by Dennis Dalman
Steve Hennes has a good piece of advice for all fellow travelers: “Never drive by a presidential museum.”
Hennes and his wife, Wendy, have seen eight presidential museums, and they plan to visit many more.
“They’re so fascinating,” he said. “You can learn so much, but I’d advise people it takes more than an hour to see one. Ideally, you should plan to spend the better part of a day.”
The Henneses discovered the fascination of presidential museums “almost by accident,” as Hennes puts it.
While driving back from a spring vacation in Arkansas, they saw a roadside sign about a presidential museum while approaching Independence, Mo. That city, the birthplace and hometown of President Harry Truman, is also the site of the Truman Museum. The Henneses spent the night in Independence, and the next morning they went to the museum, an experience that completely captivated both of them.
“Until we visited the museum, we had no idea of all the things Truman had to go through,” Hennes said. “For one thing, he had to make the decision whether to drop two atomic bombs on Japan to end the war. The museum has a lot about that decision and so much other fascinating information about Truman’s life.”
That museum is still the favorite one of both Steve and Wendy.
They enjoyed it so much, in fact, they went back for a second visit.
Others they have seen include the ones in honor of Abraham Lincoln (Springfield, Ill.), Herbert Hoover (West Branch, Iowa), Lyndon Baines Johnson (Austin, Texas), Dwight D. Eisenhower (Abilene, Kan.), Bill Clinton (Little Rock, Ark.), Ulysses S. Grant (Galena, Ill.) and George H.W. Bush (College Station, Texas).
The Hoover Museum was a real eye-opener for the Henneses.
Hoover, he said, has often been characterized unfairly as the president who started the Great Depression and as an unkind, uncaring man.
“That’s just not true,” Hennes said. “He developed programs to help the people of Europe after World War I, and he helped many presidents who came after him to develop similar aid programs. Hoover was born in Iowa, then lived with an uncle in Oregon. His wife was also from Iowa – Waterloo. Hoover was a Quaker, and those values shaped a lot of the good things he did. That museum and the things we learned about Hoover were very, very interesting.”
Hoover lived the longest of any president once he was out of office – 31 years. He was president from 1929 to 1933 and died in 1964 at the age of 80.
The learning experience the Henneses enjoyed at the Hoover Museum is one reason they are so fascinated by such museums. As in the case with Hoover, visitors to presidential museums can quickly see a particular president in a new perspective. Learning about their entire lives makes visitors very aware of all of the elements that shaped a president, such as all of the things they had to deal with, including crises that occurred; the weight of momentous decisions they had to make; personal tragedies such as deaths in the family; and the difficulties brought about by fractious political climates.
There were great presidents and not-so-great presidents, Hennes said, but visiting presidential museums has convinced Hennes the character of the times makes a president great as much as the character of the man in the office. The museums of the not-so-great are also fascinating, he added. Visiting a presidential library can cause visitors to rapidly develop a renewed respect even for some of the less-than-great presidents.
President Richard Nixon is a case in point, Hennes said. Many would consider Nixon not so great, but without his sense of paranoia that led to the Watergate scandal, Nixon would be considered a far greater president, Hennes believes.
Someday, whenever they take a trip out West, the Henneses plan to visit the Nixon Museum/Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., as well as the Ronald Reagan Museum/Library in Simi Valley, Calif.
The Henneses have not chosen trips just to see presidential museums, but they are always keenly aware of where all are located in case they are in the vicinity while traveling to or from somewhere else.
Not every president is honored with a presidential museum, Hennes noted. The concept of a presidential museum was never an automatic option before the 20th Century. Notable exceptions are the likes of Lincoln, George Washington (Mount Vernon) and Thomas Jefferson (Monticello). Presidential museums are not always located where presidents were born. Eisenhower, for example, was born in Dennison, Texas but raised in Abilene, Kan. (the site of his museum). Some presidents and family members are buried at the museums; many are not. Truman is buried at his museum, for example; John F. Kennedy is not.
The Henneses would like to see all of the presidential museums. The ones they especially want to visit are those of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Hyde Park, N.Y.), John. F. Kennedy (Boston) and the Gerald Ford museum in Grand Rapids, Mich. Ford, Hennes said, is a president who has a museum in Grand Rapids and a library in Ann Arbor, Mich.
“Wendy and I plan to visit the Ann Arbor Ford Museum when we drive a circle route around Lake Superior,” he said.
It’s no wonder the Henneses so enjoy presidential museums. Both intrepid travelers, they have always liked stopping to see just about any museum on their travel routes. They’ve put many a mile on their Volkswagen van and plan to travel many more miles in a used Winnebago RV they purchased last fall in New Jersey.
“There are so many good museums right here in Minnesota,” Hennes said. “One of the best not many people know about is the Lighthouse Keeper’s House/Museum in Grand Marais. It’s fascinating, full of information and artifacts about fishing, immigrants, lumbering and so many other things.”
Even house-bound people can explore museums, including presidential museums, vicariously, either through books, movies or online, Hennes noted. One of his favorite books, a gold mine of information, is “Homes and Libraries of the Presidents” by William G. Clotworthy. Hennes highly recommends that book.
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.