HERBERT HOOVER NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE AND PRESIDENTIAL MUSEUM
West Branch, Iowa
Standing before a cream-color plaster life mask of our 31st president,I feel a flush of shame. I'd come expecting to be underwhelmed, and now I feel foolish admitting it to the sleepy-eyed, round-cheeked bust. Counter to our national mythos, Hoover was a compassionate activist. I realize I hadn't known him at all.
"People think Hoover-Depression and there's just so much more. That's just a flash picture of him and his life," says Chief Ranger Neil Korsmo. "He was a great philanthropist. He was always working for the common good, especially for children."
"We're sort of prisoners of our high school textbooks," says Timothy Walch, library director. "At best, he's considered at the top of the lowest quarter of presidents. But as a life, he was an enormous success." It's a satisfying thrill to unearth a new closeness to our political history. There are many ways to do this in the Midwest, such as discovering Truman in Missouri, and Lincoln and Reagan in Illinois. Ohio is home to six presidents.
In Iowa, the Hoover complex of library, birthplace and prairie paths reveals the story of an orphan who grew into The Great Humanitarian. He was Roaring '20s era. A naturalist. He standardized construction (the 2x4). On a wall hang flour sacks he sent to Europe, embroidered and returned as thank yous. In videos, survivors speak movingly about how Hoover lunches (white bread and vegetable soup) saved their lives. He took no pay for public service but as a Quaker did "the right and decent thing" until the Great Depression-an event he'd warned of as Commerce Secretary-crumbled the economy and his presidency.
"It's a terrific story of tragedy and triumph," Walch says. Up the prairie path on top of the hill overlooking his boyhood
home is perhaps the simplest of all presidential burial sites. There is no inscription. No gold. Just name and dates on a simple marble slab. This was at his request. Only now, I understand.
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, Abilene, Kansas
The museum celebrates the Allied Expeditionary Force of World War II, as well as Eisenhower's administration (877/746-4453; www.eisenhower.archives.gov).
LINCOLN SITES, Springfield, Illinois
Visit the Lincoln family tomb and the home the family lived in, which has been restoredto its 1860s appearance. The new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum reveals Lincoln's life through state-of-the-art special effects
TRUMAN PRESIDENTIAL MUSEUM & LIBRARY, Independence, Missouri
This look at the 33rd president includes a full-size re-creation of the Oval Office, plus gifts to the president from foreign heads of state and political memorabilia relating to the Truman presidency and the American presidency in
general (800/833-1225; www.trumanlibrary.org).
ROBERT J. DOLE INSTITUTE OF POLITICS, Lawrence,
The institute honors Kansas' World War II veterans and the career of native son Dole (785/864-4900; www.doleinstitute.org).
NATIVE AMERICAN HERITAGE SITES, North Dakota
Follow the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail to the nation's largest collection of Plains Indians artifacts at the North Dakota Heritage Center (701/328-2666; www.nd.gov/hist) and the Sacagawea site at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site (701/745-3300; www.nps.gov/knri).
CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL,Black Hills, South Dakota
This mountain-size monument to a legendary Sioux leader has been in progress since 1948. The memorial includes the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Cultural Center (605/673-4681; www.crazyhorse.org).