Location: Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kansas
Expert: Michael Mayer, Professor of History at the University of Montana
Why It’s Worth a Visit
For much of American history, presidents donated their papers to the Library of Congress, their college or a local historical society. After Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, which donated documents to the Roosevelt library, America’s chief executives began to leave behind legacies in the form of libraries. But it’s only with Eisenhower that “we started building pyramids the way the Egyptians did to our presidents,” says Michael Mayer, Professor of History at the University of Montana.
First, “Herbert Hoover decided that he was much abused and deserved his own site,” says Mayer. Then Truman’s supporters raised money to build a large library in his name. “Eisenhower’s people figured, well, Truman was a pipsqueak and Eisenhower is a giant so he deserves an even bigger monument,” says Mayer.
Eisenhower’s library is a tome of information, from the papers of members of his family and administration, to “books about the fifties, everything from politics, culture, you name it.” The Eisenhower site also includes a museum, a memorial, a chapel and the grave sites of family members. Most striking, however, is Eisenhower’s own childhood home. “It’s breathtaking—you realize it’s a clapboard home,” says Mayer.
Eisenhower’s five brothers, parents and tenants shared this four-bedroom home. “I think it’s sort of sobering to look at that and to realize that you can go from that to General of the Army, President of the United States,” Mayer says. “In the middle of the 20th century, unlike pretty much the rest of American history, we had a series of American presidents who came from not very much,” says Mayer, a sentiment that this clapboard house encapsulates well. “The best job his father ever had was as the foreman at the Belle Springs Creamery in Abilene, Kansas, which is not exactly president of Chase Manhattan or anything.”
While one of Eisenhower’s brothers died young, adds Mayer, his other four brothers were successful, too, later becoming vice president of a national bank; a lawyer; president of the American Bar Association; University president; presidential advisor and publisher of a small newspaper in Chicago. “Their mother was a dynamo—Ida was the driving force,” Mayer says.
Education, combined with tenacity and ambition, became the vehicle of success for the whole Eisenhower family. “Really, it’s quite a career, especially when you look at the north side of that quad and look at that house from which he came.”
How to Get to the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum:
Abilene is located on Highway I-70 approximately 150 miles west of Kansas City and 120 miles north of Wichita. The Eisenhower Presidential Library & Museum is located about two miles south of I-70 on K-15.