In honor of Presidents’ Day in the U.S.. which celebrates the February birthdays of both President George Washington and President Abraham Lincoln, here are some past posts about some not as well-known sites associated with these two famous leaders.
In honor of Presidents’ Day in the U.S.. which celebrates the February birthdays of both President George Washington and President Abraham Lincoln, here are some past posts about some not as well-known sites associated with these two famous leaders.
Just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. sits a columned house looking like a Greek temple with a commanding view of the city. Down the steep hill outside its front door flickers the eternal flame at President John F. Kennedy’s grave. Surrounding the house on hundreds of acres of rolling hills are thousands of graves of America’s fallen heroes. This scene of domestic tranquility appears incongruous. Who would build a house in Arlington National Cemetery?
Ah, but the house came first, of course, and the cemetery was a punishment of sorts. It’s famous resident chose the losing side in the Civil War. The house is Arlington House, the man, Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Here in this very house he agonized over his decision to resign his commission in the United States army and accept the offer to join his native state of Virginia in what was ultimately a lost cause.
The house and plantation belonged to his wife Mary Custis’s family. He visited her here as a child and married her here in 1831. Lee never officially owned the house, but was the estate’s effective master after 1857 when Mary’s father died. George Washington Parke Custis was George Washington’s step-grandson. He had built the house as a memorial to the man he so admired. The house would become a museum filled with his various treasures connected to George Washington, some that would one day end up in the Smithsonian Institution.
Throughout most of his life, Robert E. Lee would come and go from this place where he once wrote “my affections and attachments are more strongly placed than at any other place in the world.” His military career took him to Mexico and West Point and other places, but he always returned to his home on the Potomac, the place where six of his seven children were born.
When his father-in-law died, Lee took leave from the Army for several years to try to bring the deteriorated estate back to productivity. Custis’s will had provided for the emancipation of his slaves, no later than five years after his death.
The volatile events of the nation overtook the family’s priorities. When Lee resigned from the U.S. Army everything changed. Mrs. Lee left the home in May 1861 after her husband took command of Virginia’s forces. Union troops occupied the surrounding land, preparing to build defenses and secure the land around the capital city. In 1864 the U.S. government took possession of the property when Mrs. Lee did not appear in person to pay property taxes. With a growing need for burial places for the war dead, the United States government established a military cemetery on the estate’s grounds, ensuring that Lee would never return to the family land.
Lee’s son Custis sued the U.S. government for unlawful confiscation of his inheritance and in 1882 the Supreme Court ordered the government to compensate the Lees. Recognizing the house’s significance to the nation’s story, the National Park Service acquired the property in 1933 and restored the house and grounds.
The house recently underwent a major renovation and stands restored to its pre-Civil War appearance. The Park Service staff does a great job of interpreting this complex family, including the story of the enslaved people who worked the estate. No visitor should visit Arlington National Cemetery without a stop at this fascinating house.
Hershey, Pennsylvania, or “Chocolatetown, USA,” is a town known all over the world. It’s a magical town with chocolate kiss-shaped streetlights, and streets named Chocolate and Cocoa Avenue, a town literally built on chocolate. The town exists because founder Milton S. Hershey chose the spot near his birthplace for his chocolate empire – first a factory at the heart of the town, and then many amenities for the factory workers. In many ways it was a classic company town.
Hershey first owned a successful caramel company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania about 30 miles away. Inspired by a German chocolate maker’s exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair, he saw potential in chocolate for the masses. He would transform a luxury product into one that anyone could afford. Hershey purchased about 30 acres of farmland in southern Pennsylvania and after a period of experimentation, came up with a formula for milk chocolate. He produced his first chocolate bar in 1900. In 1903 the Hershey Chocolate Company began construction on what would one day be the largest chocolate manufacturing facility in the world.
I grew up visiting my grandmother and my aunt and uncle and cousins in Hershey. Family members still live in a house on Chocolate Avenue (and run their own candy company!). On many visits, when the wind was blowing just right, the amazing smell of chocolate wafted in the air. In the summertime we’d go to Hersheypark, an amusement park founded originally by Hershey for his employees.
My family has stories of an encounter or two with Mr. Hershey himself, and various family members worked in some of the factories over the years. At Christmas we’d enjoy the large holiday lights on the factory’s exterior walls. And, the shrubbery spelling “Hershey Cocoa” on the factory’s green lawn was an iconic symbol of the town, along with the factory smokestacks.
The public could take tours of the factory until 1973 when the tours were no longer offered, and a faux-tour ride called Chocolate World took their place. I can just barely remember going through the factory as a child… truly a Willy Wonka-esque experience. Chocolate World was more like the Small World ride at Disney and just couldn’t match the authenticity of a tour through the center of chocolate making.
Sadly, the factory has just been torn down, production moved to newer facilities in the area. I have not closely followed the sad saga of the factory’s demise. Officials say they tried to find a developer to work with the factory site, but failed. The company is renovating the oldest part of the factory on the west end, dating from about 1915, into state-of-the-art office space. Even so, it seems that the heart has been ripped from the town. Thankfully the iconic smoke stacks have been saved, along with the “Hershey Cocoa” bushes, but sadly no investors wanted the factory. I wish some investor would have had the vision of adaptive reuse. If Boston can adapt a prison to a luxury hotel, couldn’t Hershey save a factory? Loft apartments? A new hotel? I realize that there must be return on investment.
A recent drive down Chocolate Avenue made me sad. Clearly, in my opinion, this is a loss for the town.
In a red barn was born the largest airplane manufacturer in the world, the Boeing Company. The barn was built in 1909 (just six years after the Wright Brothers’ first controlled flight) as part of Edward Heath’s shipyard on the Duwamish River in Seattle. William Boeing bought the shipyard and building a year later, as a place to complete work on his yacht. That same year Boeing attended one of the first American air meets in Los Angeles and became fascinated with aviation. By 1916, his focus had shifted to the air. Boeing’s new business venture, Pacific Aero Products Company, soon constructed its first airplane, the 1916 Boeing and Westervelt aircraft, the B&W. One year later, the company became the Boeing Aircraft Company and employed 28 people such as pilots, carpenters, boat builders and seamstresses.
With the start of World War I, Boeing convinced the Navy to buy fifty Model C seaplanes, training aircraft for the war. With the end of the war, demand for aircraft plummeted and the lack of new airplane contracts forced the company to briefly produce furniture and flat-bottomed boats called sea sleds. The company soon started designing airplanes for delivering airmail. In 1919 a Boeing aircraft carried the first international airmail from Canada to the United States. A year later, a Boeing airplane was the first to fly over Mount Rainier. By 1928 the company had grown to 800 employees and was one of the largest airplane manufacturing companies in the United States.
Today the Red Barn, also called building No. 105, is one of only two structures that exist from the Boeing Plant 1 site, the company’s original site in Seattle. It is considered the oldest airplane manufacturing facility in the nation. The barn was moved from the original site in the 1970s and was the first permanent location for the new Museum of Flight in Seattle. Today the museum has grown to include a sprawling complex of exhibition buildings with the red barn at its core. Still an exhibit building, the barn includes a re-created factory workshop and a re-created early office. The workshop is where the company’s first financial success, the Boeing Model C, was built in 1916, an all-Boeing design.
The Museum of Flight features an excellent collection of airplanes and spacecraft, including the Space Shuttle Full Fuselage Trainer. Visitors can walk through a Concorde and a Boeing VC-137B which was Air Force One for Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon. The World War I and II exhibitions are immersive experiences that are well-designed and do a good job of providing the context of the periods. I thoroughly enjoyed them. This unexpected quote by Hitler appeared at the end of one of the exhibits:
I was stunned to read it and realize that I agree with him about the teaching of history. History should be about process, not solely about content. Do you agree?
I love walled cities and have admired walls and walked on walls in various cities around the world, including Lucca, San Gimignano and Siena in Italy, Ronda in Spain and York in England. York’s walls are considered the longest and most complete walls in England. Another favorite wall of mine surrounds the historic section of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A nice walkway follows along some of the exterior and along the top.
Here in North America, we don’t have many walls. Only two, according to a list on Wikipedia: the originally Spanish city of St. Augustine in Florida and French-founded Quebec City in the province of Quebec, two cities that should be on the destination list of any history lover. Both places played pivotal roles in the European fight over North America.
So, when traveling, I am drawn to walls. On a recent trip to England, I explored another walled city, Chichester, a cathedral town on the south coast. The walls there are well preserved and have a fascinating history. More than 80% of the walls are original and they are considered the most intact circuit of Roman town defenses in southern England. At first glance, the cathedral spire grabs a traveler’s attention. The 12th century Gothic and Norman building soars high above the narrow streets. But the city history goes back much earlier to the first century. It was founded as the Roman town of Noviomagus Reginorum with the usual Roman buildings: a forum, bath house, temples and a theater. The town flourished on the flat meadows of West Sussex for two hundred years and then, for some reason, the leaders decided to enclose the town with a wall. The wall served several purposes: defense, control of trade, and status indicator. It was seven meters tall with four massive gates at each main cardinal direction. At great cost in the late third and early fourth centuries, the town leaders added as many as seventy bastions, 12-meter tall artillery towers placed around the walls. They would hopefully ensure long-term survival of the city.
Eventually the Roman town was abandoned as the Anglo Saxons settled England and the Romano British left towns for a rural existence. After over 500 years of neglect, the town of Chichester rose on the old Roman site and the decaying walls were repaired when Alfred the Great decided to build a chain of defenses against the threat of Viking attack.
The walls were last used as a defense in 1642 during the Civil War when Parliamentarian forces bombarded the city with artillery. After a week of bombardment the Royalists surrendered the city.
But the walls survived and by the 18th and 19th centuries they were transformed again. The gates were demolished and sections were removed to create better traffic flow. The City Council invested in a tree-lined trail atop the walls, the Walls Walk, as a promenade for residents. This may have saved the walls from demolition.
For the last 200 years, residents and visitors have been able to enjoy an elevated stroll around the city on the walls the Romans built. The view from the wall is ever-changing – from lush public gardens near the Cathedral, to private back gardens of homes adjacent to the wall and 19th century Priory Park with its cricket pitch and bowling green. If you get the chance, visit Chichester and walk the wall.
Not to miss: The Novium is a new museum about the city’s history built above the remains of a thermae, a large public Roman bath house. Visitors can peek into the unearthed excavation of the bath house which stood on the spot nearly 2000 years ago.
I’m repeating a favorite post from last Christmas. Enjoy. Happy holidays to all.
One of my favorite places in Washington, D.C., especially at Christmas, is the United States Botanic Garden, one of the oldest botanic gardens in North America. The core of the expansive glass Conservatory building was constructed in 1933 when the garden moved to its present site southwest of the Capitol. The idea for a national garden and national plant collection supposedly goes back to the nation’s early presidents, including Washington, Jefferson and Madison who all dreamed of a national garden.
But it wasn’t until 1820 that Congress established a garden under the auspices of the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences. That first garden was located between 1st and 3rd Streets and Pennsylvania and Maryland Avenues. (where the Reflecting Pool is today). This garden disappeared around 1837 when the Institute dissolved.
In 1850 a small octagonal greenhouse was constructed to house plant specimens collected on the Wilkes Expedition (to the Pacific Ocean). The garden was designed to propagate potentially useful foreign plants. A national garden of some form or another has been open to the public continually since then.
1858 photograph showing the first Conservatory building.
1874 engraving showing finished dome.
In the early 1930s the conservatory was demolished to clear the main axis of the National Mall in accordance with the 1902 McMillan Plan, and the present Beaux-Arts building was erected. It featured a 93-foot high glass house considered innovative for its use of aluminum. The building was closed for a complete renovation from 1997-2001.
Today, the U.S. Botanic Garden includes the Conservatory building, the National Garden which opened in 2006 and sits adjacent to the Conservatory, and Bartholdi Park across Independence Ave.
The Conservatory’s seasonal flower displays provide a breath of spring all year round and Christmas is especially festive with the whimsical Garden Railway and Enchanted Forest, beautiful Christmas tree, and elaborate large models of Washington’s grand public buildings made from all natural materials. The impressive U.S. Capitol building model took more than 600 hours to construct and, like all of the models, is covered in dried plant materials.
Blog post A Civil War Christmas at Fort Ward
Blog post Christmas at Mount Vernon
Most Americans don’t associate the state of Vermont with the American Revolution (the most likely state candidates are Massachusetts and Pennsylvania). Except Vermonters. They celebrate a legal holiday every year on August 16 – Bennington Battle Day – to commemorate a battle which took place in New York, though Bennington is in Vermont. Confused? Oh, and Vermont was not even a state until 1791.
Anyway, I ended up in Bennington, Vermont on a hot day this past July and had some time to kill. So, of course I was drawn to the obvious history site in town, the 306 -foot tall Bennington Battle Monument, the tallest structure in the state. My dad and I rode a rickety elevator up to the observation level at 200 feet. We wanted to get the lay of the surrounding land and enjoy a three-state view (New York, Massachusetts and Vermont). Plus we were hoping to find some cooler air, Vermont is not supposed to be hot and humid.
The monument, dedicated in 1891, marks the location of the town’s ammunition stores in 1777. Two well-trained units of the British army under command of General John Burgoyne were headed from New York state to Bennington to capture the arsenal depot and gain some much-needed supplies. Burgoyne was alarmed by the fervor of the locals and had written to his superior that this country “abounds in the most active and most rebellious race on the continent…”
The Colonial forces, mostly untrained volunteers from Vermont, Massachusetts and New York, followed their commander, retired Continental Army Colonel John Stark – given the rank of Brigadier General for this effort. Stark decided that rather to take a defensive position in Bennington, he would meet the British before they reached the town. Supposedly he uttered the noble words “There are the Red Coats; they will be ours or tonight Molly Stark sleeps a widow.” Fighting began at 3 p.m. and the British were retreating by 5 p.m. Then a second unit of the British army appeared and the Americans began to lose ground. Then the action changed again when Colonel Seth Warner and his Green Mountain Boys arrived from Manchester and the Americans gained momentum and forced a British retreat and saved the day.
Burgoyne’s attempt to cut New England off from the other colonies failed. The battle of Bennington was considered a key precursor to the battles of Saratoga which led to Burgoyne’s surrender of 8000 troops on October 17. This surrender is considered a turning point in the American Revolution because it led to France’s alliance with America and ultimately French involvement in the War.
The monument includes a very small and sadly outdated exhibit area in its base. It is owned by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.
Just down the road from the monument stands the Old First Church, the first Protestant church in Vermont. The building dates to 1806. The nearby cemetery, designated “Vermont’s sacred acre” by the Vermont legislature, holds the grave of poet Robert Frost and approximately 75 Revolutionary War patriots, as well as some British and Hessian soldiers killed in the battle.
When in London, I always try to visit some favorite places and some new sites. This past trip several people had mentioned the newly reopened Charles Dickens Museum, and raved about its new interpretation. I’d never seen the house, so I decided to visit 48 Doughty Street, a brick Georgian terraced house occupied by the young Dickens family for almost three years (1837-1839). As the family grew in size and his wealth increased, Dickens moved on from this starter house to bigger houses. While living here, Dickens was on the cusp of worldwide fame. He wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby and part of the Pickwick Papers.
Admittedly I did not know a lot about Dickens. I’d read some of his work, but didn’t know his life story. I wanted some insight into the life and times of one of the world’s most famous writers. While the home focused on a short period of time in Dickens’ life, the museum holds one of the most important collections of Dickens artifacts in the world.
The self-guided tour started in the dining room where the table was set for dinner. Place cards around it indicated some of the famous guests who dined in that room. The sounds of horse hooves and carriage wheels on the cobblestones outside, along with clinking dishes, added an audio component that was offered in several rooms in the house, attempting to immerse the visitor into Dickens’s world.
The kitchen in the basement featured hands-on reproductions of appliances. The scullery and wash house nearby showed a copper kettle for laundry, and signage explained that it was also used once a year for Christmas pudding – and was referred to in his well-loved story A Christmas Carol. Some of the fun in touring a writer’s house was that objects on display throughout the place appear in scenes in his various books.
In the drawing room, largest room in the house, Dickens often entertained guests by reading and performing his stories. I learned Dickens was the first famous author to give public readings of his work. At other times Dickens might sit in the room, surrounded by guests, yet tuning them out and engrossed in writing. Images on display around the room showed the room’s original furniture, including his reading desk, seen in various portraits and photographs over the years.
To help visitors connect with Dickens’s works, books with “Read Me” printed in large text on the front were scattered throughout the house. Visitors could pick up a book and read about some of his colorful characters.
A fascinating display in the third floor nursery showed the influences from his childhood – the prison grill from the former Marshalsea Debtors Prison in Southwark where his father had been imprisoned, requiring the twelve-year-old Dickens to work in a factory. He was so embarrassed or traumatized by this that he supposedly only ever told two people about it. Yet his experiences from the factory appear throughout his writing. Tragedy also struck in this house when his wife’s sister died in Dickens’s arms at the age of 17 while staying with the family. Her death had a profound influence on him.
I left the house wanting to know more about Dickens and his world, and impressed with the way the museum staff had made me feel as if I’d just visited the famed author —an excellent example for other house museums to emulate.
I’ve visited a lot of historic sites in the world and while they’re each unique in their own way, I love it when I find the rare place that is unlike all of the others. Recently I had the opportunity to visit Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, Alabama, a site truly unlike most places I’ve been. This National Historic Landmark, owned by the city of Birmingham, claims it’s the only blast furnace in the United States preserved for public use. The complex’s blast furnaces produced pig iron from 1882 to 1971. Its collection includes two 400-ton blast furnaces and forty other buildings, the oldest dating to 1902.
Many of the buildings on the site have been stabilized and are used for various community and civic events including concerts and festivals and an innovative metal arts program.
I visited one late summer evening at dusk, as part of an evening event related to a conference of history professionals. I knew little about the site and attempted to read the interpretive markers on the way to the barbecue meal waiting for me. As we ate, the light faded and it was dark by the time I was ready to explore. I’ve learned that if you wait to eat later, the food is gone.
Admittedly, industrial sites are not my first interest and I know next to nothing about blast furnaces. A tour would have enlightened me, but no tours were available. Since it was dark out, most of the interpretive markers were in shadows; my education would need to be sensory. I was planning to wander through the site wearing my historian hat. But during the meal, my colleagues eagerly talked of their plans. They knew that the place is known to be haunted and had seen it on the TV show Ghost Hunters. Their mission was to hunt ghosts and they invited me to join them. I thought, why not?
So that evening, about four of my history colleagues went on an adventure. I hadn’t brought a flashlight, but my cell phone worked fine. We walked into dark rooms and tunnels, up ramps, over catwalks and bridges and sluices with trickling water, along musty walls, under huge spider webs and past lots of towering rusty pieces of machinery. Sure, I wanted to know what everything was, but the atmosphere entranced me. I felt like a kid again. Every now and then we walked into a room with a skeleton sitting there to greet us. I quickly learned that at Halloween the site hosts a very popular ghost tour and attraction called Sloss Fright Furnace. The event was coming up and staff was getting ready. I searched for the ghosts of workers past and had a grand adventure that night, thanks to my ghost-loving friends. For the record, we did not see any ghosts, probably because we were having too much fun.
Is Sloss Furnace haunted? There are many videos on YouTube about the topic. Here’s one: CBS investigates Sloss Furnace video
Another sight to see: Birmingham was an industrial center in the South after the Civil War and its main industries included iron and steel production and railroad components. It was sometimes called the Pittsburgh of the South. A highly visible symbol of the city is the 56-ft. tall cast iron statue of the Roman god Vulcan, god of fire and forge, standing on a 126 ft. high pedestal in Vulcan Park overlooking the city.
I sometimes think that every major historic site has been identified and there cannot possibly be any that have been overlooked. I’m wrong, of course. I recently visited a President Lincoln site that has only been open to the public since 2008. It offers a fascinating and different perspective on one of America’s iconic presidents. And, it’s located just three miles north of the White House in Washington.
The Lincoln Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home was a sanctuary for the Lincolns during their time in Washington. It was their Camp David, a place of refuge away from the chaos of downtown. The Lincolns lived at the cottage for about fourteen of the forty-nine months they occupied the White House, about 25% of their time. Mary later reflected “How dearly I loved the Soldiers’ Home.” However she would travel away from Washington for months at a time and leave her husband alone at the Cottage. So, in some ways it was even more of a refuge for him.
While in residence at the cottage, Lincoln commuted to and from his office at the White House, traveling the thirty minute ride on horseback or by carriage. Often poet Walt Whitman would see him pass by. “I see the President almost every day,” Whitman wrote in his wartime journal. ”We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones.” His commute to the home allowed him to see the many types of people living in the city and on rare occasions to interact with escaped slaves in contraband camps.
The Gothic revival style cottage was built in the early 1840s as a private home for George Washington Riggs (who later became a prominent bank owner in Washington) and the estate was sold to the federal government in 1851. The Soldiers’ Home, originally called the Military Asylum, was created in the 1850s for disabled military veterans. Located on a high spot in Washington, it offered cool breezes and grand views. The military commissioners began to invite political officials to spend time in cottages on the grounds. Over the years four presidents used the place as a summer retreat.
It is a remarkable preservation success. By 2000 the building’s future was in danger and it appeared on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual list of endangered sites. The National Trust ended up forging a cooperative association with the Armed Forces Retirement Home, saving the site and managing the $15 million restoration project.
Visitors take a guided tour through the house, seeing it much as it would have looked to the Lincolns. The building is sparsely furnished, save for a few pieces such as a reproduction of the desk on which Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. The original is in the White House, but was transported to the Cottage during Lincoln’s stays there.
The tour uses technology to highlight the stories associated with the house – audio passages of Lincoln’s words and others who wrote about visiting Lincoln at the house. The tour discusses how the place served as a retreat to allow Lincoln think through some major wartime decisions.
Originally a place the Lincolns went to grieve the death of their son Willie, the Soldiers’ Home cottage became the place where Lincoln could forge personal connections with the soldiers encamped just outside his door, they became a source of companionship. While not an easy place to find, all sorts of callers found their way to the cottage at all times of day, with pleas of various sorts. And just across the street was an active national cemetery, a precursor to Arlington, where Lincoln could not help but see the fresh graves. The cottage’s proximity to enemy activity also prompted a few anxious moments, and one time Secretary of War Stanton ordered the Lincolns to return to the White House in the early hours of the morning due to safety concerns.
Today the Lincoln Cottage staff attempts to tell the story of this unique place, with emphasis on both the very human Lincoln and the politician, who struggled with the emancipation decision and whose momentous decisions molded at this quiet refuge ultimately impacted the world.