United States

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history (highly recommended if you have kids, by the way, though unless they’ve issued a new edition, it might be a bit out of date.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

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Adventures Around Ohio: A Post of Odds and Ends

There are a few places in Ohio I visited that for one reason or another don’t merit their own write-up, but I’d still like to mention them, so this post will serve as a kind of dumping ground for the odd ones out (I’m so eloquent, aren’t I?).

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First up, the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Cleveland’s Public Square.  I’ve admired it from the exterior many, many times before, but had never been inside.  I’m glad I was finally able to check out the interior as well, because it was pretty awesome.  The man inside gave us a brief history of the monument, which was built in 1894 by architect Levi Scofield as a memorial to deceased Civil War soldiers from Cuyahoga County.  The interior holds a few glass cases with various Civil War memorabilia, , as well as some information about African American and Jewish soldiers.

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It also features some gorgeous decorations, like delightful stained glass windows commemorating different divisions of the military, and the most special thing of all – four bronze relief sculptures that dramatically depict events from the Civil War (with great artistic licence taken, mind), including the emancipation of the slaves, the ladies of the Soldier’s Aid Society (with Mrs. Rutherford B. Hayes), and the beginning and end of the war.  Lincoln is superbly rendered.  The walls are lined with the names of all the fallen soldiers, and a bust of Scofield hangs above the door.  Obviously, the exterior is very attractive as well, and the lady at the top was modelled after Scofield’s wife.  Going inside is free, and only takes a couple of minutes, so I definitely recommend doing so if you visit Public Square on a weekday.

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Secondly, I paid a visit to the International Women’s Air and Space Museum inside Burke Lakefront Airport.  It’s also free to visit, as it is located just inside the airport’s entryway.  It consists of a few display cases around the centre of the room, and some more lining the hall, with information and objects belonging to famous female astronauts and aviatrixes.  Everyone knows about Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride, but there were many lesser-known women featured here as well, like Bessie Coleman, and Katharine Wright (sister to the Wright brothers, and owner of a gorgeous lace dress that she wore to meet President Taft, or T-fat, as I call him).

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There were even a couple of planes, including the “Purple Puddy Tat,” and a stumpy little plane used for training exercises.  The NASA section had a few interactive bits, so you could practice exercising in space, though sadly, there was no practice astronaut toilet.  This museum is quite small, but it was better than I was expecting, and it’s always nice to learn more about women who were pioneers in their field, so I hope by posting about it, I can bring some attention to it, as it seems somewhat overlooked.  They even have a shop, so again, please consider stopping in if you are downtown and have some time to kill.

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Next, there’s the Canton Art Museum, which I only popped into briefly during a “First Night” event (basically a kind of arty open house thing).  It seemed pretty small, only three rooms, but there were craft stalls set up around the place for the special event, so some parts of the museum may not have been open, I’m not sure.  The parts I did see featured all 20th-21st century artists, including a special exhibit on environmental themed art, which was actually quite cool.  Those polar bears above are made from plastic utensils, and there were lots of other naturey type paintings.  And they seemed to have detailed explanations on a lot of the pieces, which I appreciate, as I’m definitely more of a reader than an observer when it comes to art.

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Then, there’s Farnam Manor.  I was reluctant to even post about Farnam at all, because despite appearances to the contrary, I really don’t like to say only bad things about a place, especially somewhere historical, but this place was seriously awful.  I went for one of the “lantern tours” for Halloween, which they stress is not a typical haunted house experience.  What it is, in fact, is parting with $20 for the privilege of waiting in an unheated carriage house filled with creepy dolls for an hour, because although I called in advance and was told I could show up any time, the people running the house were incredibly disorganised and didn’t employ enough staff.

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I knew I was in trouble when a group of incredibly earnest and overenthusiastic preteens showed up who had evidently been on the tour before, and were avid “ghost hunters.”  This meant they took pictures with flash every two seconds throughout the tour, hunting for “orbs,” so I was basically blinded the entire time.  The only other people on the tour seemed to be ones who actually believed in ghosts.  Now, I like visiting “haunted” stuff, and I won’t say I’m entirely disbelieving when I’m left alone in a dark room at night, but I am generally a skeptic, and these people were just over-the-top gullible.  The tour ended with them asking yes or no questions of a candle, which appeared to be responding because the woman leading the tour just happened to open the window.  The entire tour was really lame, contained almost no history (and the few “facts” she did spit out were incorrect), and had weird “historical actors” in several of the room, one of whom was so enthusiastic that he almost crushed me with a door.

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I’ve posted some pictures I took around the house so you can look for orbs or mist too…although I suspect my camera lens wasn’t dirty enough.  There was also an outdoor “Trail of Terror” that had crappy lighting, and wound through a forest, which I ended up leaving early because it was so lame and I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Seriously, avoid this place.  It is NOT a good time.

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Finally, to end on a more positive note, I visited the annual Apple Butter festival/Oxtoberfest (that’s not a typo, they roast an ox) in Burton.  I went to this quite a few times as a kid, and mostly just remember eating apple fritters whilst freezing my ass off, but I was pleasantly surprised by my visit this year.  It helped that it was still really warm outside, but I also think more buildings were open than in the past.  The festival is held in the historic village of Burton, and so many of the old buildings are open to the public, some with costumed interpreters practicing various trades, but the apple butter is also a key attraction, with people taking turns stirring massive cauldrons full of it over an open fire, and then canning it, so you can buy a still-warm jar.

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Of course, it is a festival, so expect lots of other carnival type (i.e. fried) foods.  The apple fritters are still there, and definitely a treat, as are caramel apples, freshly cut fries, and funnel cakes.  You’ll also find a variety of craft stalls.  It’s held during the peak of leaf season in Ohio, and Burton is fairly rural, with cute shops on the main street, so it’s a good chance to take in the scenery and indulge your greasy food cravings.  I definitely appreciate the fact that there’s some history on offer as well, and people-watching at these sorts of events is a must!

Well, I think that about does it for now as far as NE Ohio is concerned, though you can expect more Ohio posts when I go back again next month for the holidays!

Canton, Ohio: Hoover Historical Center

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I know my last post was presidential in nature, so just to clarify, this post is about Hoover as in vacuums, not the 31st president.  Little ol’ Canton isn’t only the former home of William McKinley, but is also where the first Hoover vacuum cleaners were manufactured.  The former home and workshop of “Boss” Hoover, family patriarch, have been preserved and turned into a museum of vacuums, which is free to look through via a guided tour.  I know I was just moaning about guided tours in my last post, but the Hoover tour was a different experience entirely.

Although their website says tours are only offered on the hour, when we arrived (at 40 past the hour), we were the only visitors, so the guide immediately came out and started to show us around.  The house is owned by Walsh University, and is used as a training site for their museums studies programme, so most of the guides are student interns, which means your experience may vary.  Our guide took a while to warm to the material, but had loosened up by the time we made it into the house.

The tour began in the old workshop, the first room of which was devoted to the leather tanning business, as Boss Hoover started out as a leather manufacturer.  It seemed to be a “cleaned-up” (literally) description of the process, as I’m fairly sure (on the basis of watching old episodes of The Worst Jobs in History with Tony Robinson) urine was involved at some point in tanning.  But no matter.  We quickly progressed to the back room, where the guide demonstrated some of the collection of non-electric vacuums.  He even allowed us to try one of the models out – it was a version operated by a skateboard-like device, which one person rocked back and forth on to power the suction, whilst the other person manoeuvred the hose.  It actually worked, and was fun to use…at least in the short term.  Probably more useful than a “Thighmaster” at any rate.

Following the vacuuming ( I won’t say hoovering, as the models in the workshop pre-dated Hoover), we moved into the Italianate farmhouse, where William H. Hoover (Boss’s son, and founder of Hoover Vacuums) was raised.  Here, we were provided with some history of the Hoover Company, and how they began making vacuums.  It started as a partnership between Hoover and an asthmatic man called Spangler who worked as a janitor in a local department store, and needed to devise a way to sweep without raising dust.  Even though the vacuum had obviously been invented some years before, Spangler’s was the first upright sweeper.  One of these new vacuums was subsequently bought by Susan Hoover, wife of Boss, who was so impressed with it she mentioned it to her son, who decided to buy Spangler’s patent, and go into the vacuum business.  Like the vacuum I described before, early models were incredibly unwieldy, and often required two people to operate them, so Hoover’s product marked a breakthrough in vacuum technology, and as electricity became more common, and prices therefore dropped, the Hoovers were well placed to reap the rewards.

The museum currently has an emphasis on the family life of the Hoovers, so the rooms (which were decorated in period fashion, though not one true to the original home) had various photographs and other knick-knacks lying around, which the guide made sure to point out to us.  The real focus here though, is of course the Hoover vacuums, and all the eras of vacuum technology were well-represented.  I learned (and heard!) that the earlier models were quieter than modern ones, because customers became suspicious that if the vacuum was too quiet, it wasn’t working properly, so they increased the noise to meet demand!  I was also intrigued by the connection between London and Canton – during WWII, workers in the Perivale factory were encouraged to send their children to Canton to keep them out of the Blitz, and a few of them stayed on after the war to complete their schooling in America.  I think the reason why vacuuming is called hoovering in Britain also dates to around this period – although Hoover had a factory in Britain from WWI, it took a while for it to flood the market and surpass the British brands; something which was also helped along by the entire range of Hoover appliances, from dishwashers to fridges (one of which survives in the kitchen).

Each room in the house was dedicated to a different decade/era, with appropriate models of Hoovers to illustrate, as well as informational signs and photos. There was even a small collection of Hoover toys, since children apparently love the motion of vacuuming.  After the old Victorian models, I think I liked the retro ones best (my grandparents had one from the ’60s or ’70s that is still functioning), even if the colours were rather hideous.

I honestly really enjoyed this tour, and I do love a good eclectic collection, and this one certainly meets that criterion.  The other guide working that day was a true Hoover enthusiast who chatted with us about some of his favourite models, and even told us about a secret Hoover factory outlet that sells cheap parts (unfortunately, like most other people in Britain, I don’t even have a Hoover, it’s a Miele!  Sorry!).  The only real issue, and this was more an issue for them than me, is that they don’t have an obvious donation box anywhere, or sell postcards or anything.  I think they should put one out, because I would have happily stuffed a few dollars in after the tour.  4/5

Canton, Ohio: William McKinley Museum

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Since I haven’t been in the States since last December, most of my posts have, by necessity, been very UK-centric.  I thought I’d liven things up a bit for any American readers with a post about one of my favourite museums in Ohio, the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum.  Located in Canton, near Ida McKinley‘s childhood home and the First Ladies’ Library (which, shamefully, I have yet to visit), it’s a worthy destination for anyone in Northeast Ohio.

For some idea of scale.  Yep, those doors are huge!

For some idea of scale. Yep, those doors are huge!

One of my goals is to eventually visit all the presidential museums in the US, but as my current total stands at one, that’s going to take some doing.  I haven’t even made it to the other ones in Ohio, like Hayes, Harding, and Taft, which is really just a poor show on my part.  I have been to Garfield’s tomb in Lakeview cemetery many times, but never to his actual home, largely because it used to be run by the Western Reserve Historical Society, and Western Reserve has upset me with its decline in quality over the years.  In fact, I’d never even been to the McKinley Museum until about two years ago, despite having lived within forty miles of it for most of my life (which may sound like a lot to British readers, but forty miles is nothing in America.  My dad has been known to make the drive to Canton for the sole purpose of procuring a Bittner from Taggart’s. (Taggart’s is admittedly well worth visiting if you’re already in Canton for McKinley.  I’m partial to their hot fudge sundaes myself.)).  This is all a roundabout way of me explaining that I don’t have any other presidential museums to compare McKinley’s with, so I don’t know if it’s a typical example of its type or not.

This picture was taken in October.  The trees will not be this pretty if you visit now.

This picture was taken in October. The trees will not be this pretty if you visit now.

The first thing you’ll notice as you drive up to the museum is the giant mausoleum at the top of a hill.  A hill that is accessible by walking up about a million steps.  Many locals seem to use these steps for their cardio routines, including running and some strange aerobics moves, so you’ll have to dodge them on the way up, but will be rewarded by a nice view (see above).  If you come in non-winter months, you should be able to have a peek inside the mausoleum wherein William and Ida are interred.  It’s not as ornate as Garfield’s tomb, but then again, it was built well after the peak of Victorian ostentation (which I’m not knocking, I have a lot of random crap in my flat), so that’s to be expected.  It’s totally free to just come check out the mausoleum, but obviously you’ll want to have a look round the museum as well, which is $8.

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I love the dress!

I always like to head upstairs first, where you’ll come across a tiny room screening a film about the financing and construction of the mausoleum and the planetarium, which I have never been in.  The shows are sporadic, and that’s not really what I’m there for, though you might want to check their website for the times if it appeals to you.  The first section of the museum is devoted to the history of Canton, and you’ll learn that the early settlers all have satisfyingly long-winded biblical names.  I swear one of them was called Zebezekial or something.  There are a few displays of various machinery, and more of clothing and furniture as you progress through time.  Sometimes a volunteer will be passing through and offer to show you how some of the stuff works, including an old crank record player that isn’t a Victrola, but some other rare type that actually had impressive resonance.

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This is blurry because of the spinning, I swear! Though I have no excuse for all the other blurry pictures on here.

The best things about this section are the interactives, which are primarily the vacuum chair, and the spinny thing shown above.  Canton is the home of Hoover vacuums (side note, British people call vacuuming “hoovering,” yet every vacuum I’ve used here has either been a Dyson or Miele.  Intriguing), so the museum has devised a chair hanging from a chain which is hooked up to a Hoover. You sit down, and the vacuum will suck the chair upward until your legs are dangling.  I suppose it’s at least a good advertisement for the power of a Hoover, and is also fun. I could spend all day messing around in the vacuum chair, but I can usually only handle about one rotation of the spinning thing before I want to hurl.  I think it’s supposed to be demonstrating the power of different types of force, but is really just a self-powered glorified carnival ride, which can probably be better appreciated by people who don’t suffer from motion sickness.

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To add to the carnival atmosphere, they also have a Laughing Sal, and her maniacal laugh will indeed haunt you as you make your way through the rest of the museum.  There is a back room which is generally used for special exhibits; the ones I recall seeing were dollhouses and Christmas ornaments, but they change every couple of months.  Excitingly, you’re not done yet, as there is still a “street of yesteryear” awaiting you.  I am totally unashamed about my love for these recreated 19th century streets you see every now and again.  Although this one lacks the authentic smells that I adore, it’s nonetheless a good effort.

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The museum seems like it’s never terribly crowded, so I have generally been able to wander the street alone and pretend that I have somehow travelled back in time (because I am that lame).  It’s not like a living history museum or anything, so there’s not people there to pester you.  Rather, they’ve replaced actual people with mannequins sporting hilariously bad wigs, which I think we can all agree is a thousand times better than having to converse with some random person who is trying to stay in character.

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You can pop in and out of various shops, and they’ve even got a set of stairs leading up to a second row of shops.  The firehouse has a pole you can slide down, but I chicken out every time.  The thing is seriously only seven feet high, at most, and there’s a giant cushion on the bottom, and I have witnessed tiny children gleefully sliding down it, but I can’t bring myself to do it.  Every time, I climb to the top of the stairs and think I’ll be able to, but, nope, I’m inevitably forced to slink back down the stairs in shame.  I honestly don’t even know why I’m admitting this.  There’s just something about having to step out over a sheer drop that freaks me out, and I totally don’t trust my arms to actually hold me on the pole.

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There’s also a train room with a large model train track.  I gather that many people like trains, so this may be of interest.  I like miniature things, so I’m happy to look at the tiny buildings and people set up around the track, but I’m not that keen on actual trains.  I guess I have to ride insanely crowded trains that reek of B.O. and rancid burgers far too often in London for me to appreciate the nostalgia for the quaint age of train travel that exists in the US.  I will concede that there is a big difference between a packed commuter train and an old steam train with nicely upholstered seats and wooden trim.

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You may be wondering where William McKinley fits into all of this, as I’ve managed to write over a thousand words whilst barely mentioning him.  The truth is, there’s not actually all that much about McKinley in the museum.  The only part devoted to him is one large room full of display cases and a recreation of his parlour.  I can almost forgive this oversight because smack-dab in the middle of the parlour, animatronic William and Ida McKinley await you.  They only have about three different conversations programmed in, all of which you’ll hear more than once in the time it takes you to look at the displays in the room.  I don’t think this is really the place to get into politics, and the legacy of McKinley, but I know he’s not very well looked upon by a lot of people due to the Spanish-American war, and you know, the whole imperalism thing.  Though I’m no McKinley apologist, I tend to take a longer view of the situation, as I think imperialism was a long, probably inevitable road that has its roots in the Louisiana Purchase and the Monroe Doctrine, but even I couldn’t help making some snide remarks to animatronic William when he started going on about wanting to avoid war and bloodshed (“But you must remember the Maine, Willy! You used it to help start a war!”).  Yes, I talk to animatronic presidents, even though he is not the type of animatronic that is interactive.  I have also been known to converse with Bruce the Talking Spruce, but that’s another story altogether.  I did try to warn William off from visiting the Pan-American Exposition, but I kind of think that’s what they expect you to do.

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Anyway, the non-talking artefacts in here are pretty good.  They include some Maine (the battleship, not the state) shaped commemorative objects, and various articles of McKinley clothing.  It’s nice to learn more about McKinley’s life, rather than just his politics, as I tend to favour the biographical side of presidential history.  I just wish there was a bit more of it here.  But all this only covers the top floor of the museum.  There is still a lower level to contend with.

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Fortunately, I can dispense with that fairly quickly.  The downstairs is aimed at children, though that didn’t stop me from playing with all the interactive science exhibits, as always.  They have some dinosaurs, including the one above, which moves when you least expect it (you will jump), and some geological stuff, and a collection of small animals to look at (living ones, not taxidermy).  This is the main thing that annoys me about the McKinley Museum; I feel like it’s trying to be all things to all people.  I could happily do without the dinosaurs in favour of more displays on presidential history, but I suppose to attract repeat visitors in the area, they have to have activities that appeal to families, and that’s where the dinosaurs come in.

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After all that, I’m going to give the McKinley Museum 4/5, because it does include my top museum criteria of historic recreated streets, wax figures, and the animatronic McKinleys.  I’m happy enough with the Canton history section, but I do wish they could find the focus to make it more of a McKinley orientated attraction.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that a presidential museum should be mainly about said president.  However, for a smallish, local museum, they do what they’ve chosen to do well, and with no shortage of quirk, so despite my complaints, it will remain on my list of favourites.