America…1954: Brown V. The Board of Education

September 2014

We’ve journeyed back over to Kansas for a few days for some more history, beginning at Monroe Elementary School , the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.

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Established in 2004 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court Decision it is the only site in the National Park Service system dedicated to a Supreme Court case. The site on which the (formerly all black) school sits has an interesting history in and of itself (the land was originally obtained through a homestead claim), which includes ties to the Underground Railroad.

Race in America

The school is divided into five exhibit areas chronicling not only the case itself but what had come before and what has come since. It also includes a classroom set up from 1954 and a bookstore with many relevant publications. We began our tour inside the main auditorium with a thirty minute film.

The movie – Race and the American Creed, coupled with photos and displays, tells the story of slavery, racism and segregation in America. Even among those who felt slavery was unfair, it was still believed that blacks were inferior to whites.

In memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, in imagination they are dull, tasteless. ~ Thomas Jefferson

In the movie, an old story teller, Mr. Owens, shares what he knows with Nicole, the teenaged granddaughter of a friend. Covering slavery, Japanese interment camps, segregation, Jim Crow laws, the Civil Rights movement and more, the movie really highlights a disturbing history, and provides an overview of the issues chronicled within the other exhibits. The link above goes to a transcript of the movie (though it’s far more powerful to see it), if interested.

The Doll Test

After the movie we stopped into the bookstore/gift shop talking to the Ranger (who had coincidentally enough done a stint at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, so lots of chat about back home and a reminder to check out some of the local NPS sites that we haven’t hit yet). Just outside, in the main hallway I noticed a display case containing one faded baby doll and stepped out to check it out.

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I read the accompanying plaque and though it didn’t fully explain the experiment, I instantly knew the premise, having seen it repeated on an episode of Oprah years ago. In the test, Drs Kenneth & Mamie Clark showed two dolls – a white doll and a black doll – to 200 children, including 16 black children. They were asked a series of questions about the dolls – which they preferred, which was pretty, which was nice, which was good, which was bad, etc. In most circumstances all of the positive traits (as well as their preference for a doll) were assigned to the white doll, even by the black children.

I remember watching the episode of Oprah all those years ago, and being struck by how early the negative self image began in black children. It was devastating watching child after child pick the black doll as the bad or ugly or mean doll and then be asked the last question – “which doll is like you?” Each black child looked confused and sad as they chose the bad/ugly/mean doll as the one that was like them. You can find multiple videos of this test repeated, and the results are nearly always the same. White doll = good. Black doll = bad.

The Clarks’s work, originally part of the Briggs v. Elliot court case was key in showing that segregated schools were not only not equal, but clearly detrimental to the psychological development of black children.

Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas

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Brown v. the Board of Education, was the result of five cases (including Briggs v. Elliot) merged as part of a national strategy in fighting against school segregation. The merged case reached the Supreme Court in 1954 and when the Court ruled unanimously on May 17, 1954 that separate was not equal, it was the catalyst for desegregation and the furthering of civil rights movements all over the country. But it was not a battle easily won and the ruling, which did little to change public opinion, was only the beginning. Integration would not come quickly. In fact, one county in Virginia opted to close its schools for five years rather than comply. They were later ordered by the Supreme Court to reopen and integrate. Total integration wasn’t completed until 1963, nearly 10 years after the Supreme Court ruled against segregation.

1954 Classroom

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The Original Fight for Marriage Equality

Though the focus of the site is Brown v. Board of Education, the museum covers other racial history. As one half of an interracial marriage I was stunned by this panel about Loving v. Virginia, which legalized interracial marriage throughout the US in 1967 (although Alabama, which was the last state to amend its constitution to reflect the ruling, did not do so until 2000). Obviously even prior to meeting and marrying my husband I was familiar with the case. However, it certainly took on a more personal meaning when we were married in 2010, knowing that less than fifty years earlier, in some parts of this country, our marriage would have still been illegal (the 50th anniversary is still two years away).

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But what I found most disturbing about this piece was the second section, the part that didn’t specifically deal with Loving, but instead with a more recent event. In case it’s too small to read, – from the board:

In 2011, the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church in Kentucky openly banned interracial couples from their church after a 9-6 vote. The church stated that the banning of interracial couples was to “promote great unity” among its members and the community. Interracial couples were banned from church services and functions, with the exception of funerals.

Should you think that may have been a typo on my part, that vote happened in 2011 – 4 years ago. The pastor of the church eventually overturned the ruling, but it was still stunning to read about. While I don’t live in complete denial of racial issues, I suppose I thought we had come further than we have. Though remembering the extreme backlash over a sweet Cheerios commercial should have had me knowing better, and serve as a reminder to anyone who thinks the folks at Gulnare were a rare exception.

I’m so grateful to all who fought before me so that a fight wasn’t necessary for me to marry my husband and have been happy to help in the fight for others. I know that some people balk at the idea of comparing the more recent struggle of the LGBT community for marriage equality to the fight for interracial marriage, though I can’t for the life of me figure out why. It doesn’t feel any different to me. I was working in the Massachusetts State Senate when marriage equality became a reality in Massachusetts. It was both an exciting and depressing time – exciting to watch people gain freedoms they’d been denied, and depressing to see the vitriol spewed from some opponents (including having personally fielded a phone call that ended with a thinly veiled death threat). I’m still proud to be from the first state to legally recognize same sex marriage and glad to have been part of the movement that eventually resulted in another historic Supreme Court victory.

Reflections

There was so much at Munroe to explore that I couldn’t possibly chronicle it all, but it was certainly a worthwhile and educational visit. Truth be told, I found myself overwhelmed in the exhibits, exploring some of the most shameful history of our country, knowing that it isn’t nearly as long ago as I’d wish and that we haven’t come nearly as far as we need to. But I was also moved by the many individuals who fought for equality (often to their own peril) and worked to further the rights of those long denied. I can only hope that we continue the work of those before us, and ensure that the fight for equality doesn’t stop until it truly represents all.

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From August 12 – October 15, 2014 my husband and I traveled the northern United States in my Honda Civic. Cross Country Civic was started (and will eventually be completed) to document our cross country adventure. All comments and questions welcome.

Independence Harry

Leaving St. Louis, we drove across Missouri to our next destination, Independence, and explored the life and Presidency of Harry S Truman. Our tour of “all things Truman” spanned decades of his life, from the drug store where a young Truman once worked, to his final resting place at his Presidential Library and Museum. It was a great day of historical exploration.

September 2014

CLINTON’S SODA FOUNTAIN

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We began our day by stopping into Clinton’s Soda Fountain. Though this iteration of Clinton’s has only been in existence since 1988, it was at this site that a fourteen year old Harry Truman worked his first job at Clinton’s Drug Store. The drug store, thankfully, is not overwhelmingly Truman the way Springfield was all Lincoln all the time.

Here’s a sneak peek of the Presidential Museum with its display regarding Harry’s time at Clinton’s. You can see that the new captures the spirit of the old.

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We grabbed a quick drink and snack at the counter before heading off to the NPS Visitor’s Center.

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HARRY S. TRUMAN NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE

The Harry S. Truman National Historic Site is comprised of multiple locations. In addition to the NPS Visitor’s Center, there is (the Truman Family Farm), his home with wife Elizabeth “Bess” Truman, the church where they were married, as well as other sites in the Truman Historic District (the Presidential Library is separate from the NHS). For our visit we only had time to visit Harry and Bess’s home if we were going to have the opportunity to explore the museum (which we very much wanted to do). We began with the exhibits and movie at the Visitor’s Center before moving on to the historic home.

TRUMAN HOME

The only way to visit the home is to take the guided tour offered by the National Park Service, so we grabbed our tickets and headed down to the house. The beautiful Victorian home was known as the “Summer White House” during Truman’s Presidency – not to be confused with the “Little Whitehouse” located in Key West. Unfortunately, other than exterior shots, the Truman home did not allow photography. I asked why and was told it was to protect the artifacts in the home from light. Since most cameras have the ability to disable flash (and since many National Historic Sites do allow photography) I find that to be a frustrating explanation, but I always abide by the rules on tour. Here’s a photograph of the outside of this beautiful home, along with the historical marker:

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Here’s another look at the exterior of the house:

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In this shot, you’ll notice the top of a wrought iron fence in the foreground. Not a part of the original property, the fence was added by the Secret Service in 1949 to protect the home from “treasure hunters.” Souvenir hunters began to satisfy their needs by literally stealing pieces of the house. One particularly frightening incident had a startled Bess finding two women “touring” the inside of the house. So the fence was erected. Unfortunately, in addition to keeping unwelcome guests out, it also served to keep the Trumans in. Truman hated the fence, and had envisioned taking the fence down after his presidency. But they quickly realized that would never be possible. Fame would not allow for it.

The inside of the house is a bit like a time capsule. Unlike many historic homes where you step back to another century in a home that has been refurbished and done “in the style” of the original home, the Truman home is preserved exactly as it had been (complete with the Trumans’ actual possessions and furnishings), at the time when Bess Truman passed away in 1982 (10 years after Harry). This passage from the NHS website captures it perfectly: “Today, the Truman Home offers a glimpse at the personal life of the 33rd President of the United States. Beautiful in its uncluttered commonness, the Truman Home showcases the simple life the family enjoyed in Independence before and after Harry’s years as President.”

The Trumans were very frugal and there may have been financial reasons for their lifestyle and choice of Independence to retire. Until 1958, ex-presidents did not get a pension. Congress finally passed (and President Eisenhower signed) the law allowing for an annual pension of $25,000 plus office expenses of $50,000 and unlimited postage. Additionally, only after the Kennedy assassination did retired presidents get secret service protection. Until then, the police chief assigned an officer as a part-time bodyguard for the Trumans. It is said that Bess was able to push her shopping cart through the local supermarket without anyone bothering her.

One of the showpieces within the home was a piano. Unaware that the Trumans’ only child Margaret Truman Daniel was a singer and songwriter (as well as a novelist), I was charmed by stories of Margaret’s childhood in Independence including one about the train set she really wanted the Christmas she got her first piano instead.

A later tale about her career as a singer involved her father (the sitting President at the time) writing a pointed letter to a critic who had given her a less a than favorable review. The letter included (among other gems): “Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!” Apparently it caused a big controversy about how a man who could not control his temper over a bad review could be trusted with the authority to use nuclear weapons. Have things really changed?

Back outside, another “time-capsule” of sorts is located on the grounds. In the garage sits Harry’s final car.

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Harry only drove the 1972 Chrysler Newport for 6 months before his passing, and Bess for another ten years after that. Margaret donated the car to the National Park Service and it remains in the garage at the family home. The license plate 5745 (May 7th, 1945), the date of VE day in Europe – was to serve as a reminder to Harry of this important victory. The plate number is retired and no longer issued.

This however, was the not the same car that Harry Truman took on a long road trip after the presidency. The book “Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure: The True Story of a Great American Road Trip” provides great insight into the years following the presidency. I wonder how their trip compared to ours?

Stay tuned as we continue our exploration of the life of the 33rd President with our visit to the Harry S. Truman Museum and Library.

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From August 12 – October 15, 2014 my husband and I traveled the northern United States in my Honda Civic. Cross Country Civic was started (and will eventually be completed) to document our cross country adventure. All comments and questions welcome.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum

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We visited the Presidential Museum the day after we visited the Lincoln Home. Our visit to the Lincoln Museum was unlike our visit to the Hoover Museum. First, and very much to my dismay, the museum does not allow photography, which is always such a difficult thing for me to hear (the Hoover Museum allowed photography – without flash – in all but the temporary exhibits). While a member of the museum staff told me that they are considering opening certain areas of the museum to photos in the future, for our visit the only place photographs were allowed was inside the main foyer.

So, here it is, your Lincoln Museum photo.

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The picture itself isn’t all that interesting; the Lincoln Family standing in front of the White House. However, those paying attention will see that the family is being observed from a distance. That’s John Wilkes Booth leaning against the column to the left.

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In addition to the no-photos rule, the Lincoln Museum, which opened in 2005 is a great deal newer than the Hoover Museum (opened in 1962) and employs far different techniques for presenting information (though some believe the museum is already outdated after less than ten full years – more on that later) favoring more advanced media, and less memorabilia display cases. The difference might be explained, in part, by the fact that the Hoover Museum is part of a Presidential Library system comprised of 13 libraries/museums that are operated by the National Archives, while the Lincoln Museum is run by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, was funded with a combination of state, federal and municipal money, and consists of exhibits designed by BRC Imagination Arts, which also designs theme park exhibits.

We began our visit entering through Lincoln’s Log Cabin to Journey One: The Pre-Presidential Years. Passing through the cabin itself you find a young Lincoln reading (Lincoln was self-educated). Once exiting into the main section, one of the first exhibits depicts a Slave Auction showing a family being sold and torn apart, a sad (and unfathomable) depiction of what would have been an all-too-often occurrence. Other areas of this section touched on Lincoln’s relationship with Ann Rutledge who died in 1835 (and is considered by some to have been his first and true love). Lincoln would meet Mary Todd four years later and after a stormy courtship, marry.

Some of Lincoln’s pre-White House days were a bit of surprise to me. I knew he was a lawyer, and knew that he held other political offices before being elected President, but I had no idea just how many times he had run for various offices and lost. In fact, it seemed as though he’d lost far more elections than he’d won.

A fascinating look at the 1860 presidential election was presented in one of the rooms. A multi-screen video presentation, Campaign 1860, featuring the fantastic, late Tim Russert, esteemed host of Meet the Press from 1991 until his untimely passing in 2008, does a great job of showcasing the issues facing the candidates, their ideals and conflicts, and how those issues would have played out in a modern-day arena. A plaque on the wall dedicates the exhibit to Mr. Russert.

When we exited “Journey One” the White House exhibit looked particularly crowded so we headed instead over to the Union Theater where we viewed Lincoln’s Eyes – describe by the museum as a story “told by the artist who struggled to capture the sorrow, hope, vision, resolve, and forgiveness in Lincoln’s eyes.” It was a wonderful piece, though I was annoyed at the number of adults seemingly incapable of sitting through a 20 minute presentation without talking.

From there we entered through the White House to Journey Two: The White House Years. As you enter you are immediately greeted with voices and chaos, while the sounds of political discourse and Lincoln-bashing surround you in what’s known as the Whispering Gallery. The walls are covered in political cartoons, from both sides of the aisle, none portraying Lincoln in a particularly positive light. Lincoln, a liberal Republican (no, the terms are not mutually exclusive, as the Republicans were once the more progressive party), was pretty much universally loathed for most of his presidency (in the 4-way race, Lincoln was elected with only 39% of the popular vote). Things had turned slightly in his favor shortly before his re-election, but overall he did not experience overwhelming popularity while in office, only rising to legend status long after his assassination.

As I made my way through the museum, one thing became apparent. The more things change, the more things stay the same. Those who long for a time when debate was spirited but civil, and lacked partisan clashes would be greatly disappointed when truly looking at history. Such gentler times do not exist.

Interestingly enough, Mary Todd Lincoln was not particularly popular in Washington either. Many of the local society women felt her beneath them, and not up to the standard of first lady. A particularly interesting exhibit shows Mary in a ball gown with the gowns of her rivals around an outer ring. The associated commentary of the women is full of catty and cruel remarks. Episodes of “Real Housewives of 1800’s Washington, D.C.” could have certainly featured these women.

Deeper in the journey you experienced the Lincolns’ pain of losing their son Willie (an exhibit shows them sitting vigil at Willie’s bedside while the President must also attend a White House ball). Further in, a large gallery with ghostly faces and voices debate the effectiveness and constitutionality of the Emancipation Proclamation, while another shows the 13th Amendment being heavily debated within Lincoln’s inner circle. In 2013, 148 years after its passing, Mississippi would become the final state to ratify the amendment (though they voted to ratify in 1995, they neglected to submit the paperwork). The section ends with first a replica of the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theater, and then Lincoln Lying in State at the Capital.

It would be impossible for me to describe all the museum has to offer, including the Treasures Gallery which hosts a large collection of Lincoln-related artifacts.. That said, I thought it was the most interesting museum of its kind I have ever been to and would recommend it to all. The displays were visually interesting, and captivated your mind and your emotions. The Civil War in 4 Minutes (click the link for the video), a Ken Burns piece chronicling the war’s shifting boundaries and the casualty count, makes a big impact. I wept as I stood in a dimly lit room and read the Gettysburg Address while a somber rendition of the Battle Hymn of the Republic played softly in the background. Manipulative? Sure. But effective. Complete with a message that I don’t think we have mastered even today.

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

We made our way into the Museum Store, and I was sad to discover that while the museum does sell DVDs of some of the other video shorts from the exhibits, they do not sell the Tim Russert campaign piece. He passed before they received publication rights. I hope that someday his family will make this fantastic video available for the public or at least to educators. I can think of at least one history teacher that would make it an annual viewing in her classroom.

On the way out, I noticed a Penny Machine in the lobby. I have collected pressed pennies for years, but was thoroughly amused at pressing an image of the Lincoln Museum on my Lincoln penny.

Across the street at the Union Station Train Depot (converted as part of the museum site), a small tribute to the Oscar winning film exists (and if you haven’t seen it, I couldn’t recommended it highly enough). The exhibit is extremely limited, showing one small set (where Lincoln’s closest discussed the 13th), a dress worn by Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and a few other pieces of movie memorabilia, but it was fun to pop into.

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Research after the visit revealed that many believe that the museum isn’t “museum-like” enough, but I think that’s what made it fantastic. It engages in a way that most don’t, drawing you in with the interactive and vibrant exhibits. Even complaints about the Tim Russert piece being outdated seem like nonsense to me. While younger generations certainly won’t feel the nostalgia that I (and I’m sure others) felt upon coming across a piece of Mr. Russert’s work, the lesson of the video still stands as it illustrates that the political machine, while constantly evolving, hasn’t changed the overall conflicts inherent in the political process itself.

The museum is extraordinarily well done and tells a remarkable story about a remarkable man.

Thanks for reading. Thoughts, questions and comments always welcome.

Abraham Lincoln: Before the White House

The list of things that most Americans can agree on is likely pretty short. On that list would surely be the fact that Abraham Lincoln was a great President (though I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few dissenters). But that’s the historical perspective, and does not necessarily reflect feelings about the man at the time.

In our attempt to find a deeper appreciation of the 16th President and to discover the man before his election to the land’s highest office, we visited Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln moved to Springfield in 1837. His future wife, Mary Todd, in 1839. Their courtship was a stormy one, in part due to the fact that Mary’s family did not approve of the union. Still, in 1842 they were married.

Their first year they lived in a boarding house, but after the birth of their first son, Robert Todd Lincoln, they found the conditions at the house too crowded and loud. They moved first into a 3 room cabin, and then finally into what is now the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. This is not the log cabin of Lincoln’s youth (for that you’d have to visit the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City, Indiana); but instead, the only home he owned as an adult. The home he purchased with Mary Todd Lincoln.

During their time there, Lincoln’s legal career would thrive, they would have more children (and lose their second-born Edward just shy of his 4th birthday), and Lincoln would eventually be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. It was the home they planned to return to at the end of his Presidency; though Lincoln’s own words in his farewell address seem eerily prophetic in retrospect.

“Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return…”

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The family would never return to the home, and Robert (the only of the four Lincoln children to live to adulthood), would eventually donate the home to the State of Illinois in 1887 (22 years after his father’s assassination). Later, in 1972, it was given to the United States Government and became a National Park Service Historic Site. In the “fun facts” section of the home’s website, it mentions that, “President Richard Nixon signed the legislation authorizing the establishment of the Lincoln Home as a National Historic Site at the Old State Capitol, using the same desk Lincoln used to write his first inaugural address.”

We arrived to the site pretty late in the afternoon and were lucky to get onto one of the last tours of the day. It was raining pretty hard as we headed from the Visitor’s Center down to the home, but the walk itself is a bit like going back in time. The surrounding neighborhood has been restored to recreate the world as it was when the Lincolns lived there. And as you can see from the photo above (which was taken after our tour when the rain had subsided) there are brick sidewalks and the roads are an unpaved, red clay.

Tours of old homes can often seem much the same – old rooms, old furniture, restored items, original items – unless you are enamored with the furnishings of a particular time period, it can be a bit of a mixed bag. In this case, in anticipation of their move to Washington, the Lincoln’s had rented out the house, selling the majority of their furniture, and putting aside only a few pieces for their return. When most of the furnishings aren’t original it becomes the stories and the history (and often the little touches) that make the difference.

The main hallway welcomes you with an immediate and tangible piece of Lincoln hanging on a hall tree.

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From the main hall, we were guided further into the house to the back parlor. One of two parlors in the home where guests would have been received, this parlor is particularly noteworthy. It was here on May 19, 1860, that members of the Republican National Committee would officially offer Abraham Lincoln the party’s nomination for President. A far cry from the pageantry, drama and spin of today’s nominating conventions, it was four days before he accepted the nomination.

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From there, we moved across the hall past a dining room and into the sitting room. In the sitting room (the equivalent of a modern-day family room) it is said that Lincoln would often lay on the floor, as most of the room’s furniture was not comfortable for his tall frame. He would read to the children, or play games with them. It was where they spent the majority of their family time, as the boys were not allowed in the formal parlors. And according to our guide, it was here that Lincoln would have frequent wrestling matches with his boys.

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The second floor housed a boy’s bedroom, as well as a small room for a “hired girl” (a hired girl was a young teenaged girl who helped with duties such as making fires, getting well water, cleaning lamps, etc.). A hired girl earned approximately $1.50 per week.

Additionally, the second floor housed a 2 bedroom suite for Abe and Mary. It was considered great luxury at that time for spouses to have separate bedrooms, though for many years, Mary shared hers with their youngest sons, Willie and Tad (Edward passed away before Willie and Tad were born). It wasn’t until Robert moved away to college that the younger boys could move across the hall into his room, finally affording Mary the privacy that her husband enjoyed.

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The final room of note was the kitchen. It is said that the kitchen in the Lincolns’ home was nearly identical in size to the one room cabin of his youth. Here are a two shots of the kitchen, though neither show the total room. But you can still get a sense of how small that cabin would have been. This kitchen was considered very modern for its time, and it is said that Mary had a hand in modernizing the White House kitchen.

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Mary loved entertaining and was a fan of cooking and baking. She was known to throw elaborate birthday parties for the boys (which was not at all common in those days). Her most famous recipe still lives on today. She often made a White Almond Cake, which was a particular favorite of Abe’s. It was such a well-known treat in their lives that a white almond cake is on display in the house, though the park staff enjoy moving it around from room to room to see if the tour guests will “discover” it. We found it in the dining room on our tour.

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After our tour of the home we explored the neighborhood a bit since the rain had stopped. Many of the houses on the block are privately owned, and while the owners can do what they like to the interior, the exterior and grounds are not to be touched. There are even some limitations placed on the homes regarding outdoor usage of the grounds.

Some of the other buildings are owned by the Park Service, while at least one serves as a Congressional District Office. This house is home to the the local office for the US Senate’s 13th District. If that doesn’t necessarily mean anything to you, the former occupant now sits at the White House.

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Visiting the Lincoln Home was a good start for insight into the man. His pre-Presidential life was full of family and community. The family experienced hard times (the death of their son Edward for starters), but to say it was a simpler time for the Lincolns would certainly be an understatement.

Next up, a tour the Presidential Museum.

“We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover…

“…for really showing us the way.”

It’s not 31st President’s fault that the catchy song from Annie played on repeat in my head throughout my visit to his boyhood home and Presidential Library. Annie is such a deeply ingrained part of my childhood that I can sing every song word for word. I mean no disrespect. It’s just that besides being the subject of an unflattering Broadway showtune, I couldn’t have told you much else about Hoover prior to my visit. I know, of course, that he was considered a failed President by most, and that he has a big dam named after him (I’ve even taken the Dam Tour). But that’s about it.

I’ll confess, history (unless it’s related to the space age) was never my favorite subject, but here I am exploring our vast country, and history – the good and the bad – is a very big part of that journey.

We arrived to the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa late in the afternoon. The site chronicles Hoover’s life from boyhood home, through his presidency to his final resting place. We stopped into the Visitors Center for maps and information, and explored the very brief exhibit there.

Late in Hoover’s life, he said of his childhood, “I do not know much of anything that happens to a small boy in Iowa that is not cheerful. It is a life of more nearly complete joy than any other form of existence I can imagine.” Sill, his early years were not easy. His father, a Quaker blacksmith, passed in December 1880 when Hoover was only 6 years old, and his mom just four years later. At 11 years old, Hoover traveled by train from Iowa to Oregon to live with his uncle, a doctor. In his possession was one suitcase, a basket of food from his aunt and 50 cents sewn into his clothing in case of emergency. He would never live in Iowa again and returned only to assist in the planning of the site.

We wanted to spend the majority of our limited available time in the Presidential Museum, so we made only a quick visit to the various buildings on the property (his boyhood home, the Quaker Meeting House where his family gathered, a blacksmith shop that would have been similar to his father’s, as well as the school house where Hoover was educated).

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We strolled across the vast property to the Presidential Library. Presidential libraries are, by their very nature it seems, designed to be a bit of a lie. Balance isn’t necessarily the goal – the goal is, of course, to showcase the President’s highlights, even if, as in the case of Hoover, those highlights mostly didn’t come during the Presidency.

Blamed for the Great Depression (or for not doing enough to end it), Hoover is pretty much synonymous with “presidential failure.” But there was more to the man than the Presidency, and the museum tells an interesting story of a distinguished Commerce Secretary, and a great humanitarian – a man who spent 50 years in public service, and is often defined only by 4 of those years.

Hoover went to Stanford University, while in it’s infancy, to become a mining engineer. He then used his education in China and Australia, where he literally struck gold and became a very wealthy man at a very early age, earning the adage the ‘great engineer’. The museum showcased the difficult living conditions in the Australian desert and the tense times in China during the Boxer rebellion.

While he was in Europe, WWI broke out and he led the efforts to bring Americans stranded in Europe home safely. He then had the unenviable job of getting American food aid to the European allies, without it ending up in the hands of the German occupiers, thereby cementing his reputation as a ‘great humanitarian’.

One of my favorite parts of the the museum were the flour sacks within the Humanitarian Exhibit.

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Here are a few of the flour sack samples throughout the exhibit.

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Appointed Commerce Secretary by Warren Harding in 1920 (and continuing to serve under Calvin Coolidge), Hoover was said to be so popular that he over-shadowed both presidents. It was joked throughout Washington that Hoover was “Secretary of Commerce, and Undersecretary of everything else.” His great accomplishment during this time was the establishment of the ‘Bureau of Standards’, which established standards for such things like sizes for car wheels and tires; bedframes and mattress. This resulted in vast efficiencies and enabled consumers to buy a car from one manufacturer and the tires from another.

The roaring 1920s were depicted with interesting exhibits. One exhibit presented the early age of commercial radio, and how Hoover thought only live performances should be broadcast, while another chronicled the establishment of the early version of air traffic control.

Having won the presidential election with relative ease, there were very high hopes for Hoover. However, the feelings did not last through the depression. The newspaper articles and cartoons show that there were rumors that he was running away from the country with all his gold on Andrew Carnegie’s yacht.

Overall, we felt the great depression did not get the level of attention that it deserved. Still, the museum was very much an eye-opener for me and an in-depth look at the man, if not the President.

The final exhibit hall, a re-creation of his suite at the Waldorf Astoria (where he spent his post-presidential years) demonstrated the extent of his personal wealth. Hoover would go on to do many great things in those years, including heading the Boys Clubs of America (which he raised millions of dollars for), serving as the coordinator for Food Supply for World Famine during World War II, serving as occupancy adviser to President Truman, among many other things. He also paved the way for the 1949 Executive Reorganization Act, which restructured the executive branch of the government. He also found time to author dozens of books.

A President is laid to rest ~ October 1964.

It is said that his Quaker faith helped guide him through the years. In the Quaker tradition, his grave is marked with only his name and dates. You’ll find no Presidential Seal or fancy engravings here.

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Our visit to the Hoover Library was certainly interesting. We have other Presidential Libraries on our itinerary for the trip, but Hoover was my first. I have been to the JKF Library in Boston, but it was a screening of an installment of the HBO Mini-series From the Earth to the Moon. I have not visited the exhibits. Somehow, we always forget to make time to be tourists in our own states. Will definitely have to change that soon.

Have you visited a Presidential Library? Let us know which and your thoughts. Maybe your library is next on our list. And since we discovered the Presidential Library Passport on this visit, we’re looking forward to checking them all out.

Apologies for the very long gap since the last post. Life has been crazy! Lots more posts to follow.

Minnesota: Eats and Treats

Northern Lights Restaurant
Two Harbors

When we first checked into the Two Harbors Lighthouse B&B, Rose gave us a stack of restaurant menus to look through for the area and a few suggestions based on her knowledge of the choices. After reading through the menus we decided on a place just a ways down the road. Northern Lights. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but had a wonderful view of Lake Superior and a lovely garden out back.

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We perused the menu while Oldies (real oldies – 50’s and 60’s) played on the radio. Oldies always make me smile and sing along. I ordered the creamy wild rice soup and the Swedish meatballs. Sriram ordered the Hunter’s Pie (This delicious Northern Lights Chef’s version of English Sheppard’s Pie consists of Elk, slow cooked in a special broth featuring rich brown ale. The Elk is then incorporated into a rich gravy including Peas, Carrots, Onions, Wild Rice, and Mushrooms, then served in a bed of our Homemade Irish Baked Potatoes, covered with Shredded Monterey Jack/Cheddar Cheese and baked til bubbly golden and topped off with a sprig of Rosemary and two Garlic-Herbed Breadsticks).

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The soup was very good (they take their wild rice very seriously here in Minnesota), as was the rest of my meal. Sriram’s Hunter’s Pie was outstanding. For dessert, we had the Norwegian Fruit Soup (served with a slice of Lefse – Made from dried fruits, fresh citrus, spiced with Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Cloves and Brown Sugar). It was unexpectedly wonderful. Northern Lights is definitely worth stopping in. Good down-home type cooking in a lovely atmosphere. Definitely four thumbs up!

Voyagaire Lodge
Crane Lake

After we came back into port with our houseboat in Voyageurs National Park, we stopped in at the Voyagaire Lodge for lunch before moving on to other sight-seeing activities. We decided to give cheese curds a second try (after a disappointing first attempt back in Wisconsin), ordering the Jalapeno Cheese Curd appetizer. These definitely lived up to the reputation. They were lighter and cheesier than our last attempt, and the addition of jalapeno inside certainly didn’t hurt. They were served with a side of ranch and were quite tasty.

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For lunch, Sriram ordered the Walleye Fingers and I ordered the Pulled Pork sandwich.

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The pulled pork was as tangy and delicious as it looks, and I got it with the fruit cup instead of fries, to minimize the impact of the cheese curds. The walleye fingers (which I gave a try) weren’t half bad either. Not a bad stop for our first meal on land in a couple days.

Porter and Frye, Hotel Ivy
Minneapolis

Over our three days at Hotel Ivy, Porter and Frye became a quick favorite. We dined there on our first evening in town and then had each of our breakfasts there as that was what was included in our stay. Each meal was wonderful (and the staff were fantastic), but our first dinner was simply amazing.

For appetizers, Sriram ordered the Scorpian Shrimp (Cumcumber sour cream, hot pickles and sweet corn relish), while I ordered the Tomato Basil Soup (with mini grilled goat cheese sandwich). Sriram very much enjoyed the Scorpian Shrimp, and my tomato soup was light and frothy, and definitely hit the spot. The small grilled cheese was delicious, and the goat cheese added just the right flare (I’m a late-in-life convert to goat cheese, but now it ranks right up there with my favorites).

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Our dinners were equally lovely. Looking for something a bit on the lighter side, Sriram ordered the Hidden Streams Pork Shoulder Ramen (Yellow Miso, White Soy, Ginger, Lemongrass, Jalapeno, Cilantro, Tomato, Avocado and Rice Noodles), while I ordered the Hidden Streams Pork Chop (Chargrilled Black Peppercorn, Jalapeno Cheddar Grits, and Sweet Corn). Sriram thought his Ramen was excellent, but in need of hot sauce (which is the case 90% of the time). My pork chop was really big, but delicious. It was perfectly cooked and the grits were so creamy you could mistake them for mashed potatoes. And while it seems a funny thing to rave about, the corn was phenomenal. I don’t know what it was tossed in but it added a wonderful flavor to the entire dish. Well done, Porter and Frye.

Hell’s Kitchen
Minneapolis

We wandered over to Hell’s Kitchen the afternoon that housekeeping subtly booted us from our room at the Hotel Ivy (they were surprising us with a welcome package on our first city trip in weeks). Sriram had been to Hell’s Kitchen before and recommended it as a fun place for snacks. They have fun with the Hell jokes, in much the same way the Hoover Dam has fun with the Dam jokes (Move down the hall and get on the Dam Elevator, which will take you down into the Dam Exhibits, etc.)

I immediately liked Hell’s Kitchen. From the decor (dark, underground, lots of reds and blacks) to the unique menu descriptions, this was definitely my kind of place. A few of my menu favorites:

Hell’s take on the Juicy Lucy

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And Hell’s take on the Bloody Mary

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I was also amused by the Fromage-a-Trois (a variety of artisan cheeses with toasted baguette slices, and our [highly-addictive] Maple Bacon Chutney). In retrospect, I can’t for the life of me figure out why we didn’t order that. Oh well, perhaps next time. So what did we order? Junk! Delicious junk. Round three of cheese curds (State Fair Cheese Curds) and Buffalo Tots (tater tots tossed in buffalo sauce and served with blue cheese dressing).

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The snacks hit the spot, but I’d have to say that Voyagaire is still our favorite curd supplier. Still, Hell’s Kitchen is a fun stop.

Red Wing Brewery
Red Wing

The Red Wing Brewery was recommended to us as a really great place to get pizza so we decided to give it a shot. We had trouble finding it at first, but when we finally did, we were certainly glad we stopped in.

We ordered up breadsticks and the pizza that was on special that day, the Barbecue Bacon Cheeseburger Pizza (Pizza drizzled with Buchanan’s Sizzlin’ BBQ Sauce, cheddar cheese, crumbled beef, bacon and onions). Sriram also got a beer sampler, while I got Red Wing’s own rootbeer.

The pizza was fantastic (as were the drinks). We were actually surprised at how good the pizza was.

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But for me, it was the breadsticks that stood out. With apologies to the RWB (as some may not consider this a compliment), I’ll say they were as close as I’ve ever tasted to the original Pizza Hut bread stick. The Pizza Hut breadstick as it existed when I was in high school, which tastes nothing like the breadstick they serve today.

Everything about the breadsticks, from the flavor of the stick itself, to the dipping sauce, brought me back in time. Back to when Pizza Hut was a routine trip for me and my friends Jenn and Stacie for pepperoni pizza, salad bar, and breadsticks. Oh how I have missed those breadsticks. So thanks Red Wing! Misplaced nostalgia aside, if you ever find yourself in Red Wing, the Red Wing Brewery is a must.

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That’s it for the latest edition of “Eats and Treats” – we’re on our way to Iowa next! Ever been? Let me know if there’s someplace we should check out.

The Big, the Bad and the Kitschy

Our final voyage out of Minnesota included an accidental NPS stop and a couple of fun recommendations from our trusted Road Trip USA.

As we were driving along the Great River Road (GRR), one of America’s Scenic Byway, we happened upon the Great River Road Visitor’s Center. The NPS partner site contains the GRR Visitor and Learning Center, and both the National Park Service Mississippi River and Recreation Area and St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.

We visited the center, exploring the exhibits and the views out the back along the river. We chatted with the volunteer on duty about our trip and our upcoming travels. When we asked for a lunch recommendation, she recommended a place in nearby Red Wing. Since we had business in Red Wing anyway, we headed that way.

Our designated stop was to the Red Wing Shoe Company for a little bit of shopping, and to tour their very small museum (basically a history of the company with some fun movie and celebrity facts thrown in).

The big attraction (and I do mean big) at Red Wing is their giant boot. The World’s largest. The boot, size 638D, is 16 feet tall, 20 feet long and weighs 2,300 pounds. It was created for the company’s 100th anniversary. It is an exact (and giant) replica of their 877 Classic Workboot.

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Further down the road, (across the border in Lacrosse, Wisconsin) we find another “World’s Largest…” this time, a Six Pack of Beer. Yep, that’s right. The 6 “cans” at the City Brewery hold 688,200 gallons of beer – enough beer to fill 7,340,796 cans. A sign at the base of the six-pack indicates such stats, as well as the fact that the towers would provide one person a six-pack a day for 3,351 days. Cheers!

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That’s about it for this installment of fun on the road! So, tell me – what’s the goofiest tourist attraction you’ve visited?