A visit to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum demonstrates why the study of history is so important. Though Wilson was president a century ago, much of the collection on display at his birthplace in Staunton, Virginia is surprisingly relevant to life today.
Though Wilson only lived in the house that was his birthplace for his first year (his father was a pastor and the church called him to Georgia and then South Carolina), he regularly returned to town to spend summers with family. He later visited frequently while attending the University of Virginia Law School before going on to earn a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. (He is reportedly the only U.S. president to hold an earned doctoral degree.) Staunton has always claimed him as its own, and the city was home to the first “Wilson for President” club.
Wilson was elected President of the United States in 1912 and served two terms. He is one of the few presidents to have married while in the White House (he was widowed in 1914 and remarried the end of 1915) and is known for his social and economic reforms such as the Federal Reserve Act and the Child Labor Reform Act, as well as his efforts to establish the League of Nations after World War I.
The Woodrow Wilson Museum offers seven galleries of artifacts that take a visitor through his early years, his presidency, suffrage, prohibition and World War I. Enlarged copies of ads and newspapers as well as promotional materials displayed on the walls show women’s fight for equality and the public’s very diverse opinions on immigration, indicating that these issues were as fiercely debated then as they are now. One panel proclaims the U.S. “A Nation of Immigrants” and discusses the fears some Americans had that these newcomers were a threat to American values. Wilson was staunchly pro-immigration and vetoed a bill to use literacy requirements to restrict the flow (as did his predecessors Cleveland and Taft). However, Congress was determined to restrict the flow of immigrants into the country and overrode his veto in the next session.
Besides personal items belonging to Wilson and his family, the president’s prized original 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine is also on display. Though it began as part of the fleet, the president liked the car so much, his friends purchased it for his personal use after he left the White House. On the lower level of the museum, a WWI trench has been created to simulate the sights and sounds of soldiers in battle. Display cases also hold a full uniform, various weapons and everyday items used by soldiers in the field.
During his presidency, the U.S. saw the introduction of a federal income tax and the Internal Revenue Service, the outbreak and resolution of World War I, and the passage of the 19th Amendment. Wilson was the first president to hold regular press conferences, starting a tradition that has lasted until today. As World War I came to a close, he was the first president to visit Europe while in office where he fought to establish a League of Nations, which he hoped would be a diplomatic way to prevent further conflicts from escalating to war.
Admission includes a tour of the home that was Wilson’s birthplace, a Greek Revival that recreates life in a Shenandoah Valley home in 1856, the year Wilson was born. The house, which has a strictly-enforced policy of no photography inside, is decorated with both authentic Wilson furnishings and period reproductions. A Victorian-style terraced garden sits behind the house, which was installed by The Garden Club of Virginia in the early 1930s. Once owned by the Presbyterian Church, this 1846 National Historic Landmark has three floors and was designed to be “the best house in Staunton” when it was finished. From the rear of the home you can easily see the steeple of the nearby Presbyterian Church.
The Wilsons moved into the home in March of 1855. Four other ministers’ families later lived in the home before it was purchased with funds that were largely raised by the trustees of nearby Mary Baldwin College. In 1938, the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace Foundation was established to preserve the property as a birthplace museum for the former president. Renovations were completed in 1941 and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the museum as a “shrine to freedom.”
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Research Center houses documents and 3-D objects as well as almost 3,000 library titles. Research is free, but appointments are necessary to access these collections.
The city of Staunton VA can be found in western Virginia, where Routes 81 and 64 meet. Besides the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace (said to be the first in Virginia), the town also boasts the Blackfriars Playhouse and the Frontier Culture Museum, an outdoor living history museum depicting life in the area from the 1600s through the 1850s.
Named one of “America’s Favorite Mountain Towns” by Travel and Leisure and one of The 20 Best Small Towns in America of 2012” by Smithsonian Magazine, Staunton (pronounced STAN-ten by the locals) was the first town in Virginia to win a Great American Main Street award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The town dates back to the mid-1700s and served as a major remote trading center for the back country, and served as Virginia’s capital in June of 1781. It’s reputation as a trading center was cemented when the railroad came through in 1854 and it was an important supply are for the Confederacy. A long-time home to musicians, the town annually hosts the Staunton Music Festival in early August. It has also been the backdrop for several movies including Gods and Generals and Hearts and Atlantis.
There are several bed and breakfasts and chain hotels to choose from in Staunton as well as the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center, a 124-room member of the Historic Hotels of America (a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation). If you appreciate a good pizza, Maria’s Pizza and Pasta may have the best crust south of the Mason Dixon line. (Try a slice of their veggie pizza.) The city has plenty of parks, shops and restaurants to choose from and the Staunton Trolley makes it easy to get around. Visitors centers can be found both downtown and at the Frontier Culture Museum.
Note: No compensation was provided by any businesses mentioned in this article. Opinions are those of the writer.