by Joey Green
Discover the truth about George Washington’s teeth, learn fascinating details of Andrew Jackson’s duels and even experience the heat of Harry Truman’s kitchen.
When my parents dragged me to George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Va., many years ago, I expected total boredom. I quickly discovered, however, that those clever people in charge of the presidential estate knew how to appeal to teenagers. When I got to see a set of Washington’s dentures, made not of wood, as the popular myth suggests, but fashioned from lead, ivory, wire, springs and actual teeth from animals, including horses and donkeys, I was, well, hooked. Very cool. My mind was open.
That feeling has continued to flourish during my adulthood. Now, whenever I travel in the United States on business or vacation, I always try to visit the nearest presidential landmark. It has been an eye-opening endeavor. I’ve seen the burglar alarm consisting of bells and strings attached to the doors in Benjamin Harrison’s elegant redbrick Victorian home (in Indianapolis); the film projector Warren G. Harding used in the White House to watch Charlie Chaplin movies (in Marion, Ohio); and John Tyler’s plantation, purportedly haunted by a ghost named the Gray Lady (in Charles City, Va.).
I show up hoping to glean bizarre facts about our beloved leaders, but after standing in their bedrooms, studies and kitchens, I always walk away with a radically altered perspective on who each president really was as a human being and a genuine feel for the person behind the persona. Here are some of my favorite presidential homes:
Jimmy Carter National Historic Site
If you like peanut fields, magnolias and gnats, you’ll love Jimmy Carter’s boyhood town of Plains, Ga. (population 683). In 1976, Carter rented the Plains Train Depot (the town’s train station from 1888 until the railroad ceased passenger service to the area in 1951) to serve as his presidential-campaign headquarters—just a block away from the Carter family peanut warehouse and his brother Billy’s gas station.
The Carters still live in Plains in the house they bought in 1961, but, for some odd reason, the Secret Service refused to let me ring the doorbell. President Carter teaches Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church, and after the service (open to the public), he and his wife, Rosalyn, pose for photos with visitors.
Our kids got to sit in old-fashioned school desks at Plains High School, where the president attended grades 1-12 and where Rosalyn graduated as valedictorian. Two miles down the road sits the small farmhouse where Carter lived from age 4 until he went off to college. Along the way we visited the graves of his brother, Billy, and his mother, Miss Lillian, and contemplated the plain gravesite reserved for the humble humanitarian from Plains.
The log cabin enshrined in a granite-and-marble neoclassical building (reminiscent of the Lincoln Memorial) at Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Park is not Honest Abe’s honest-to-goodness log cabin. The National Park Service calls the shanty a “symbolic birth cabin.” So we drove 10 miles to Knob Creek to see the second log cabin where Lincoln lived from ages 2 to 7. Unfortunately, that cabin was torn down in 1870, and the cabin standing in its place is yet another replica (built in 1931). Undaunted, we continued on to the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, a farm near Gentryville, Ind., where a bronze casting of cabin-foundation logs and a fireplace marks the actual location of the third, long-gone log cabin where Lincoln lived (until 1830).
To see a house where Lincoln really lived, we drove another four hours to the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln resided for 17 years and personally installed the lightning rods to calm his wife’s fear of lightning. In 1860, in the parlor of that well-appointed double-two-story house, a Republican committee informed Lincoln of his nomination as the party’s presidential candidate. The Great Emancipator conducted his presidential campaign from that handsome house— a far cry from the three log cabins that no longer exist.
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Our third president transformed the original eight-room house built on the vast 652-acre Virginia plantation he inherited from his father and turned it into a 21-room hilltop mansion in the neoclassical style he had admired in France while serving as the U.S. minister. On the veranda, the author of the Declaration of Independence used a telescope to gaze down into the valley to view the University of Virginia, which he founded and designed. Inside his home, Jefferson devised dumbwaiters, an ingenious mechanical duplicate-writing machine, disappearing (or hideaway) beds, hidden staircases that led to secret bedrooms and a ballroom, and three house privies, which he called “air closets” because air shafts allowed fresh air to waft away the scent of the chamber pots.
Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt
Hyde Park, New York
When I stepped inside Springwood—the family estate on the Hudson River where Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born, spent his youth, raised his children and met with Winston Churchill to discuss development of the atomic bomb—I didn’t expect to find a hallway filled with Roosevelt’s boyhood collection of taxidermic birds. Like Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Roosevelt stuffed and mounted birds, and his house also attests to his relationship with his domineering mother.
In 1905, when FDR married his distant cousin, Eleanor, his widowed mother, Sara, invited the couple to live with her at Springwood. A door connects Sara Roosevelt’s bedroom to her son’s bedroom (left untouched since his death in March 1945), and Sara placed a large, foreboding portrait of herself on an easel next to Franklin’s desk in his study. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are buried side-by-side in Sara Roosevelt’s rose garden, while Sara is buried two miles away in the graveyard of a local church.
James Monroe’s Ash Lawn-Highland
A guide dressed and acting like James Monroe led our family on an exhaustive tour of the unassuming Monroe farmhouse. We learned the Monroe Doctrine, first declared by the president during his State of the Union Address in 1823, was actually conceived by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. We also discovered that although the iconic painting Washington Crossing the Delaware depicts 18-year-old James Monroe holding the flag behind George Washington in the barge, Monroe actually crossed the river in a separate boat.
Our guide fawned over the fancy French furniture, Elizabeth Monroe’s pink wedding dress and gifts from Napoleon (the Monroes attended his coronation). But for us the highlight of the tour was the bathtub in the master bedroom, which the entire Monroe family used by filling the tub with water once and then taking turns—finishing with the baby. Picturing that bathwater growing progressively dirtier helped our two daughters fully comprehend the origins of the phrase “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
At Andrew Jackson’s beautiful and serene Hermitage, where “Old Hickory” resided before and after serving as the seventh president of the United States, we roamed the 1,050-acre plantation. We were intrigued to learn that Jackson, the first president born in a log cabin and the only president to pay off the national debt, fought at least 12 duels. That would seem to be one way to end political gridlock.
Jackson died in his bedroom in 1845, and at the funeral, his pet parrot began squawking vulgarities (learned from Jackson) and had to be carried from the room. Gen. Jackson is buried next to his wife, Rachel, in a tomb in the garden. No one knows what became of the parrot.
Nixon Presidential Library & Museum
Yorba Linda, California
“Only if you have been in the deepest valley can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain,” said Richard M. Nixon in his farewell address to the White House staff following his resignation in 1974. So begins the poignant introductory movie at the Nixon museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., which is built on the property where Nixon’s parents ran a small citrus ranch from 1912 to 1922. Also on the grounds sits Nixon’s birthplace and boyhood home—and the helicopter that whisked him away from the White House after he resigned.
No matter how anyone feels about Nixon, there is a sense of awe when standing inside the modest 900-square-foot wooden house built by Nixon’s father from lumber and materials ordered through a mail-order catalog. Standing before the humble piano that Nixon played when he was growing up, seeing the bed where Nixon was born and peeking into the small attic loft where Nixon slept with his four brothers make his simple beginnings seem, well, perfectly clear.
The LBJ Ranch
President Lyndon Baines Johnson loved to drive unsuspecting guests around his 2,700-acre working cattle ranch in a baby blue Amphicar (an amphibious car made in Germany). When they reached a steep hill at the edge of a lake, he would pretend the brakes didn’t work and let the car splash into the water.
Nowadays, visitors can drive around the expansive LBJ Ranch in their own cars, stopping to tour the sprawling, laid-back Johnson ranch house and the replica of Johnson’s birthplace and boyhood home (a dogtrot house rebuilt by Johnson). The president also enjoyed giving visitors personalized high-speed tours of his ranch in a Lincoln Continental convertible and taking children for rides in a donkey cart.
Exploring this tranquil ranch helped me understand precisely why LBJ spent 490 days of his presidency (nearly 25 percent) at the aptly nicknamed “Texas White House.” Here, he held outdoor staff meetings in lawn chairs and signed into law nearly 300 bills dealing with environmental protection. He retired here, died here and lies buried here alongside his wife, Lady Bird.
The nearby LBJ Museum in Austin displays letters exchanged between Johnson and comedians Tom and Dick Smothers. “We have taken satirical jabs at you,” wrote the Smothers Brothers, “and more than occasionally overstepped our bounds.” Johnson responded: “It is part of the price of leadership of this great nation to be the target of satirists. You have given the gift of laughter to our people. May we never grow so somber or self-important that we fail to appreciate the humorous in our lives.”
The Truman Home
“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” said Harry Truman, so it was only natural when touring his house in Independence—outside of Kansas City — to stand in the kitchen. I marveled at the quaint table where “Give ’Em Hell Harry” and his wife, Bess, ate breakfast every morning after leaving the White House. Inside his home, the president who distinguished himself by ordering the desegregation of the military but who also had to make the difficult decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan comes across as a remarkably down-to-earth guy. The Secret Service erected a black iron fence around the yard in 1949 to prevent souvenir hunters from stealing boards from the house, taking flowers from the grounds or wandering through the home uninvited. Yet the former president frequently drove his own car, helped Bess do the dishes and gladly gave his autograph to tourists lining the front gate each morning.>
To me, the centerpiece of the nearby Harry S. Truman Library & Museum, aside from a visit to the graves of Harry and Bess Truman in the courtyard, is the glass display case containing the actual sign that graced Truman’s desk in the Oval Office:
“The Buck Stops Here.”
Copyright Ⓒ 2014 by Joey Green. All rights reserved. Reprinted from American Way magazine.