Discover the truth about George Washington’s teeth, learn fascinating details of Andrew Jackson’s duels and even experience the heat of Harry Truman’s kitchen.When my parents dragged me to George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Va., many years ago, I expected total boredom. I quickly discovered, however, that those clever people in charge of the presidential estate knew how to appeal to teenagers. When I got to see a set of Washington’s dentures, made not of wood, as the popular myth suggests, but fashioned from lead, ivory, wire, springs and actual teeth from animals, including horses and donkeys, I was, well, hooked. Very cool. My mind was open.
That feeling has continued to flourish during my adulthood. Now, whenever I travel in the United States on business or vacation, I always try to visit the nearest presidential landmark. It has been an eye-opening endeavor. I’ve seen the burglar alarm consisting of bells and strings attached to the doors in Benjamin Harrison’s elegant redbrick Victorian home (in Indianapolis); the film projector Warren G. Harding used in the White House to watch Charlie Chaplin movies (in Marion, Ohio); and John Tyler’s plantation, purportedly haunted by a ghost named the Gray Lady (in Charles City, Va.).
I show up hoping to glean bizarre facts about our beloved leaders, but after standing in their bedrooms, studies and kitchens, I always walk away with a radically altered perspective on who each president really was as a human being and a genuine feel for the person behind the persona. Here are some of my favorite presidential homes:
Jimmy Carter National Historic Site
If you like peanut fields, magnolias and gnats, you’ll love Jimmy Carter’s boyhood town of Plains, Ga. (population 683). In 1976, Carter rented the Plains Train Depot (the town’s train station from 1888 until the railroad ceased passenger service to the area in 1951) to serve as his presidential-campaign headquarters — just a block away from the Carter family peanut warehouse and his brother Billy’s gas station.
The Carters still live in Plains in the house they bought in 1961, but, for some odd reason, the Secret Service refused to let me ring the doorbell. President Carter teaches Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church, and after the service (open to the public), he and his wife, Rosalyn, pose for photos with visitors.
Our kids got to sit in old-fashioned school desks at Plains High School, where the president attended grades 1-12 and where Rosalyn graduated as valedictorian. Two miles down the road sits the small farmhouse where Carter lived from age 4 until he went off to college. Along the way we visited the graves of his brother, Billy, and his mother, Miss Lillian, and contemplated the plain gravesite reserved for the humble humanitarian from Plains.