Prologue Magazine

Found at the Presidential Libraries, Part 2

Dr. Seuss, Air Force One, and the San Diego Chicken

Winter 2003, Vol. 35, No. 4

By Ellen Fried

Eisenhower family home
The Eisenhower family home.
(Dwight D. Eisenhower Library)

A Door and a House

Presidents receive lots of gifts from foreign heads of state, and many of these gifts end up in the presidential libraries. Some gifts have special meaning, reflecting powerful ties that bind two countries together. Such is the case with one item in the collection of the Bush Library.

According to Kuwaiti custom, when a man gives you the key to his home, he is your friend for life. When a man gives you the door to his home, you are a member of his family forever.

In 1993 the Emir of Kuwait presented President George H. W. Bush with a nineteenth-century Kuwaiti door made of teak with dome-studded nails. Around the door are gold plates listing the U.S. casualties of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The door is now on display at the Bush Library, as part of an exhibit that documents the events of the Gulf War.

While the Bush Library has a door, the Eisenhower library has an entire house. It's the only presidential historic structure owned and operated by NARA.

The Eisenhower family home was built in 1887 in Abilene, Kansas. David and Ida Eisenhower bought the house in 1898, when their son Dwight was eight. The future President lived in the house until he went off to West Point in 1911; the family continued to occupy it until Ida Eisenhower's death in 1946. Then the sons donated the house to the Eisenhower Foundation, which maintained it until it was given to NARA.

When the time came to build a presidential library and museum, these structures were built on either side of the family home. "Everyone thinks we moved the house in," said museum curator Dennis Medina. "Actually, we built around it." With the exception of one rug - which is a replica - all of the contents are original. Visitors may tour the house free of charge.

Art of a Different Sort

The presidential libraries have plenty of art, including numerous portraits of Presidents. But the Johnson Museum has artwork you might not expect - a set of original drawings by Dr. Seuss, America's best-loved author of children's books.

It's the artwork from The Lorax, which Dr. Seuss considered his finest work. The book, written in Dr. Seuss's trademark whimsical rhyme, tells the tale of a creature who "speaks for the trees." The Lorax wages a courageous battle against an evil creature called the Once-ler, who cuts down trees to make thneeds, "which everyone needs."

In a 1986 exhibition catalog, Dr. Seuss - whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel - described in his own words how the artwork from The Lorax came to be in the Johnson Library:

I don't have The Lorax here [at home]. It's in Texas, and you may wonder why. I was at a dinner for Democrats some years ago, and I sat next to Liz Carpenter, who was [Lady Bird's] press secretary. Since Lady Bird was so interested in beautification, it seemed that environmental protection was a safe topic, so I mentioned that I had written a book on the subject. Liz seemed interested, but soon after, she left the room. When she reappeared, she called me to the phone and said, "The President wants to talk to you." I said "Hello" and there was LBJ thanking me for donating the drawings of The Lorax to his library in Austin, Texas.

The gift consisted of two sets of art - preliminary crayon drawings and final pen-and-ink line art. The artwork was displayed last year in an exhibition called "LBJ on Display: Highlights of the Museum's Collection."

Momentous Events

Some items have a special impact because of their ties to major events or achievements that took place during a President's time in office.

On July 20, 1969, during the administration of President Richard Nixon, humans walked on the Moon for the first time - a momentous event that commanded the attention of the world. Via satellite link, Nixon called Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to congratulate them.

"Neil and Buzz," Nixon said, "I am talking to you by telephone from the Oval Room at the White House. And this certainly has to be the most historic telephone call ever made."

The telephone from which Nixon made that historic call is part of NARA's Nixon Presidential Materials collection. Under the provisions of a 1974 law, materials related to the Nixon Presidency are handled differently from those of other Presidents. NARA does not operate a library for Nixon, but some of NARA's materials - including the telephone from which Nixon talked to the moon - are on loan to the privately owned Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California, where they can be seen on display.

One of Jimmy Carter's most memorable achievements was mediating a set of difficult negotiations between the leaders of Israel and Egypt - two countries that had been at war for decades. The meetings ended with the signing of "A Framework for Peace in the Middle East Agreed at Camp David," better known as the Camp David Accords. The agreements made in those accords have been honored to this day.

In 2002 the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded that year's Nobel Peace Prize to Jimmy Carter, in part for his role in the Camp David Accords. Just eleven days after receiving the award, Carter transferred it to the Carter Library, where it is now on display.

Nobel Peace Prize
Jimmy Carter's Nobel Peace Prize.
(Jimmy Carter Library)

Coconut Shells and Flour Sacks

What's so remarkable about a coconut shell or a bunch of old flour sacks? Nothing - until you hear the story behind them.

During World War II, John F. Kennedy commanded a patrol-torpedo boat - PT-109 - in the South Pacific. One night in 1943, the boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer. Two of the crew were lost; Kennedy helped the eleven survivors reach a small island. Then he did his best to rescue his men, swimming from island to island at night in the hope of finding help.

On the fourth night, on an island called Naru, he finally encountered some islanders. Using a jackknife, he scratched a message on a coconut shell: "NAURO ISL COMMANDER . . . NATIVE KNOWS POS'IT . . . HE CAN PILOT . . . 11 ALIVE NEED SMALL BOAT . . . KENNEDY." Then he gave the shell to the islanders and said "Rendova" - the name of the island where the PT base was located. The islanders took the shell and paddled off in a canoe.

A day later, Kennedy and his men were rescued. Years later, Kennedy had a piece of the coconut shell mounted as a memento. He kept it on his desk, first in the Senate and then in the Oval Office. It is now on display at the Kennedy Library.

Exhibit specialist Jim Wagner recalls former curator Powers pointing out that the coconut shell was the most important item in the library's collection. Wagner explains, "If not for the coconut shell, JFK may not have been rescued - and he never would have been elected President."

In August 1914, the German army invaded Belgium; by fall, the tiny kingdom - dependent on imports for most of its food - faced mass starvation. Herbert Hoover, a prosperous mining engineer, was asked to undertake an unprecedented relief effort. After some soul-searching, he agreed to assume the administration of what became known as the Commission for the Relief of Belgium (CRB). The CRB shipped seven hundred million pounds of flour to Belgium, saving ten million lives.

The flour was packed in cotton sacks by American and Canadian mills. Cotton was in great demand by the Germans, who used it to clean gun barrels, so the movement of the flour sacks through Belgium was carefully controlled by the CRB. The empty flour sacks were distributed to sewing schools and workshops, where some of them were turned into clothing, pillows, and other functional items. But many women chose to embroider the sacks with elaborate expressions of thanks to the Americans.

Several hundred of these decorated flour sacks were presented as gifts to Hoover. About four hundred of them are now in the collection of the Hoover Library - a moving tribute to Hoover's compassion and the extraordinary humanitarian effort he undertook.

embroidered flour sack The caption on this embroidered flour sack given to Herbert Hoover reads, "They shall not tame him as long as a Flemish person lives."
(Herbert Hoover Library)

"What I particularly value about the artifacts in the presidential libraries," says Claypoole, "is that they are not always what you'd expect. Their display is not the primary purpose of the libraries, but their presence in the libraries provides an immediate and often powerful connection to our Presidents and our history. These objects serve to remind thousands of library visitors each year that our Presidents were mortal human beings whose interests, values, and experiences, while extraordinary at times, at other times simply reflected those of the men and women they were privileged to serve."

Found at the Presidential Libraries, Part 1

Ellen Fried is on the Policy and Communications Staff at the National Archives and Records Administration.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.


Purchase This Issue