Monday, September 7, 2009

A Visit to Woodrow Wilson's Birthplace: Staunton, VA

Labor Day weekends provide a wonderful opportunity for visiting historic sites. For this year's edition of the holiday weekend my girlfriend Michele and I visited historic Staunton, Virginia (pronounced Stanton). Unfortunately I had never actually been into the town of Staunton; although I had been to some sites near there such as the Frontier Culture Museum. If I had known what I was missing I would have visited much sooner.

During our time in Staunton we were able to take in a visit to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, which also includes the home where he was born on December 28, 1856.

The museum was quite well done. The staff was very personable and made us feel very welcome. In the museum's galleries there are a number of exhibits on different periods of Wilson's life. It was interesting to learn about his mother and father, his early life, and his personal accomplishments. For example, I was not aware that he was the only President (1913-1921) that earned a PhD. He also served as the president of Princeton, the governor of New Jersey, and was the 27th or 28th president (depending on how you count Grover Cleveland's two administrations). He studied at a number of different institutions, including Davidson College, Johns Hopkins University, the Princeton. The largest part of the exhibit naturally featured his two terms in office as president, which of course included the World War One years. Wilson's stance on race has been the subject of quite a bit of scholarship in the past decade or so, and while there was some mention of his attitudes on race in the museum, it was interpreted in text by stating that he was largely representative of white men of his era who thought that racial segregation was best for both blacks and whites. Wilson's upbringing in mainly Southern states probably influenced much of his thinking on race. Also a highlight of the museum is Wilson's 1919 Pace Arrow Presidential limousine. The auto has been lovingly restored to its original magnificence.

The best part of the visit was the guided tour of Wilson's birthplace house (pictured above). Our guide was great. He was a former teacher and he really knew his Wilson stuff. The birthplace home is located in the Gospel Hill section of Staunton. It was called Gospel Hill because of the religious meetings that were held at blacksmith Sampson Eagon's shop. The house was built in 1846 by the First Presbyterian Church of Staunton to house the minister (Wilson's father) and his family. The Greek Revival style home has 12 rooms and is furnished with both representative period furnishings and Wilson family furnishings. Our guide informed us that the church rented three or four slaves from local owners for the Wilson's use as domestic servants. Unfortunately, not much more is known about the servants. While the front (street side) of the house is impressive, the back is amazing. The three-level back porch overlooks the home's beautiful gardens and what is now Mary Baldwin College.

If you ever have the chance to visit Staunton please do so and take the time to stop in and look through the museum and take a tour of the birthplace house. Also take advantage of the great dining spots and historic atmosphere of the downtown area. You'll be glad you did.

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