Son Shines Bright From This Old West Texas Home
Virginia has George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation. New York has the Hyde Park estate of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yorba Linda embraces the modest farmhouse that was Richard Nixon’s childhood home. And Hodgenville, Ky., has Sinking Spring Farm, where Abraham Lincoln was born.
Today, this dry, dusty town in the aging heart of the West Texas oil patch is bidding to join the select list of communities that bask in the glow of history -- and in the golden tide of tourist dollars that may come with it. Midland, after all, was the home of not one but two American presidents: George W. Bush and his father, George H.W. Bush.
Yet the local leaders and Bush family friends behind Midland’s bid for the spotlight are struggling with a problem: Just what, exactly, is the story they want to tell?
Most sites associated with the early lives of future presidents have unmistakable story lines, clear symbolic messages that help visitors understand the figures associated with them. The rude log cabin at Lincoln’s birthplace -- one cramped room with a dirt floor -- underscores the humble origins of one of America’s greatest presidents. The classical lines of Mount Vernon suggest the Roman virtues of the man who became the father of his country. The stateliness of Hyde Park bespeaks the noblesse oblige that moved sons of aristocrats to public service.
The house at 1412 W. Ohio Ave. in Midland is certainly a landmark. A half-century ago, it was home to the future 41st president and his wife, Barbara, the future first lady; their eldest son, George W. Bush, who became the 43rd president after serving as governor of Texas; and their second son, Jeb Bush, now governor of Florida.
And the Midland house was modest: 1,400 square feet, three bedrooms, no garage -- just a shed in back.
But promoters of the house as a historic landmark acknowledge that defining its particular story line has not been easy. Although the house itself suggests modest beginnings, the young couple that occupied it belonged to one of the most powerful families in contemporary American history, combining the wealth and power of Wall Street with a record of high public office.
George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, had been a U.S. senator from Connecticut, for instance, and the family tree included an original partner of financier J.P. Morgan. In some ways, the family compound on the ocean at Kennebunkport, Maine, may be a more authentic symbol of who the Bushes are.
“We’ve understood throughout the project that we cannot portray them as coming from a lifting-yourselves-by-the-bootstraps background with no resources,” said Bill Scott, a Midland real estate broker and one of the organizers of the Bush home project. “We do not want to portray them as coming from humble backgrounds.”
Instead, in addition to honoring the family that -- perhaps more than even oil and high school football -- put Midland on the map, developers suggest that this is where the Bush family may have learned Heartland values.
Though he had been educated at Andover and Yale, returned from World War II a hero and had Wall Street behind him, George H.W. Bush was one of thousands of young veterans striving to build a family and make his fortune in the booming oil fields of the Permian Basin.
And although the elder Bush became vastly more successful than most, his early years in Texas suggested the kind of 1950s family portrayed in “Leave It to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best.” His son would tap into that sentiment.
“It is here where I learned what it means to be a good neighbor,” George W. Bush said during a 2001 stop in Midland on the way to his inauguration. “At backyard barbecues or just chatting across the fence, it is here in West Texas where I learned to trust in God. It seems improbable now, but in that little house on Ohio Street, [sic] right down the road from here, it was hard to envision then the future of two presidents and a governor of Florida.”
Dealey Herndon, a Bush family friend whose Austin-based project-management firm coordinated the Midland restoration, said: “I didn’t really expect the simplicity with which they lived when they moved to West Texas, and the purity of it. It’s a small house on a small lot in a neighborhood of small houses.”
Nor could family wealth and position protect the young family from tragedy. It was while living in Midland that the Bushes’ 3-year-old daughter, Robin, died of leukemia.
As the elder Bush built a fortune and launched his political career, the family eventually settled in a suitably elegant home in Houston. But something of Midland did seem to stick, and it could have contributed to the younger Bush’s ability to communicate to many voters a feeling that -- despite his blue-blood antecedents -- he was one of them.
More than any of his political opponents, opinion polls have shown, George W. Bush was the candidate Americans wanted to have a beer with. And they appreciated the idea that he was “plain-spoken.”
Barbara Bush, whose memoirs recall in often emotional detail her life on Ohio Avenue, emphasized this distinction as she guided the historians and interior designers planning the home’s restoration. Over hours of typically frank and intensive discussions at her Houston home, the former first lady gave specific guidance in capturing the warmth and down-to-earth comfort of Ohio Avenue.
“Barbara Bush made it very clear to us, ‘We weren’t Abraham Lincoln,’ ” Herndon recalled, saying that organizers weren’t trying to portray the family as deprived. “But they lived an amazingly simple life because they were pioneers and went out on their own. It doesn’t matter what their background was; they went off on their own.”
The project has been five years in the making, a private $2-million effort spearheaded by family friends and Midland boosters.
By the time the restoration began, nearly 50 years after the Bushes left, the house had grown dilapidated.
Now, visitors will find the furnishings restored to the way they were when the Bushes lived there, from 1951 to 1955. The fixtures on the kitchen cabinets are originals. The wallpaper has been restored to resemble the Bushes’ choice at the time. The wood paneling gleams in the small living room.
The tiny addition that was Jeb’s room feels like a nursery. And in George W.'s room, complete with the original built-in twin bed, bookshelves are filled with baseball pictures, books and scout paraphernalia.
The master bedroom is devoted to images of Midland in the 1950s, while the back room is devoted to baseball heroes of the era, including the 43rd president’s favorites, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays. A video screen in the kitchen will play old ad jingles from the ‘50s, featuring Ovaltine, Oscar Mayer wieners and Anacin.
While many presidential landmarks are operated by the National Park Service, the Bush home remains a private affair. Organizers expect it will be linked to the George W. Bush presidential library someday. The home is already on the National Register of Historic Places, and neighboring properties eventually will be converted into a visitor center and a literacy and education center named for Laura Bush.
The home is just one piece of a bigger effort to market Midland as a destination for presidential history buffs.
The George W. Bush Driving Tour is a 15-mile journey through the city’s mostly middle-class residential neighborhoods, featuring the houses where the president lived both as a child and, in the 1970s and 1980s, when he returned as a young man to run an oil business.
Friends say Ohio Avenue represents a more innocent time.
Joe O’Neill met Bush when they were both about 5 years old. They played Little League baseball, and Bush’s father was a coach. Back then, he recalled, you could ride a bicycle downtown on your own and go to a 10-cent movie.
“It was a very safe place, rather idyllic,” O’Neill said in an interview featured on the project website. “It was a really nice, friendly, little Mayberry kind of town.”
O’Neill’s wife, Jan, grew up nearby and befriended Laura. Years later, the O’Neill couple introduced the future president and first lady. Now, Jan is one of the childhood-home organizers.
And even if other organizers present it differently, to Jan O’Neill there is still something Lincoln-like about the Bushes’ early years in Midland:
“It’s an incredible statement that out of humble beginnings you can do whatever you want or aspire to do,” she said.
Wallsten reported this story while on assignment in Texas.