500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights 29 hiking, biking and riding trips throughout the world. Below you'll find six presidential birthplaces, homes, mansions and plantations that are perfect for any family roadtrip.
What: Jefferson's Monticello
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Charlottesville, Virginia
The locals still call it "Mr. Jefferson's country," and for good reason: Charlottesville, Virginia, is home not only to Thomas Jefferson's famous estate, Monticello, but also to the University of Virginia, which he founded. Jefferson wasn't just a politician, he was a Renaissance man -- statesman, agricultural reformer, philosopher, inventor, and, last but not least, architect, with Monticello his crowning architectural achievement.
As befit the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was fiercely anti-British; when he began to design this home in 1769, he rejected the popular Georgian style -- derived from British architecture -- and went for the 16th-century Italian style of Andrea Palladio. After living in France as the U.S. ambassador, he added features he'd admired in Parisian mansions. The kids will instantly recognize its exterior from the back of the U.S. nickel. But what the nickel doesn't show is the perfection of its hilltop setting (in an era when most plantation homes were set beside rivers) and the gardens and many outbuildings of this self-sufficient plantation. Every brick and nail of the house's materials was made in workshops on-site, by Jefferson's slaves and free artisans. Half-hour guided tours depart from the visitor center, halfway up the mountain; get there early or expect a long wait. Note the many octagonal rooms (one of Jefferson's favorite shapes), and all the cunning devices Jefferson designed, like his convertible alcove bed. The library once held 6,000 volumes, which upon Jefferson's death were donated to the nation to become the core of the Library of Congress. Look for the dining room chair with tj carved into its armrest -- the last chair in which Jefferson sat before his death on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after signing the Declaration of Independence.
Location & information: tel. 434/984-9822; www.monticello.org
What: The Hermitage
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Nashville, Tennessee
His face stares out at us from the $20 bill, a restless-looking man with a mane of wild hair and a high cravat. Who was Andrew Jackson, and why should we visit his home in Nashville? Well, at this deceptively gracious antebellum plantation, we really connected with the ornery spirit of our first frontier President, the original Democrat, a passionate "man of the people" who loved a good brawl. I love to hear how Jackson upset the Washington elite on his inauguration day in 1829 by opening the White House to the general public (a drunken mob nearly wrecked the place). Here's a president kids can relate to.
Before Jackson, all our Presidents were Virginia and Massachusetts lawyers and gentleman farmers -- what a breath of fresh air when this brash Westerner blazed into office, trouncing the incumbent John Quincy Adams. Born in a log cabin in backwoods South Carolina, the orphaned child of Irish immigrants, Jackson pieced together enough education to become a Tennessee lawyer and circuit judge, but he really made his name as General Jackson, hero of the War of 1812 and the Indian Wars, earning the nickname Old Hickory for his toughness.
At first the wide verandas and thick white columns of the Hermitage look too dignified for a wild man like Jackson, but then we learned that the neoclassical portico was a later addition; the core is a square, plain eight-room brick house, which replaced a log farmhouse only after Jackson had a war-hero image to burnish. As the costumed interpreters explain, the ornate 1830s Empire decor you see today -- tufted velvet upholstery, patterned wallpaper, and gilt-trimmed furniture -- dates from Jackson's presidency; in earlier days his personal finances were too tight for such opulence (maybe that's why as President he frugally cut spending and erased the national debt). This was definitely a working cotton farm, and in addition to the main house you'll visit the kitchen (a separate building, as was customary then), smokehouse, garden, springhouse (a storage shed built over a cooling spring), the remains of the farm's first log house, and Jackson's tomb -- set in a grove of, naturally, old hickory trees.
Location & information: tel. 615/889-2941; www.thehermitage.com
What: The Lincoln Trail
Who: All ages
Where: Multiple sites
Even before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln was a revered President, the hero who steered America through the Civil War. Long before the modern mania for historical preservation, sites associated with Lincoln were turned into memorials. For kids, however, it's important to peel away the layers of myth to find the flesh-and-blood Lincoln. Drive the Lincoln Trail through Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois and you'll find the backwoods boy behind the great President.
There's something bizarre about the first stop, in Hodgenville, Kentucky, the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site, where a huge neoclassical memorial encloses a tiny log cabin, reportedly the one where Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809. You'll get a better sense of Lincoln's humble origins 7 miles north of town on Highway 31E at Lincoln's Boyhood Home, where he spent ages 2 to 7; though the log cabin here is a reconstruction, its rough log walls and split-rail fences truly evoke a hardscrabble Kentucky childhood.
Cross the Ohio River, taking I-65 north and then I-64 west, a 135-mile drive to Lincoln City, Indiana. The Lincoln family cleared 20 acres here in 1816, when Abe was 7, and farmed the land for 14 years as he grew to manhood. If the boy Abe Lincoln comes to life anywhere on the trail, it's at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial: A symbolic bronze hearth and foundations mark the actual site of the Lincoln cabin; a living history farm (open late April to Oct) re-creates early-19th-century farm life; and you can walk a trail to the grave of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, whose death so grieved her 9-year-old son. The Memorial itself is a bit pompous, but the rooms inside strike a note of pioneer simplicity.
The next leg of your drive is about 250 miles, up to Springfield, Illinois, where the adult Lincoln really began to make his mark. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library is the snazzy centerpiece to Springfield's Lincoln worship, with loads of important artifacts (including a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg address), dioramas of his log cabin, parts of the White House, and the Ford's Theater box where he was shot. In town, you can visit the Lincoln Home, 426 S. 7th St., and a 4-block historic area around it, as well as his old law office, 209 S. 6th St., and the stately Lincoln's Tomb. But also squeeze in a 20-mile side trip northwest on Route 97 to the restored prairie village of New Salem, where from 1831 to 1837 young lawyer Abraham boarded at the Rutledge Tavern and fell in love with the innkeeper's daughter Ann, who died at 21. Some say Abe never got over her -- ah, there's the human side of Lincoln again.
Location & information: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site, 2995 Lincoln Farm Rd., Hodgenville KY (tel. 502/358-3874; www.nps.gov/abli)
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, Rte. 162, Lincoln City, IN (tel. 812/937-4541; www.nps.gov/libo)
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, 212 N. 6th St., Springfield, IL (tel. 217/558-8848; www.alplm.org)
What: Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Plymouth, Vermont
Posterity may remember him as Silent Cal, the famously taciturn American President (when told Coolidge had died, literary wit Dorothy Parker is said to have responded, "How can they tell?"), but Calvin Coolidge's common sense and strong work ethic made him a popular president, a beacon of solid values in the midst of the Roaring Twenties.
In many ways Coolidge was the classic stoic Vermonter, and the Plymouth Notch Historic District is more than just his birthplace -- it's an entire mountain village that expresses the soul of rural New England. Visiting Plymouth Notch gives you a strong sense of a man shaped by harsh weather, unrelieved isolation, and a strong sense of community and family -- a rock-ribbed Republican in the finest sense.
Situated in a high upland valley, the historic district consists of a group of about a dozen unspoiled buildings open to the public -- barns, farmhouses, the community church, a farm shop, a general store -- and a number of other private residences that may be observed from the outside only. The Plymouth Cheese Factory (tel. 802/672-3650) up the hill was founded in the late 1800s as a farmer's cooperative by President Coolidge's father, and later revived by the President's son. Coolidge's birthplace is here, as well as the larger homestead where the family moved when he was 4. The homestead is still furnished exactly as it was in August 1923 when the vacationing Coolidge -- then the Vice President -- was awakened and informed that President Warren G. Harding had died. His own father, a notary public, administered the presidential oath of office in the sitting room by the light of a kerosene lamp.
Although Coolidge left the village to move to Massachusetts (where he went to college, practiced law, served in the legislature, and eventually became governor), he returned home to Plymouth Notch whenever he could. During his 51?2 years in the White House, he turned the large room over the general store into his "summer White House." Upon leaving office, Coolidge retired to Plymouth Notch, saying, "We draw our Presidents from the people . . . I came from them. I wish to be one of them again."
Coolidge is buried in the cemetery across the road, alongside seven generations of Coolidges. He remains the only president to have been born on Independence Day, and every July 4th, a wreath is laid at his simple grave in a quiet ceremony.
Location & information: tel. 802/672-3773; www.frommers.com/destinations/killington/A29409.html).
What: Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt's Homes
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Hyde Park, New York
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his cousin Eleanor, who later became his wife, grew up in New York's Hudson River Valley, where wealthy families like the Vanderbilts had colossal summer homes, so it was natural they'd have a home there even after they became President and First Lady. In fact, they had not one home but three, for both Franklin and Eleanor both had separate getaway cottages on the estate, where they could escape the pressures of political life. To visit these three homes in one afternoon is to get a powerful sense of this great American couple.
Franklin Roosevelt's lifelong home, Springwood, was a modest farmhouse when FDR's father built it. Franklin expanded it in an eclectic Dutch colonial style, giving it an imposing red-brick porticoed facade -- my kids would call it a mansion, but it isn't by any means as grand as the great river estates nearby. Nevertheless, FDR entertained Winston Churchill, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth of England, and many other dignitaries here. He also designed his own presidential library, the nation's first, while still in his second term. Of all the presidential libraries this is the one that feels warmed by a chief executive's presence -- you see his cluttered White House desk, left as it was the last day of his presidency, and his beloved 1936 Ford Phaeton with the hand controls that enabled him to drive all over the estate. FDR and Eleanor are buried in the rose garden on the grounds.
A wooded trail leads from Springwood to the pair of private retreats. Simple, rustic Val-Kill Cottage was Eleanor's haven, especially after FDR's death in 1945. This flagstone cottage was in fact the only home she ever owned herself. Shy, awkward Eleanor rose to become one of the most influential women of her time, making her mark on civil rights legislation and international humanitarian issues (as a U.N. del-egate, she chaired the committee that drafted the U.N. Human Rights Universal Declaration), and she met with many world leaders here at homey Val-Kill. The grounds were also the headquarters of Val-Kill Industries, which Eleanor and several other women established to teach trades to rural workers and produce colonial revival furniture and crafts.
FDR built his hilltop retreat, Top Cottage, in the 1930s, while his work as President included battling the Great Depression. FDR was at his most relaxed here, even allowing himself to be photographed in his wheelchair. Though the cottage is unfurnished today, you can go out onto the porch and appreciate his cherished views of the Catskill and Shawangunk Mountains. Imagine what it was like in 1939, when FDR hosted Churchill and the king and queen of England to a hot dog dinner on the porch.
Location & information: FDR, 4079 Albany Post Rd., off Rte. 9 (tel. 800/FDR-VISIT or 845/229-8114; www.nps.gov/hofr or www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu)
Eleanor Roosevelt, Rte. 9G (tel. 845/229-9115; www.nps.gov/elro)
What: LBJ's Texas Homestead
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Johnson City, Texas
I love presidential birthplaces, the more modest the better -- nothing demonstrates the American Dream better than the fact that a child from humble beginnings can one day become President. The Johnson family were typical Texas ranchers until one of them, Lyndon Baines Johnson, became 36th President of the United States in November 1963, upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The LBJ ranch shows you the heart of this pivotal 1960s President.
LBJ country is within day-trip range of Austin, in the Texas hill country, perhaps the state's prettiest region -- a rolling landscape of lakes and rivers, surprising to outsiders who imagine Texas is all flat, arid rangeland. In the main park in Stonewall, Texas, you can tour a reconstruction of the humble board-and-batten farmhouse that was Lyndon Johnson's birthplace on August 27, 1908. With its wide railed porch and open hallway (designed to cool off the house in those pre-air-conditioning days), it's furnished authentically for the early 1900s, down to the wood stove and water pump. You can also visit the one-room district schoolhouse where Miss Kate Deadrich, the schoolteacher, taught 4-year-old Lyndon alongside his Johnson cousins; 53 years later, Miss Kate stood here to watch her former pupil sign the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, one of the most important measures of his presidency.
When Lyndon was 5, his family moved to Johnson City, named for LBJ's first cousin once removed, James Polk Johnson. From a visitor center on Ladybird Lane, you can walk to his simple white frame Victorian boyhood home on 9th Street, now restored with mid-1920s furnishings. A mile-long nature trail from the visitor center also takes you to the Johnson Settlement, its rough log buildings showing how Johnson's ancestors lived and raised longhorn cattle in the 1860s.
Back in Stonewall, ranger-led bus tours also visit the sprawling limestone-and-wood ranch house Senator Johnson bought from his aunt and uncle in 1951. Overlooking the Pedernales River, it was the centerpiece of a working ranch (still in operation); it was dubbed the Texas White House in the 1960s when LBJ and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, came here to escape Washington protocol. World leaders often gathered in lawn chairs under the spreading live oak in the front yard. The Johnsons retired to the ranch in 1969, where 4 years later Johnson died of a heart attack; his gravesite is nearby, in the Johnson family cemetery. Also part of the park, at the Sauer-Beckmann Living History Farm, costumed interpreters in historic buildings bring to life the Texas-German farm culture into which Johnson was born.
Location & information: 14 miles west off U.S. 290 (tel. 830/868-7128 or 830/644-2252; www.nps.gov/lyjo)
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Family Travel Message Boards today.