While the Austin area is LBJ country, the first Texas-born president of the United States hailed from the far north. I recently visited Denison, 270 miles north of Austin, to see the birthplace of Dwight Eisenhower. Just 27 miles east of Denison is Bonham, where visitors can also tour the home of Sam Rayburn, America’s longest-serving Speaker of the House.
Eisenhower’s birthplace house was opened to the public in 1946. Eisenhower was on hand for the grand opening and gave a speech to a crowd of 10,000 or more. A new exhibit in the works will give visitors the opportunity to hear this speech. The 1946 visit was the first time the adult Eisenhower had seen the house as he only lived here until he was 18 months old.
In the exhibit under development, which is being termed the vignette room, visitors will see how the house was interpreted in the 1940s and 50s, when several fancy objects were placed in the house by curators. In the last six years the house has been shorn of these upscale objects, which did not represent what was there during the early years of the Eisenhower family. One example is a piano, which was in his boyhood home in Abilene, but not this birthplace home. When Ike’s parents moved here in 1889, they rented the house furnished.
Visitors can watch a short video and study an exhibit in the ticket office, then take a tour of the ground floor of the house where Ike was born in 1890. It is literally just steps away from the railroad that ran through the town, so this modest home was usually covered in soot both inside and out. Ike’s father made only $40 a month cleaning the exterior of the trains; tour guides make a particular point of stressing this was a working class family, living right on the edge of poverty. His rise to become Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, and then President, is truly extraordinary.
Over the next couple of years there will be several ceremonies associated with Ike, including one in Denison on June 1, 2019 for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Nationally, the big event will be the completion and unveiling of the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington DC. This is tentatively slated for 2020, on the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe.
The much more spacious home of Sam Rayburn was built for him in 1916, and was typically lived in by one or more of his relatives. Here you can see many of his personal mementos as (unlike the Eisenhower house) everything in here is original to the house. The most stunning room is his bedroom, roughly triple the size you might expect. Rayburn’s sister Medibel lived here until 1969. He directed that the home be turned into a museum after his last relative died here, and it opened to the public in 1975. The site contains several outbuildings. One of these houses an extraordinarily long 1947 Cadillac, a gift from members of Congress when Rayburn had to step down as Speaker of the House. But he was back in the top job twice more, serving for nearly 17 years in total, a record that will almost certainly never be broken.
Also not to be missed is the Rayburn Museum in Bonham, which includes a faithful reproduction of the Speakers’ office in the Congress (pictured here). The Oval Office in the White House is well known to everyone, but this is the only replica of a Speakers’ office, in this case complete with the original furniture and light fixtures from Washington DC.
The Museum houses an extraordinary collection in several sumptuous rooms, including the gavel Rayburn used on the day Pres. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war against Japan in 1941. The actual Speakers’ rostrum from the House of Representatives that FDR spoke from is also here; it was used by all the Presidents and many dignitaries from 1857 to 1950. Bound volumes of the Congressional Record, starting in 1774, line the walls of the library here. It was at the Museum that Rayburn lay in state at his 1961 funeral.
At both the Rayburn Museum and the Eisenhower birthplace, take the opportunity of having your picture taken at dramatic statues of these two men who did so much to shape America in the 20th century.
Photos by C. Cunningham
Consult these websites for details on location and entry to the museums: