Presidential Libraries and Museums: Our Local Treasures

Art, history and fun are right around the corner.

Photo courtesy of Harry S. Truman Library and Museum

Within a day’s drive and in one case, down the street, five presidential libraries and museums can be found. Four of them are part of the presidential library system, a nationwide network of 13 libraries that are administered by the Office of Presidential Libraries, under the watch of the National Archives and Records Administration. The libraries dedicated to Hoover, Truman, Eisenhower and Clinton are under NARA and Abraham Lincoln’s library in Springfield, Ill., is run by the state.

Harry S. Truman Library and Museum

The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum is dedicated to preserving papers, books, and other historical materials relating to the 33rd U.S. President, Harry S Truman and it happens to be right in Independence.

For Ray Geselbracht, special assistant to the director of the library, Truman’s personal thoughts and handwritten notes are treasures. “We have holdings of 16 million pages. The glory of the collection, though, is the personal writings. Just look at the 1,300 plus letters from Harry to Bess. There are love letters and other notable letters. There are diaries and journals.” Geselbracht’s personal mission is to edit and retrieve original footage from reels of filmed memoirs. “There were 26 episodes that aired, but thousands of unused footage.”

Along with the films, which Truman capitalized on the emerging growth of television, are more than 35,000 artifacts including two cars, gloves that were sent to Bess Truman, Truman’s walking and decorative canes, and an abundance of historic objects. “People knew he loved history and the gifts prove it,” Geselbracht says. “He studied history and made sure to learn from it. He would look at ancient battle strategies or re-read the Sermon on the Mount.”

Library Director Michael J. Devine, Ph.D., says Truman believed when he left the White House, he believed he got a promotion as a private citizen. “And here, he found a working office. That’s a favorite space. It’s now enclosed and reflects the man who surrounded himself with books and maps.”

Devine says a presidential library not only allows a guest to appreciate the president as a person, but the work ethic and knowledge that one needs to hold the office. “Truman had his shortcomings. He made mistakes and this museum and library shows those too,” he says. One of his favorite features is a newer display area provided by the Hunkler Family Fund called “Who’s Quoting Truman?” Every subsequent president, Democrat or Republican, has repeated the very quotable Truman, he says. “The other is the White House Decision Center where people can take on the roles of the president and the cabinet in dealing with issues such as North Korea, the Soviet Blockade or the end of World War II.”

Benton and Truman: Legends of the Missouri Border is on display now through Oct. 14. The exhibit looks at Truman and Thomas Hart Benton’s relationship when the Truman Library mural project brought them together in the 1950s; they discovered they enjoyed each other’s company. The museum and library always marks Truman’s birthday on May 8.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kan., is about three hours west of Kansas City. For Curator William Snyder, the museum and the boyhood home feature roughly 70,000 items. “President Eisenhower said one of the proudest things is that he could claim is being from Abilene. This is where he grew up; his roots are here.”

Interestingly, Eisenhower can from the wrong side of the tracks. His family gardened and raised most of their food. “Originally the family foundation and the decision to turn the home into the museum started as a memorial to World War II veterans, around 1946,” he says. “The rest of the presidential library grew up around us. We have the president’s life and times with lots of military memorabilia and we get many visitors ‘just’ for the military items, but there are a few other things that might be striking.”

Synder says a 1914 electric automobile that belongs to Mamie Eisenhower’s mother is on display. “Mamie’s parents were more affluent and her electric car was appropriate for a woman. She didn’t have to get out into the elements to crank it. There’s also an extensive selection of Mamie’s clothing from 1916 to her inaugural ball gown. Mamie was one of the 10 best dressed every year she was in the White House and on top of that, she balanced the White House budget every year. I suppose living on a military salary all those years makes you pretty savvy.”

The museum also boasts the largest weapons collection of any of the presidential libraries with most of weaponry from the Civil War to Vietnam, with significant interest in World War II. “We rotate these items around. We have weapons from the Axis and the Allies. Visitors can even see how we struggled to catch up with the Nazis in developing automatic weapons. We have the D-Day planning table and hope to create a better display area for this, including the many maps.”

This year, as in years past, there is a Memorial Day Ceremony with the Abilene American Legion & VFW. This year, it’s May 27. On June 1, the museum holds its Annual D-Day Commemorative Concert with the Salina Symphony at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum outdoor concert at 8:30 p.m. That is also the day of the opening of World War II Remembered. For three years, Snyder and his staff will create a multi-faceted exhibit that will broaden the understanding of the era for visitors and increase appreciation for the difficulty and enormity of Eisenhower’s job as Supreme Commander of all Allied forces in Europe. Groups such as the Tuskegee Airmen, Native American Code Talkers, the brave contribution of the Ritchie Boys, and the heroic stories of women at war and on the working home front will be included.

Synder says visitors should look for a few items in particular: his paintings and paint kits; the Bible his parents gave him for his graduation from West Point which happened to be the Bible he took the Oath of Office on; and the desk from the White House private study. The other displays that draw visitors include the Cold War, the creation of the interstate highway system; and the fact he served under three different U.S. flags as Alaska and Hawaii were made states.

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum is about six hours northeast of the metropolitan area in West Branch, Iowa. The Herbert Hoover Museum enables visitors to experience the many sides of Iowa’s only President. While many people associate Hoover’s presidency with the Stock Market Crash and the subsequent Great Depression, Hoover’s legacy does hold more.

Janlyn Slach, public affairs specialist, says the birthplace cottage, school house and a Quaker meeting house are part of the grounds. “There’s a boardwalk too,” she says. “As visitors, you can be immersed in his life. He was an orphan who grew up to be president and for many, that’s a great story to tell.” Hoover left Iowa in November 1885 around the age of 10, bound for Oregon and the home of his maternal uncle, Henry Minthorn.

As a youth, Hoover decided to pursue a career as mining engineer and ended up attending Leland Stanford Junior University, set to open in 1891. He graduated in 1895 and become a mining engineer. Even before the United States got officially involved in World War I, Hoover established the Commission for Relief in Belgium to provide food for the civilians trapped in the war zone. Hoover’s humanitarianism led to an invitation from Woodrow Wilson to become U.S. Food Administrator in 1917. In this capacity, Hoover rationed domestic food supplies to feed the allied armies as well as the American people. In the years after the war, Hoover was director general of the American Relief Administration, an agency established to address the widespread famine in Europe. His presidency went from 1928-1932.

He did return to public service until in May 1945, just a few weeks after Roosevelt’s death. He met with President Harry Truman and the two men planned for the recovery of postwar Europe. At Truman’s request, Hoover traveled the world to provide the president with a personal assessment of world food needs. Hoover later agreed to Dwight Eisenhower’s request to chair a second Hoover commission from 1953 to 1955.

The Iowans and the Civil War: The Western Theater runs now through Oct. 27. The exhibit focuses on the experiences of the Civil War on Iowa and the other western states. Learn how the soldiers lived by viewing artifacts, weapons, photographs and letters. Slach says the exhibit features one of three copies of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln on loan from the Louise Taper Collection in California.
“Some of the best lessons that people learn here is that Hoover’s legacy is not only the crushing depression, but his humanitarian efforts. These span long before he was elected president and when Truman called him back. It is one of the museum focuses that people enjoy. For many children and teens that learn about the presidents as part of their curriculum, helping others is a good subject to hold on to,” she says.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Park

About 6 hours south of Kansas City, the William J. Clinton Presidential Center includes America’s newest presidential library housing the largest archival collection in American presidential history. The site is located on the banks of the Arkansas River in the heart of Little Rock’s River Market District.

Featuring 20,000 square feet of exhibit space, the Clinton Library chronicles American history at the turn of the 21st century. Interactive exhibits, including a White House Cabinet Room reconstruction and a full-scale replica of the Oval Office, give visitors a first-hand look into the life and work of the 42nd president. Other featured exhibits include 13 policy alcoves and an interactive 110-foot timeline within which the history of the Clinton Administration unfolds. Another section of the museum is designed to present exhibits about life in the White House.
The Center also offers several free admission days each year to commemorate President Clinton’s birthday, the Fourth of July, and other special occasions.

As for coming exhibitions that may be worth a visit, the temporary exhibit, Jazz: Through the Eyes of Herman Leonard opened March 2 and runs through July 21.

The exhibit features more than 40 original black and white images from the collection of Leonard, an American photographer who documented the evolution of the art form from the 1940s through post Hurricane Katrina. By capturing the artists in their element – and in the moment – Leonard tells the story of jazz artist by artist.

The exhibit features America’s greatest jazz artists including Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ella Fitzgerald through iconic photographs from The Herman Leonard collection and memorabilia on loan from museums and private collectors nationwide.

“Jazz is very complex, and the musicians who master the genre are as technically good as they are emotionally compelling. The same can be said for Herman Leonard,” says Stephanie S. Streett, executive director of the William J. Clinton Foundation. “His work was recently exhibited at the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles and at Lincoln Center in New York City, so we are thrilled to bring this world-class collection to Little Rock.”

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum documents the life of the 16th U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln, and the course of the American Civil War. Springfield, Ill. The museum, run by the state of Illinois, is about six hours east of Kansas City. While not part of the presidential library system, the Lincoln Library, as with the other libraries, serves as a resource and a central location to preserve many of the artifacts and documents of Lincoln’s presidency.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library’s history began long before its completion in 2004.  More than a century earlier, in 1889, the Illinois General Assembly established the Illinois State Historical Library as a repository for materials on the state’s political, social, and religious history. The Historical Library was renamed the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library to reflect its essential role—along with the adjacent Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum—in telling the story of Abraham Lincoln’s life.

Visitors will also find the materials on Illinois’ history, including eight miles of below-ground stacks that preserve myriad books, original maps, and thousands of boxes of personal papers and other records relating to Illinois’ political, business, and cultural leaders. Other exhibits showcase church histories too.•

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

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