Somewhere in the visitor center of the Harry S Truman National Historic Site in Independence, Missouri, I worry that the park rangers pass around my photograph, my name, and a note saying: “Warning! He asks too many questions.”
They probably aren’t, but I deserve it, as historic sites have a way of unleashing my unbridled curiosity. Park rangers at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, Hampton National Historic Site, Pea Ridge National Military Park, and many other sites have all cheerfully endured my barrage of questions concerning everything from the aiming accuracy of historic rifles to the estimated cost of imported French wallpaper in the 18th century. What great sports those park rangers have been in humoring me, and what a startling ability they have to answer even my most obscure questions.
One of my favorite places in the park system is the Truman site. Like Harry Truman, my upbringing happened on a Missouri farm, and my family was similarly of the old-fashioned Missouri Democrat variety. In my early 20s I took my curiosity further by reading three biographies on him in succession, Plain Speaking by Merle Miller, Harry S. Truman by his daughter Margaret Truman Daniel, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman by David McCullough. That did it. Truman became my favorite president and still is. There is a framed picture of him in my office at home and a replica of his famous “The Buck Stops Here!” sign on my desk at work, even though I am not the boss, so the buck decidedly does not stop here.
Because of my love of this place, the recent news about closures and cuts at the Harry S Truman National Historic Site is especially troubling.
Around the country, park officials are grappling with how to handle a federally imposed 5 percent “sequester” cut to their budgets when most of their operating costs are inflexible. Superintendents nationwide are making painful choices about whether to reduce seasonal staff, close visitor centers, leave vacant positions unfilled, or cut services such as educational and interpretive programs, among other difficult options. The Truman site is no exception.
To balance the budget, park officials must close the visitor center and the main Truman home on Sundays, Mondays, and all federal holidays. They will indefinitely close the Noland home across the street, where Harry Truman’s cousins Nellie and Ethel Noland lived and where he was visiting when his courtship of their neighbor Bess Wallace began in 1910. They must also close the house at the Truman farm, where he lived with his mother and sister prior to his 1919 marriage to Bess.
This means the federal sequester has cut the visiting hours for the main house by nearly a third, and it has put the two sites dedicated to Harry Truman’s early life completely off-limits to visitors. As an urban park that is visited by tens of thousands of school children each year and annually pumps $1.9 million into the local economy, the cuts will have a ripple effect throughout the community, not just on history buffs like me.
While the Truman site is not the biggest or best-known site in the National Park System, it is a wonderful place for learning about and understanding our not-so-distant past. On my 2008 visit, I was amazed by how perfectly preserved the main house is. When Bess Wallace Truman died in 1982 at the age of 97–she is the longest-lived first lady, fellow trivia buffs–the house and all of its furnishings and artifacts were left as a gift to the government for the benefit of the American people. Because of her bequest, the Truman house is a time capsule of the personal life of a president and first lady.
This home was built by Bess Truman’s grandfather in 1867, was later owned by her mother, and became the Truman’s main residence from their marriage in 1919 until his death in 1972, after which Bess lived there alone until her own death. During the ten years Harry Truman served in the U.S. Senate, his three months as vice president, and his eight years as president, the large Victorian home in Independence was the family’s frequent escape from political life. Walking into it today, you can hardly tell they left. Next to the door, their coats and Harry’s walking sticks are still in their places, as if they had been left there just moments before. In the library, Bess’ favorite paperback mysteries are still where she left them. These carefully preserved details provide an intimate portrait of a man who changed history through moves both controversial, such as the dropping of the atomic bomb, and inarguable, like the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine.
The day of my visit was a quiet one, so I peppered the park ranger giving my tour with all sorts of questions. Had notable world leaders visited the home? The late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had. Does his last car, a 1972 Chrysler Newport, still run? It does, and Park Service staff start it on a regular basis to maintain it. I am used to seeing purposely arranged rooms and artifacts in other museums and historic sites, so I asked my guide if anything had been staged in the house prior to it being opened to the public. She responded that just two things had been altered: The week of Bess’s funeral, her daughter, Margaret Truman Daniel, had personally set the tables in the kitchen and the dining room in an effort to give a better picture of what day-to-day life was like for Harry and Bess Truman.
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Where can you simply walk back in time into such an authentic and painstakingly preserved picture of people’s lives? The Harry S Truman National Historic Site is one-of-a-kind, and the visitors like me who value our country’s history should be able to see these places, just as Harry and Bess Truman intended when they donated them at no cost to us, the American people. The answer to our nation’s economic woes does not lay in closing and restricting access to our national parks. We should instead be celebrating and encouraging more people to visit these unique and inspiring parts of our nation’s history.
About the author
Jeff Billington Former media relations manager for NPCA