Supporters of a North Carolina museum honoring James K. Polk, America’s 11th president, are learning a lesson that’s hitting home at other monuments to lesser-known American leaders: Government spending on their memorial sites is declining, so private money and grants had better be found quickly.
The small museum on the land where Polk was born is the target of Republican state lawmakers looking for places to cut the budget.
Similar money problems are besetting other sites that honor some of the American presidents least likely to make the historians’ top 10 list. Ohio has been cutting funds for the state-run museums honoring Rutherford B. Hayes, Warren G. Harding and Ulysses Grant.
The North Carolina budget proposal initially removed nearly all the $110,000 needed each year to run the Polk museum south of Charlotte, meaning it would close for all but a few days a year. Now, the House and Senate are trying to reach a compromise plan that makes some cuts, with hopes that private gifts or grants could make up the difference.
However, even the compromise might be a fatal blow to the Polk site, said Ben Pelton, treasurer of the Polk Memorial Support Fund, which has also morphed into a group called Keep Polk Open in the fight to save the site.
“We are not structured to raise money. We’re a support group. How are we going to find $110,000 a year quickly?” Pelton said. “How can the state shut down the birthplace of a president? How many other states have one of those?”
Just 21 states can claim a presidential birthplace. More than half of those birthplaces are in four states: Virginia, Ohio, New York and Massachusetts. Presidential birthplaces and museums are a patchwork of national historic sites, state run facilities and private museums. Many have cut back the days and hours they are open. For lesser known presidents like Franklin Pierce, Chester Arthur or Martin Van Buren, tourists have to visit during the summer because they aren’t open for most of the year.
The state-owned President James K. Polk State Historic Site in Pineville includes 21 of the 150 acres that Polk’s parents owned, farmed and lived on when he was born in 1795. The site has a museum and two buildings renovated to look like a home and a kitchen from the period. They are not the Polks’ home — those were torn down a long time ago. Instead, officials moved similar buildings from that era to the land in the late 1960s when they decided to build the museum, said site manager Scott Warren.
The Polk site had 16,100 visitors last year, including more than 2,800 third-graders on field trips from Charlotte areas schools. The small museum also includes a short film on the president who went to war with Mexico and cut a deal with Great Britain over the Pacific Northwest that led to America stretching from sea to shining sea — a man many historians consider the country’s most successful one-term president, or its least-known great president.
Polk’s family moved from North Carolina when he was 11, and he is much better known as a Tennessean. The federal site dedicated to Polk is at his adult home in Columbia, Tenn. That location also has Polk’s presidential papers.
North Carolina’s Polk site is just beginning to deal with what some other presidential sites across the country have already handled when Great Recession swallowed funds for museums and historical sites.
Ohio, home to seven presidents, has cut funding to its presidential museums. The home of Warren G. Harding ended up in Ohio’s hands in the late 1970s when the private organization overseeing it ran out of money. The museum is now open just five days a week and only in the afternoon, said Sherry Hall, site manager for the Harding Home President Site.
Harding is a tough president to sell. His administration was tainted by the Teapot Dome oil bribery scandal and several of his appointees went to jail. But he also supported women’s right to vote and advocated for educational and economic opportunities for blacks — a progressive stance in the 1920s.
“We’re not one of the big guys either. But I like not being one of the big guys,” Hall said. “People think they know everything about Lincoln, Washington or Jefferson. They often don’t know a lot about Harding, or what they know is wrong. I like being able to teach them something new.”
The people who run the home of fellow one-term president Rutherford B. Hayes in Fremont, Ohio, don’t work 40-hour weeks any more to save money. Back in 2002, the site got $700,000 from Ohio taxpayers. This past year, state money made up just $281,000 of the center’s $1.4 million budget, executive director Christie Weininger said.
The museum started closing one weekday and cut hours to save money. Sometimes Weininger feels like she spends more time figuring out ways to make money than how to tell the story of the president who abandoned Reconstruction in the South after a disputed election and championed civil service reform.
“Our mission is not to raise money. Our mission is to provide wonderful educational, programs,” Weininger said. “But you are always looking at your events, wondering, how can we make money off of this?”
Weininger thinks governments can’t abandon museums and historical sites because they create a vital link to the past.
“Presidential history is incredibly important to our history and to the understanding of ourselves. We can’t be ignorant of our own history and expect to properly prepare of the future. That doesn’t make sense. You have to understand where you came from,” Weininger said.
The chance to see living and breathing history is what appealed to 11-year-old Luke Protasewich as he recently walked around the Polk site with his mom and another home-schooled family. In the brilliant sunshine, he could imagine a young farm boy running around that same patch of land and growing up to be president.
“A president was here when he was growing up,” Luke said. “That’s pretty cool.”
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