Presidential houses are a wonderful way to understand the domestic life of this country's leaders. The Midwest has been historically fertile ground for presidential ambitions, and after the travails of politics, many ex-presidents were content to resettle here. Few Midwestern presidents have ever thought of Washington as home. Here is a selection (there are more) of presidential house museums in the region.
Lincoln Home National Historic Site
Springfield, Ill.: "A modest-looking two-story brown frame house" is how one journalist, in 1860, described the Springfield home of Abraham Lincoln. The future 16th president lived there with his wife, Mary, and their children for many years. The homey, unostentatious interiors reflect the Lincolns' thrift and industry. Abe milked the cows, and Mary did the cooking. There were festive dinners and children's parties. There was sorrow, too, with the death of their little boy Eddie. Still, the place was, in Mary's words, "the scenes of the happiest times in my life." 217-492-4241; www.nps.gov/liho
Harry S Truman Birthplace State Historic Site
Lamar, Mo.: Harry Truman is forever associated with Independence, Mo. He was born, however, in nearby Lamar, in the downstairs bedroom of a small house that his parents bought for $685. Visitors can tour the modestly furnished house -- and the smokehouse and outhouse, as well. Electricity and indoor plumbing were two luxuries out of reach of the young family. 417-682-2279; www.mostateparks.com/trumansite.htm
Harry S Truman National Historic Site
Independence, Mo.: Truman married up when he wed Bess Wallace in 1919. He and his wife lived with her relations in the family home, a 14-room, Victorian house in Independence. There were bridge parties and church suppers, and across the street lived Truman's beloved cousins. The taste for plain living is evident in the solid furnishings and prettily wallpapered rooms. They were great accumulators, and there's an inventory of more than 50,000 artifacts, from cook books to White House china.
In contrast with the social riches of a country town, Washington was a lonely place. "I have no one to raise a fuss over my neckties and my haircuts," the leader of the free world wrote in his diary, after his wife and daughter went home to Missouri. 816-254-9929; www.nps.gov/hstr
Ulysses S. Grant Home
Galena, Ill.: Ulysses S. Grant is another double-hitter, when it comes to historic house museums. His most famous home is in Galena. He and his family moved to the small town in northwestern Illinois in 1860. They rented an old brick house and Grant worked in the family store. When the Civil War started, he re-enlisted in the army and rose to command the Union forces.
He was a national hero when he returned to Galena in 1865. A group of wealthy townsmen honored him with a spacious modern dwelling in the Italianate style. This house has been restored to how it looked in 1868, the year he was elected president. It was a sightseeing destination during Grant's lifetime. "Visitors are always admitted," reported the local newspaper back then. 815-777-3310; www.granthome.com
White Haven -- Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
St. Louis: Then there is White Haven, the St. Louis plantation that was owned by Grant's father-in-law. It was here that Grant, a raw West Point lieutenant, met his wife, Julia Dent. The couple lived at White Haven from 1854 to 1859, with Grant managing the family farm. "Whoever hears of me in 10 years will hear of a well-to-do old Missouri farmer," he wrote to a friend. There were slaves at White Haven, and their lives are evoked in a permanent exhibition. 314-842-3298; www.nps.gov /ulsg
Ronald Reagan Boyhood Home
Dixon, Ill.: Ronald Reagan had a peripatetic childhood. The precariousness of those years is made clear to the traveler on the Ronald Reagan Trail by the number of obscure burgs claiming him as an honored citizen. Dixon, where he lived, from the age of 9, comes closest to the distinction of Reagan's hometown.
The house was restored based on old photographs and family memories to show how it looked when Reagan lived there, from 1920 to 1923. There are, on average, 50 visitors a day -- a crowd by the patchy attendance standards of most historic house museums. "People like being in the house that Reagan lived in as a boy," says executive director Connie Lange. 815-288-5176; www.ronaldreagantrail.net
Grouseland -- William Henry Harrison Mansion
Vincennes, Ind.: Lincoln, Truman, Grant and Reagan: These are the big names familiar to every schoolchild. But William Henry Harrison? You're off the hook if this one doesn't ring a bell. Harrison was president for only one month in 1841, when he was carried off by pneumonia. Grouseland is the house he built during his governorship of the Indiana Territory from 1800 to 1812. During those years, he obtained, through arms and diplomacy, territorial concessions from the Indians.
The house was modeled on the Harrison plantation in Virginia. With its elegant reception rooms it was a locus of refinement in the frontier town of Vincennes, and because it was made of brick, it was a secure fortress in case of Indian attacks. 812-882-2096; www.grouse landfoundation.org
President Benjamin Harrison Home
Indianapolis: Another scion of the Harrison dynasty was Benjamin Harrison, who was president from 1889 to 1893. It's a hazy period for many Americans, but curator Jennifer Capps emphasizes the importance of Harrison's achievements. In foreign policy, he built up the Navy and established relations with Central America. He also brought six more states into the union and expanded the number of national parks.
Before he entered politics, Harrison was an ambitious lawyer. He lived with his first wife, Caroline, and their two children in a large Italianate house on the fashionable North Side of Indianapolis. There are artistic touches amid the stolid prosperity. Caroline liked watercolor painting and china painting, both conventional activities for the cultivated lady. Specimens of her work are on view in many rooms. After her death from tuberculosis, Harrison remarried. The second Mrs. Harrison lived in the house from 1896 to 1913. 317-631-1888; www.pbhh.org
Spiegel Grove -- Rutherford B. Hayes Home
Fremont, Ohio: Rutherford B. Hayes was a Civil War general, governor of Ohio and president from 1877 to 1881. He is remembered today as one of the few presidents to be elected without a majority of the popular vote. So bitter was the dispute over the electoral votes that Hayes took the oath of office first in the Red Room at the White House and again two days later in public. The event is evoked in another Red Room, at Spiegel Grove.
Unusual among the region's presidents, Hayes had developed architectural interests. He and his wife, Lucy, were always adding to and refurbishing the house. It started out as a summer place and evolved into a 31-room mansion. Some rooms are under restoration, including Hayes' private study and bathroom. 419-332-2081; www.rbhayes.org
At home with our presidents
A Midwest tour of U.S. history
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