum tutorial from Ringo (though I was afraid to give it my all because people were looking at me), but I didn’t feel the need to spend a whole lot of time in there, especially since we only had about two hours before the museum closed.

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So I fairly dashed through the timeline of LBJ’s life on the ground floor, and headed straight for the animatronic LBJ.  You may remember the animatronic William and Ida McKinley from my post on the McKinley Museum, but LBJ blows them out of the water.  His whole head and hands move, just like a real person’s, and he tells a variety of the mildly raunchy stories he was known for.  It had me wishing they had an animatronic FDR at the FDR museum, so I could have experienced this magic with my favourite president (maybe there’s one in the Hall of Presidents at Disney?  I don’t remember, I haven’t been there since I was a kid).

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Speaking of FDR, it soon became obvious that LBJ loved FDR just as much (possibly even more, since he actually knew the man) as I do.  This is also the point when I began to warm to LBJ, because no one who liked FDR that much could have been all bad.  LBJ worked for the WPA (too many acronyms?), as a young man, and was offered a fairly prestigious position in it by FDR himself, which LBJ respectfully declined because he wanted to run for the House of Representatives instead (and he did, and won).  It seems like all his life he tried to emulate FDR and further his policies, making him rather socialist in his leanings (at least in his zeal for making healthcare more accessible to all), which was probably influenced by the time he spent teaching in poor Mexican schools in his 20s, and the poverty he saw there.

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Having gone over LBJ’s personal life and marriage to Lady Bird in the timeline, this floor was devoted to his political career, starting with the FDR days, and ending with his own presidency.  So it of course addressed all the major controversial stuff, like Kennedy’s assassination (which you will hear a lot more about in future posts, this being Texas) and the Vietnam War.

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I think divisive political issues are always a difficult thing to cover, especially in a museum that ultimately aims to honour the presidency of a particular leader, and though the museum was somewhat apologist in its view on Vietnam (LBJ was opposed to it, and saddened by it, but he couldn’t find a way out, blah blah blah), they did make some effort to show the horrific consequences by showing letters written to LBJ by parents whose children had been killed in the War.  I mean, there was pretty much a whole gallery on Vietnam, but it was still clear the museum preferred to focus on his efforts for civil rights rather than the huge negative that was the Vietnam War.

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To that effect, there was a lot in the gallery about the evils of segregation, and what LBJ did to fight it, as well as a little annex at the back of the floor with biographical details about various people who achieved prominent roles in society as a result of LBJ’s policies, as well as all the ways LBJ’s legacy has benefited us today, which was perhaps laying things on a little thick.

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The only way to the top floor, as far as I could tell, was by lift, since it’s a good six stories up (you can see all the books and papers that fill those floors in the picture two paragraphs up).  This held more items relating to LBJ’s personal life, as well as some material pertaining to Lady Bird.

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There was a mock-up of the LBJ-era Oval Office that was pretty neat, complete with a voice over telling you about all the objects in there (he had a custom-made marble-topped table with a pull-out phone in it), and outside the office, a different phone where you could listen to examples of the “Johnson treatment,” whereby LBJ would try to charm/intimidate people.  Listening to his conversation with a female reporter really drove home that the ’60s were a very different time…I don’t think a president telling you he wished he wasn’t married so he could take you up against a fence post like an animal would be seen as “charming” today.  More sexually harassing, if anything.

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Nonetheless, it must have worked somehow, as he managed to win over Lady Bird, who was very intelligent, and frankly, much too attractive for him, especially when she was young (she kind of looked like a prettier version of Ruth Goodman as she aged, not to dis Ruth, because I enjoy all those “Insert Historical Era Here” Farm shows).  There was, again, a mock-up of an office in the corner, this time Lady Bird’s, and a collection of some of Lady Bird’s (whose real name was Claudia) personal items, including dresses and china, because that’s of course how most people think of first ladies, even though she had much more to her than finery, being well educated, a shrewd investor, and providing the charm needed to smooth over her husband’s brashness.

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Heading back downstairs again, on our way out, we got to check out LBJ’s presidential limo, and the rather impressive shop.  I mean, they not only had an excellent range of refrigerator magnets and postcards (both of which we collect), but a big old heap of retro presidential campaign buttons (not actually dating back to LBJ, but I spotted a couple Nixon ones in there.  I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy one, but it was still cool), and a collection of presidential bobbleheads.  I couldn’t resist the one of FDR with Fala (I think I have a problem).  Although the LBJ museum was, perhaps out of necessity because of the very nature of a presidential museum, apologist at times, I learned a lot about a president I’m not that well versed on (not being the biggest fan of 20th century history, particularly the latter half), and I was in general pretty impressed with the quality of the displays, and, of course, all the bonus FDR stuff.  3.5/5.

Presidents’ Day Compilation

Presidential history is one of my favourite topics, so in honour of Presidents’ Day, and in case anyone is interested in learning about a few presidential sites for the holiday, I thought I’d throw an updated version of this post up again!

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FDR is one of my favourites, and visiting Hyde Park made for one of the best days I’ve had since I started blogging. The museum is huge, and you get to see the actual office FDR worked in when he was back home (not to mention three of his custom wheelchairs). Highly recommended!

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Not far from FDR’s home and museum, you’ll find Lindenwald, former home of the often-overlooked Martin Van Buren.  Though his presidency wasn’t particularly memorable, his house was lovely, and I’ll always treasure the picture I took with his statue.

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My parents live less than an hour away from Canton, Ohio, so I’ve spent a lot of time visiting the presidential sites around there.  There’s the William McKinley museum with an animatronic William and Ida, and even the Canton Classic Car Museum has a large display case devoted to this famous former local.

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And, the National First Ladies Museum is also in Canton, in Ida Saxton McKinley’s old mansion. Though the guided tour wasn’t my favourite, the museum itself has some interesting objects.

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Also quite near to my parents’ home (though in the opposite direction) is Lawnfield, James A Garfield’s former home, which I visited for the first time last year.  I think Garfield’s story is one of the most poignant of all the presidents, and this National Parks site is definitely worth a visit.

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Though FDR will always be my favourite Roosevelt, I know there are those who are partial to TR.  If you’re looking for a presidential site smack in the middle of New York City, then the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Museum is a good bet.  The entire house is a reconstruction, but it contains many of the Roosevelt’s original furnishings, and the museum has the shirt Teddy was shot in whilst giving a campaign speech, amongst many other treasures.

 

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Hope this inspires you to visit some presidential sites yourself (I know I’m planning on seeing more the next time I’m back in America!).  Of course, if you happen to be in London, like I am, never fear, as you can visit the excellent statue of FDR and Churchill on Bond Street (though you might not want to get quite as flirty with FDR as I did)! There’s a couple more presidential statues scattered throughout the British capital, so you could make a scavenger hunt of it and try to find them all, or head out to the Kennedy Memorial in Runnymede, which is technically American soil, if you’re really feeling homesick!  Happy Presidents’ Day!

 

 

Mentor, OH: Lawnfield (Home of James A Garfield)

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I promised you more about James Garfield in my Teddy Roosevelt post, and here ’tis!  I grew up probably equidistant between the McKinley Memorial and Garfield’s estate, and yet hadn’t managed to visit either until after I moved to London and was back home visiting (isn’t that always the way?).  So this was my first visit to Lawnfield, although I’ve been to the Garfield Monument inside Lake View Cemetery many times.  The main thing putting me off visiting Lawnfield in the past was the fact that it was run by the Western Reserve Historical Society, since I’ve never been overly impressed by them (long story, involving an ill-fated internship and the general decline of their museum over the years). However, a while back, Lawnfield was taken over by the National Park Service; as my experiences with the NPS have generally been quite positive, I was finally willing to check it out.

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Lawnfield is currently closed for the winter season, but will reopen in the spring of 2015, at which time my pricing information and tour times may no longer be accurate. When I visited, it was only $5 for the museum and a tour of the house, and tours seemed to run at least once an hour, or whenever they got enough people together for one.  The next tour wasn’t due to start for 20 minutes, so the ranger put on a video about Garfield’s life for us to watch in the meantime, which talked a lot about his faith, his education, his role in the Civil War, and his relationship with his wife, Lucretia (basically, he held off marrying her for ages because he didn’t want to commit, although I think he should have been glad to snag her as she was well-educated and quite pretty, and he was average looking at best and seemed like kind of a drip).  He lived a fairly average, albeit blameless life, and was picked for the presidency primarily because of his bland inoffensiveness – when no one could agree upon a Republican candidate, he was turned to as the least objectionable option.  After finishing the video, we headed off on our ranger-led tour along with another couple who had just arrived.

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The Garfields bought the property in 1876, and James was assassinated in 1881, so he didn’t spend a whole lot of time here, but they still managed to enlarge the house from a 9 room farm house into a 20+ room veritable mansion within his lifetime.  The family lived in Hiram before this, but Lake County was gerrymandered in the 1870s, so by moving to Mentor, Garfield was able to place himself back into a Republican stronghold.  It was here that he led the first “front porch” campaign (later emulated by McKinley), where he would give speeches on his front porch to reporters and members of the public who camped out on the lawn.  The interior of Lawnfield was fairly unassuming, which reflected Garfield’s modest background, but everything was furnished prettily and it came across as a place where people actually lived, rather than some kind of imposing, Rockefeller-esque monstrosity.

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The ranger had plenty of amusing anecdotes for us.  For example, although Garfield wasn’t an only child, he was obviously his mother’s favourite, as she chose to live with him, and her entire room was decorated with pictures of him.  Seriously, every available surface was plastered with his portrait, and I didn’t see any pictures of any of her other children anywhere. This kind of made me feel bad not only for his siblings, but for Lucretia, as I could picture an awkward relationship similar to that between Sara and Eleanor Roosevelt going on.

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I’d take a closer look at those fireplace tiles in the picture on the right if I were you, because they were painted by Lucretia and the Garfield children, and are really rather handsome (although the picture quality isn’t really good enough to pick out the detail, sorry about that).  Although their house was already large and nice, after Garfield’s death Lucretia expanded it even further, primarily for the purpose of creating a library in his memory (which is said to be the first presidential library, but lots of other presidential libraries make similar claims, and Garfield’s isn’t officially recognised as such or anything).

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The library initially housed all his books and papers, but his papers have since been moved to the safety of the Library of Congress.  However, Lucretia did her best to protect them whilst they were in the house, creating a special vault to put them in, which had a thick, fireproof door.  Today, the vault holds a wreath sent to Garfield’s funeral by Queen Victoria, which was dipped in wax to preserve it.

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His Congressional desk is also in this room (Garfield was in the House of Representatives prior to becoming president), and is dismayingly tiny, as Garfield was at least 6 feet tall (and rather portly too).  One wonders how he squeezed himself under it, much less used it to show off his famous displays of ambidextrousness, where he would write in ancient Greek with one hand whilst simultaneously writing in Latin with the other.

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Much of the rest of the tour was devoted to the children’s bedrooms, which were upstairs (the Garfields had a bedroom upstairs for winter, and downstairs for summer, when it would be the coolest place in the house, though nowadays the house is air conditioned – a relief as it was 90+ degrees on the day of our tour!).  There was only one girl in the family, and she got the largest bedroom by far; really, it was almost her own personal suite.

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The room I found most interesting, however, was Garfield’s study.  Take particular note of the chair (because I want one for myself!); it was specially designed for reading, so you would put your back against the flat side, and hang your legs over the low arm opposite.  Pretty nifty.  There was also a picture featuring the official portraits of all the presidents up to and including Garfield (he was the 20th), that had hung in the White House at one point.

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There was a small museum inside the house that the ranger left us to look over for as long as we wanted.  It contained short biographies of all the Garfield children, as well as of their uncle, who was caretaker of the house for a number of years.  It also told more about the history of the house, and contained some personal objects belonging to the family.

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Upon leaving the house, we came directly to a small outbuilding next door that served as Garfield’s campaign headquarters during the presidential election.  He even had his own personal telegraph machine so he could receive important messages, like the election results!  There’s also a windmill on the property, although there’s nothing inside anymore.  Even though the estate is very near a busy road (which was a major road even in Garfield’s day), the many trees around the property help to give it an air of seclusion (though it’s obviously nowhere near as gorgeous and private as FDR’s Hyde Park estate).

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There was an additional small museum inside the visitor’s centre, which was our next stop.  This one had wax figures of (“come on in, come to the place where fun never ends, come on in, it’s time to party with…”) Garfield and friends with a selection of audio recordings by actors to accompany the scenes they were portraying. And there were lots of Garfield’s personal effects, plenty of hats and clothes and things.

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The final room contained an array of objects mourning Garfield’s death (he was shot by the madman Charles Guiteau for what was essentially an imagined slight, and lingered on for two months, being “fed” by enemas for a large part of that time.  It was the misguided care of his doctors (dehydration from the enemas, plus the main problem of infection where they had decided to probe his wound with dirty fingers) that was probably more responsible for his death than the actual bullet.  If they had left well enough alone, he might have survived.  Recommended reading: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (yes, another excellent Millard book, I really wish she’d write some more!)).  Sad though it was, his death helped to unite the nation, precisely because it was so lingering and unfortunate.  The items on display included a letter of condolence from Queen Victoria to Lucretia, which I have to believe was heartfelt, as Victoria was certainly familiar with the pain of losing a beloved husband unexpectedly.

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I also think the gift shop was very good, probably better than the disappointing one in Hyde Park.  They had an array of books pertaining to Garfield and other presidents, postcards, magnets, and an Ohio Presidents mug, which I naturally purchased for myself (Ohio lays claim to 8 presidents, and while I would dispute some of them, like William Henry Harrison, who was a wealthy planter from Virginia who laid claim to Ohio primarily for the purposes of his “Log Cabins and Hard Cider” campaign, I still enjoy the hell out of my mug).  I was glad to finally see another piece of Ohio history, and was very happy with my experience here.  3.5/5.

I also have a couple of recommendations for you.  First, if you do go out to Mentor to visit Lawnfield, definitely stop at the East Coast Custard out here.  They have my favourite frozen custard in the world (it’s the proper kind that is creamy yet scoopable, rather than soft serve masquerading as custard), and it’s literally down the street from Lawnfield, on your way back to the highway.  Second, I also very highly recommend visiting Lake View Cemetery, where Garfield is buried (I’m including a couple pictures of his tomb so you can see how awesome it is).  It is a fascinating  and beautiful cemetery with famous people other than Garfield buried in it (like John D Rockefeller and Eliot Ness), and it has many creepy mausoleums and the spectacularly spooky Haserot Angel.  It is also right next to Cleveland’s Little Italy (because, Italian food) and is actually not that far from another East Coast Custard (just saying), and University Circle, where many museums are located.  It’s another way to appreciate this little-remembered president, especially while his house is closed for renovation.

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New York City: Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace

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I know I seemed pretty down on New York in my last post, but it wasn’t all bad.  I ate a lot of delicious pizza, some killer mac n’cheese, and awesome doughnuts from the Doughnut Plant (especially the chocolate chip cookie doughnut, because combining chocolate chip cookies and cake doughnuts is the best thing ever).  I also got a chance to visit Theodore Roosevelt’s childhood home.

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I’m sure you all know by now how much I love presidential history, and of my quest to visit all the presidential sites in America eventually; this was the only preserved presidential home I could find in NYC (there’s a building where Chester A Arthur was inaugurated, but it’s currently just a shop) so it definitely made the list.  I don’t love TR with the same fervour that I do FDR, but a Roosevelt is still a Roosevelt, so I was keen to see it.  The upper galleries of the museum are currently closed for renovation (not sure if this has anything to do with Hurricane Sandy or not…Ellis Island is still mostly closed for that reason, which is why I did not bother visiting it), and there’s not a tonne in the lower levels right now, but it’s free, and they still offer tours of the home, so I really can’t complain too much.

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The house is a brownstone located on E. 20th Street, which is the original location of the house, even if the house isn’t completely original (the decision to preserve it wasn’t made until it was too late, so the house is a re-creation, but Teddy’s siblings were still living when it was rebuilt, so they were able to assist with all the details of architecture and furnishings).  The site is run by the NPS, which I generally consider to be a good thing as the rangers are usually very nice, and the quality of NPS sites seems pretty consistent.  They also have public toilets, which I must say was a real relief (literally) as those are few and far between in New York (in desperation, I even popped my head into a couple of coffee shops, and even they didn’t have toilets, which is just bizarre and unhelpful).  We arrived a little early for the tour, which gave us time to poke around the bits of the museum that are currently there, and watch a short film about Teddy’s life.  Most of the display cases were empty, or just filled with timelines of his life that appeared to have been hastily printed out, but the series of cases to the back of the room held a few things that I really wanted to see.  There was one of his Rough Rider uniforms, which was cool, but it was a bit overshadowed by the ensemble he was wearing when someone attempted to assassinate him.  Fortunately, the bullet was slowed down by his layers of clothing, the copy of his speech that was folded in his shirt pocket, and his eyeglasses case, all of which were on display, complete with bloodstains and bullet holes.  The bullet did go inside his chest but Teddy had a “’tis just a flesh wound” attitude, and refused to go to the hospital until after his speech was finished (and actually never ended up having the bullet removed; probably not a bad decision considering what had happened to James A. Garfield (more on him in a future post!)).  So that was really neat to see.  I also enjoyed looking at some of the Bullmoose propaganda on display, and of course the actual moose head mounted on the wall.  There was also a hallway filled with some amusing caricatures of Teddy, which is always amusing.

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When it was time for our tour, we joined several other small groups of people that had accumulated and followed our guide up the stairs (I believe he was just a volunteer, rather than a ranger, since he wasn’t wearing the uniform like the other employees).  Though there was more to the house when the Roosevelts lived there, the current tour only encompasses two floors of the place, each with just a handful of rooms (brownstones tend to have long, narrow railroad rooms, since space was at a premium – and the house was effectively split in half, with Teddy’s uncle inhabiting the other side, which would have been a mirror image of Teddy’s half).  There was a library, dining room, parlour, nursery, and a bedroom, as well as an outdoor porch that Teddy’s father converted into an exercise space for the boy, as he was famously quite sickly and asthmatic as a child.  We were told how Teddy spent most of his time (when he wasn’t on the exercise porch) in the library, which I found rather depressingly small and lacking in books, even by 19th century standards (especially as the family clearly had money).  There was a cosy looking sofa, however.  The dining room only had one original piece of Roosevelt china (though I’m told Eleanor Roosevelt, who was Teddy’s niece, donated some of hers, so it was technically Roosevelt china, just not from Teddy’s parents).  The parlour was slightly cheerier, as it was quite a sunny room, and housed a fine looking piano and other furniture.  Teddy’s parents’ bedroom was also included on the tour, which included the bed where all the Roosevelt children, including Teddy (or Teedie, as his family called him) were born, and contained an extremely expensive suite of furniture (I guess you had to make the most of the space you had by filling it with really expensive things, since you couldn’t fit in many different pieces.)  So in addition to presidential deathbeds, I can add a presidential birth bed to the objects of interest I’ve seen.

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The tour took about forty minutes, and was air conditioned, which was a welcome relief because New York was extremely hot when we were there (I mention the air conditioning because it was unexpected in a historic property, but I guess since it’s been rebuilt, they have more licence to do things like that).  Though some of the information was fairly basic, I did learn more about Teddy’s childhood, and it was nice to have a chance to see furniture that actually belonged to the family.  There’s a small gift shop downstairs that sells some neat TR memorabilia, like magnets and postcards (I of course snagged one of each), and some books about his life (I definitely recommend The River of Doubt if you haven’t read it yet, it’s about TR’s voyage down a little-explored river in the Amazon, where he and his son nearly died, and is a gripping read). This site was so much more interesting to me than the Morbid Anatomy Museum and I’m sure it will be even better when they finish renovating the museum.  3/5

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Canton, Ohio: Canton Classic Car Museum

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If you think I typically enjoy car museums, you’d be wrong; however, if you think the Classic Car Museum in Canton is anything like a normal car museum, you’d also be wrong.  I’ve been to a lot of museums in Canton, and they all seem to share a delightful sense of quirkiness; looking at the above photos, you can quickly see their car museum is no exception.  I was greeted at the door by Norm, who I later found out was having his 86th birthday that day.  He was just an exceptionally sweet and lovely guy who was eager to help with any questions (plus I have a total soft spot for old people because of my awesome (now deceased) grandparents).  Admission was $7.50, which I initially thought (anticipating the museum would be quite small) was a bit spendy, however, after actually experiencing all the museum had to offer, I think it was a fair price.

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Now, I’ve been to a lot of museums in my time that were essentially just random collections of crap, but right from the start, this was one of the most extensive and eclectic (and in a nicer building than most).  On their website, they essentially promise something for everyone, and they weren’t lying.  The first room was large and open, but the walls were covered in old signs, and there were cases everywhere filled with old toys, hood ornaments, and pretty much every other kind of old, random junk you could think of (in fact, they had a case of “mystery items,”of which you were supposed to guess their use).  There’s even a scavenger hunt that you can do, which was surprisingly hard given the number of objects to be found.

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Since it is close to Christmas, they’d put up a few trees, and draped boas and Santa hats over their collection of cardboard cutouts of old movie stars.  I jumped a little when a mini-Bruce the Talking Spruce who was evidently motion activated starting suddenly singing at me (is Bruce the Talking Spruce just a Cleveland thing, or do other cities have similar anthropomorphic trees?  I’m not counting that creepy-ass talking oak tree In London’s Winter Wonderland because Bruce was adorable but that oak tree freaks me out).  Speaking of creepy things, there was a clown who looked like his face was melting stood in one corner, amongst other, slightly less frightening clowns.  Coulrophobes beware!

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The next room was the “Canton History Room,” with the usual sorts of things about local businesses and local history, but of course, William McKinley lived in Canton, and you must all know by now how much I adore presidential history.  (Also, everyone please take note of the McKinley and Hanna political cartoon above, apparently drawn by a William Jennings Bryan supporter.)  Thus, the McKinley display case was an absorbing find.

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It was only one small case, but there was a lot crammed into it.  You can see his top hat above, but I’m including a few more highlights below…

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The picture on the left is of Katie McKinley’s baby bracelet.  Both the McKinley daughters died in childhood; little Ida as an infant, and Katie at the age of 4, from typhoid fever, thus the bracelet was probably a poignant reminder for Ida (Sr.) and William.  In the back of the photo on the right, you can see a sort of assemble-it-yourself paper doll of President McKinley.  That’s the kind of paper doll I would have loved as a child (though those historical American Girl ones weren’t too bad either!).

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Above you’ll see some kind of odd attempt to make the largest flag in the world, which appears to have taken place outside the McKinley memorial, and finally, a memorial plaque made for McKinley.  I was already super excited about all of this, but the next room had a hat rack full of old fashioned hats that you could put on for a photo op.  I’d just watched the film Laura, with Gene Tierney and Clifton Webb, and so my choice was inspired by one of the chapeaux Laura donned in the film, though I am sadly nowhere near as attractive as Gene Tierney, especially with my chin wodged on a wooden cutout and making a stupid face.

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Like the rooms that preceded it, this one was also full of curiosities.  Judging solely by the plaid “invalid style” blanket next to him, I believe there was a life sized cartoonish FDR mannequin, but he could have equally been George Bush the younger.  You’ll probably already have spotted the Frankenstein racer and the mummy at the start of the post, and there were a lot of hatters’ head mannequins modelling the styles of yesteryear congregated in one corner.

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Being a fan of the grim and morbid, I was pleasantly surprised to see a small mock-up of a funeral home set up, I suppose, because there was an antique hearse next to it (I should mention that there were cars throughout this whole gallery, but there was so much other stuff I could effectively just ignore them.  But if like a normal person, you have come to a car museum expecting cars, then don’t fear, you will see plenty of them!).

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I kind of love the picture on the right, a dark reminder to “Drive Carefully.” I almost hate to tell you, for fear of putting you off visiting, but there were more clowns in here, in the form of a puppet show that jangled around when you pressed a button.  I don’t like clowns myself, but I promise that except for the melting face one I described earlier, most of the ones here were really not that scary, and none of them are real, so please don’t let them deter you!

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I was amazed to find that there were still more rooms after this; like the TARDIS, the museum was bigger on the inside.  The next room was mostly cars, but I didn’t care because they had Neil Zurcher’s car.  For those of you who aren’t from Northeast Ohio (or over the age of 50, probably), Neil Zurcher was this old guy on a local news channel who drove around in a snazzy car on “One Tank Trips;” basically a segment on slightly offbeat places in the local area that you could get to and back from on one tank of gas.  I think largely because I spent a tonne of time over my grandparents’ house, and often watched TV with them or read whatever books they had laying around, I am very familiar with his work (and in fact, have discovered quite a lot of places around Ohio myself through his books), so it was kind of neat to see his car.

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(That picture on the right is of Bobby Kennedy, before and after airbrushing.  Just thought it was kind of interesting).

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I apologise for the even crappier than normal quality of the above photos, but seriously, aren’t those the ugliest Beatles dolls you’ve ever seen?  Paul is straight-up scary, not to mention Ringo, who wasn’t attractive under the best of circumstances!  And I have an FDR doll that I dearly love, but I think I’d also love to have the one on the right.  Still no wheelchair, but he is wearing a hat, and that is a splendid suit!

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(And yes, that is a guitar made out of a toilet seat behind Elvis’s antler-bedecked head).  As you can see, I had at last wandered into a gallery that was mostly cars, but still with touches of whimsy throughout.  A close-up of the balcony (and part of my finger) is below , and you might spot some familiar faces…

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I found a children’s mechanical reindeer ride, with dimes already laid out for my convenience, so I had to try it, but it felt unfortunately like riding some weird vibrating machine (if you get my drift), and left me with very itchy thighs.   It may have been part of the memorabilia from a long defunct local amusement park called Meyers Lake, along with some awesome-looking arcade machines and games that were sadly no longer working (or maybe they were, but they were blocked off by a rope).

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There was a small shop at the end of all this, from which I purchased a few postcards from lovely Norm (and “all this” meant wandering through about six huge rooms, plus lots of little nooks), but I capped off my visit with a stroll down a side hallway, where I finally espied a typed portrait of FDR made by an inmate that was mentioned on their website.

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I really, really enjoyed my time at this most unusual “car museum.” Sure, a lot of it probably was junk, but there were some gems hidden amongst the collections, particularly all the wonderful presidential artefacts, and I think most people would probably have a good reminisce over all the nostalgic old toys.  And of course, there are the cars too, I mustn’t forget those. Apparently, the collection was curated by both the late Marshall Belden Sr, and his wife, which explains why there is a mix of cars and well, everything else (so a big thanks to Florence Belden!).  I promised Norm I’d spread the word, so that’s what I’m doing here.  Please pay them a visit if you get the chance and you like old stuff arranged with an “old general store” aesthetic, as it really is more than just a car museum!  4/5

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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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Kinderhook, New York: Lindenwald – It’s More than O.K.

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Marty and Me. Statue can be found on the main street of Kinderhook, in the village square.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I love presidential history. It probably has something to do with being given The Buck Stops Here by Alice Provensen as a child, which appealed enormously to my love of memorisation, catchy rhymes, and history (highly recommended if you have kids, by the way, though unless they’ve issued a new edition, it might be a bit out of date.  My copy concluded with Bush Sr.).  At any rate, I particularly love the obscure presidents, and picking up trivia on them that I can trot out at parties (hmmm, perhaps this is why I never get invited to parties).  I suppose being in New York, I should have been aiming for Millard Fillmore, but his house was more towards Buffalo, and not at all on our way.  So the Little Magician it was, as we headed for Martin Van Buren‘s lovely home, Lindenwald.

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Upstate New York was in the full flush of autumn when we visited, so the “Careful Dutchman’s” estate was ringed with scarlet and copper foliage, setting off the house to full advantage.  My boyfriend remarked that it reminded him a bit of Osborne House, and in addition to the colour, it does have Italianate features that were added on around the same time Osborne was built.  However, this wasn’t the only connection with Queen Victoria, as you shall see later.  The house is run by the National Park Service, and you can only go inside via guided tour (ugh!) which costs around $5, and is offered every half an hour during the summer season.

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We wandered the grounds a bit whilst we waited for our tour to begin; there is a Martin Van Buren trail around the property which features about ten plaques with details of the Van Burens’ lives, and the operation of their 191 acre farm.  The gravel road that runs next to the modern road at the front of the property is the original Old Albany Post Road, which runs from New York City all the way up to Albany (and we did manage to drive up almost all of it!).

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Other highlights of the estate include a small visitor’s centre, and most importantly, Martin’s mounting block.  Disappointingly for the dirty-minded amongst us, he only used it to mount his horse (No, not like that!  Jeez), since he was only 5’6″, and apparently the ladies took advantage of it as well.  (heh heh)

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By this point, our tour guide had arrived, along with some other visitors, and the tour commenced.  The guide was a ranger, so I’m not sure if he didn’t normally work at the site, or just hadn’t been there very long, because he had a set of index cards to help him, although he did appear to have a good base of knowledge on Martin Van Buren, so maybe he just wasn’t fond of public speaking (I know I’m not).  He was very nice though, and made a point to welcome everyone and ask where they were from.  He explained each room as we passed through, but also threw in a few bonus details about the “Red Fox,” which I appreciated, as it helped elevate things above the standard Victorian home tour, and I even learned a few new facts!

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One of these facts concerned Martin’s son, John, who was given the nickname “Prince John” after attending Victoria’s coronation, and subsequently dancing with her.  There was a portrait of Victoria hanging on his bedroom wall, but I’m not sure if it was original, or added later. Martin himself met Victoria as well, on a trip to Europe after his presidency.  Another connection  (well, not really, as it involves only me) between Van Buren and Victoria is that Martin died in the house, like Victoria did in Osborne House, so I have now seen both their deathbeds!  Which is quite the accomplishment, as far as I’m concerned.  There was a cane lying across the bed, which was given to Martin Van Buren by none other than Old Hickory himself!  Jackson had even had his name written on the cane, so Martin would remember EXACTLY where it came from (as if one could forget being given a cane by Andrew Jackson)!

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Aside from the fun facts, the rest of the tour was fairly standard for an historic home (a bit of gossip about the servants, explaining the domestic details of the house, period furnishings, etc), although our guide managed to regale us with a few more stories specific to the Van Burens, including learning about Martin’s tubercular son and wife, and a detailed description of his political campaigns.

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In the entryway of the home, there was a small case containing some artefacts pertaining to Martin Van Ruin, as his opponents called him, in reference to the financial panic that occurred during his presidency, and the subsequent depression (poor Martin), like a delightful card of him drinking from a champagne goblet.  His opponents in the election of 1840 branded him as a champagne-swilling aristocrat, whilst portraying William Henry Harrison as a humble farmer, when in fact the opposite was nearer the truth.  Harrison got his though; dying a month after taking office from pneumonia brought on by a combination of being long-winded and too stupid to dress appropriately for the weather (I can totally relate).

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There was more to see in the nearby village of Kinderhook (Lindenwald is actually about two miles south of the village) – the best thing was obviously the statue of Old Kinderhook himself in the village square (see picture at start of post), so don’t miss the photo opp! (Side note, “Old Kinderhook” was abbreviated to O.K. on campaign materials, which is one possible explanation for the word, although even at the time, O.K. was also a “folksy” misspelled abbreviation of” all correct.”  The Whigs claimed that “oll korrect” was probably how Jackson would spell it, thus mocking his “down-home” Southern roots.  All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the post title is totally a pun!)  I have to say, the entire village was adorable; I’m adding it to my list of places I wouldn’t mind living.  Just down the road from the village is the cemetery that is Martin Van Buren’s final resting place; he didn’t go for an elaborate statue of himself there (as I probably would have), but a simple obelisk marking his and Hannah’s graves.

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If you enjoy lesser-known presidents as much I do (cue the “Mediocre Presidents” song from The Simpsons “We are the adequate, forgettable, occasionally regrettable caretaker Presidents of the U-S-A!”… although, I couldn’t insult Martin by calling him mediocre after sharing a bench with him), then you should definitely factor in a trip to Lindenwald.  The house is quite pleasant, but I wasn’t going for the house so much as I was the Van Buren trivia (ok, and the statue.  Definitely the statue), and in that, I was richly rewarded.  3.5/5

Canton, Ohio: National First Ladies’ Library

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I’m currently back in Ohio for a visit for the first time since I’ve started this blog, so I can finally begin to remedy my neglect of my old home state. Obviously, NE Ohio (or Cleveland+, as I believe they’re trying to call it now) has can’t compete with the history, and consequently, the number of museums in Britain, but it’s not a total cultural wasteland.  The first place I’ll discuss is one I visited last weekend – the National First Ladies’ Library.

You may be thinking to yourself at this point, “What? The National Library dedicated to all the First Ladies is in some city in Ohio I’ve never heard of?!”  Well, yes it is, and what’s more, it’s not even terribly big, and was only founded in 1995 .  A rather shameful neglect of the poor ladies if you ask me.  The reason it’s in Canton, so far as I can tell, is because the founder of the organisation lived there, and because Ida Saxton McKinley‘s home was available to house the library.  Ida Saxton McKinley, as you may recall from a much earlier post, was the sickly wife of William McKinley, the president who is probably most famous for starting the Spanish American War, and for being assassinated at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 (for more reading on McKinley, I’d recommend The President and the Assassin, which is surprisingly riveting).  She was something of a local belle, and had a rather large mansion in Canton, which served as the McKinley family home for a number of years.  However, it is not the same house as the one in McKinley’s famous “Front Porch Campaign,” as the family had moved out in 1891.

Still with me?  All right, so the set-up of the First Ladies’ Library is somewhat confusing, and the website doesn’t explain it very clearly, but fortunately my mother had visited a number of times before, so she knew the drill.  The library (which is actually a museum, at least as far as non-scholars are concerned) is divided between two buildings in downtown Canton, which are separated by a few parking lots.  After parking in one of them (for which you’ll have to buzz the library to get the access code to open the gate), you first proceed to the old bank building, which houses the temporary exhibits.  There you’ll pay admission, normally $7, though free on the day I visited, and receive a brief introduction to the collections.  During my visit, the theme was First Ladies and the Press, and the displays consisted of twelve miniature replicas of dresses worn by various First Ladies, correspondence between (you guessed it) First Ladies and the press, White House china, and other memorabilia.  The most interesting things were probably the old newspapers, which I was meant to be reading for the obituaries, but the advertisements in them were just as intriguing.

The film room was adjacent to the main display room, and featured six short films.  I watched one on invalid First Ladies, and I have to say that they stretched the definition of the Victorian era quite a bit, as it does have finite dates, and calling Ellen Wilson and Elizabeth Monroe Victorian First Ladies is not entirely accurate, especially as Elizabeth died 7 years before Victoria even took the throne.  The content was also lacking – because it was so short, it only offered the briefest overview, when I would have liked detailed information on their specific conditions.  It only took about half an hour to look around the bank building and watch a couple films, as the collection was quite small.  However, tours of the next site, the McKinley house, are only offered once an hour (on the half an hour), so time your visit carefully.  Because there were so many people waiting (probably on account of the free admission), they offered a 2 o’clock tour, but I’m not sure if that is normally the case.

Now, one of the many, many things I hate is guided tours.  There’s inevitably always a couple of people who push ahead and then stand in front of things so you can’t see them, and another person who will ask really stupid questions.  However, it is the only way to see the Saxton McKinley House, so I sucked it up and went along with the crowd.  The tours are done by a costumed guide in the guise of one of the First Ladies; on my tour, we got Sarah Polk.  She wasn’t actually in character or anything, she was just wearing a hoop skirt, and told us she was meant to be Sarah Polk.  She didn’t even regale us with any specific Sarah Polk facts.

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The McKinley home is a pretty standard American Victorian affair, lots and lots of green wallpaper (presumably reproductions of the original Scheele’s Green, which was made with arsenic) and knick-knacks everywhere (clearly the American nouveau riche didn’t share the disdain of the British upper classes for tat).  The rooms were perfectly lovely, if you’re into overdone Victorian decorating (which I kind of am), but not especially noteworthy, save for one on the third floor which was like another small museum, and had a plaque on each of the First Ladies, as well as some of their artefacts, including two of Ida’s dresses.  The thing to remember about the First Ladies is that they weren’t necessarily all just the presidents’ wives; in the case of widower or bachelor presidents (I’m looking at you, possibly secretly gay James Buchanan!) they were nieces or daughters or whoever wanted to assume the entertaining duties; Dolley Madison took on the job for Thomas Jefferson, which led to rumours of their having an affair.  So the plaques were really quite interesting, but I rather wish they had been in the bank building instead so I could have had more time to study them, as time was limited within the confines of the tour.  As these sorts of things do, the tour ended in the gift shop, which has a few postcards, and some books on the presidents and First Ladies that looked appealing, though not appealing enough to pay standard retail prices I guess (I might consider it if I’m ever not completely broke).

It’s hard to rate the First Ladies’ Library, because I appreciate what they’re trying to do, and I’m glad someone is out there doing it, because I’m fascinated by presidential history, and I think the stories of the First Ladies need to be told as well.  In addition to this, the Saxton McKinley house was in a complete state of disrepair when they were given it and they’ve obviously completed extensive renovation work based largely on photographs of the original house.  That said, I think something was lacking in the whole experience, and the collections were small and limited; the library is run in conjunction with the National Parks Department, and they need to pour a lot more money into it (although that seems unlikely, particularly with the current state of affairs).  They do put on special events from time to time, like teas, which my mother has attended and enjoyed, and she said that she’s had better tours as well; obviously it depends which volunteer is running them, so your experience may vary.  3/5, but I’d love to see some big improvements, because it’s a fascinating subject matter, and I’d like to see them thrive in future.