On the Path of Presidents

Pay a visit to Southern sites that shaped commanders in chief

If there’s one trait that seems to run through the life stories of the men who have occupied the nation’s highest elected office, it’s motion. Whether they experienced childhoods spent in constant relocation, pursued career paths that took them from one military command post to another, sought out business opportunities that kept them hustling, or dedicated themselves to chasing political office, presidents have been men on the go. Some of that movement has been as much symbolic as geographic—ascending from a log cabin or house without indoor plumbing to that historic address on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Of course, each of these men allowed themselves to pause for a time, and some of the sites where they spent time—childhood homes, favorite escapes from the stressors of Washington, post-retirement retreats—remain closely identified with them. From the Warm Springs, Georgia, refuge where Franklin D. Roosevelt sought treatment for polio, to the Key West complex where Harry S. Truman made some of his most important strategic decisions, to the peanut farm that shaped a young Jimmy Carter, these sites offer insight into the forces that shaped our nation’s leaders.

Jimmy Carter at Maranatha Baptist Church

Photo courtesy of BruiserBrody10

Jimmy Carter National Historic Site
Plains, Georgia

“My most persistent memory as a farm boy was of the earth. There was a closeness, almost an immersion, in the sand, loam, and red clay that seemed natural and constant,” wrote Jimmy Carter of his childhood in Plains, Georgia, in his memoir An Hour Before Daylight. In the book, Carter recalls the first paved roads constructed near his boyhood home in south Georgia. A visit to Plains and its environs today reveals more modern developments, but also a look at the landscape that shaped the country’s thirty-ninth president, who remembers that “the red clay particles, ranging in size from face powder to grit, were ever present.”

The starting point of a visit to Plains is the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site, which encompasses the former high-school building where both Carter and his future wife, Rosalynn, studied; Carter’s boyhood home; and the railroad depot that served as campaign headquarters for his improbable and victorious 1976 run for the White House.

The high school, which operated from 1921 to 1997, serves as the welcome center. A tour of the building provides a glimpse into rural life during the Depression and of the teachers who made an impression on the future commander in chief. Over at his modest wood-frame home, witness the self-reliance and connection to the outdoors that shaped him; for the first decade he and his family lived in their farmhouse, the home did not have electricity or running water. And at the Plains Train Depot in the heart of town, see campaign posters and memorabilia, plus watch archival footage of Carter’s campaign.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Campaign Headquarters

Photo courtesy of Bubba73 at English Wikipedia

Other sites worth catching are the thirteen-foot peanut statue bearing Jimmy’s famous grin, his brother Billy’s gas station, and the Carters’ modest family compound, where they maintain the same ranch house they built in the 1960s.

The true highlight of a trip to Plains is a Sunday service at Maranatha Baptist Church, where Carter has taught Sunday School for decades; he even carved the wooden cross behind the pulpit. The services draw visitors from across the globe who listen to Carter’s homilies and discussions of scripture.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum
Atlanta, Georgia

While the sites in Plains showcase Carter’s humble origins, the former president’s official library near downtown Atlanta provides an overview of his extensive post-presidency work advocating for voting rights and medical relief through the nonprofit Carter Center. In addition to the more predictable features of a presidential library—such as a scale model of the Oval Office and collections of state gifts that world leaders presented to the Carters—the museum also offers interactive exhibits that challenge the visitor to tackle problems of diplomacy. The Carter Center hosts events such as author talks and panels at the museum complex; past participants have included Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Barack Obama, and Delia Owens, author of the best-selling novel Where the Crawdads Sing. 

Roosevelt’s Little White House
Warm Springs, Georgia

“Every morning I spend two hours in the most wonderful pool in the world,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once wrote of his time in Warm Springs, Georgia. After contracting polio in 1921 at the age of thirty-nine, Roosevelt remained passionate about finding relief for himself and a cure for all polio sufferers. The naturally heated mineral baths at Warm Springs had been prized by American Indians for their restorative power, and Roosevelt made his first of forty-one visits to the town in 1924. In 1932, he built a small six-room cottage there, which came to be known as the Little White House; it’s where he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945.

In addition to a self-guided tour of the home, visitors to the Little White House can access an expansive museum with thousands of pieces of memorabilia, including FDR’s 1938 Ford with hand controls. Exhibits show how the common people Roosevelt met in Georgia influenced his New Deal programs, notably the Rural Electrification Administration.

F.D. Roosevelt State Park in nearby Pine Mountain includes more than forty miles of hiking trails, camping sites, stables, and two lakes. A highlight is Dowdell’s Knob, an overlook where FDR would drive for elegant picnic lunches. The setting was also a place of quiet contemplation for the president, who visited it just two days before his death.

President Truman at his Little White House

Photo courtesy of U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Truman’s Little White House
Key West, Florida

The breezy appearance of this 1890 veranda-wrapped building belies the monumental history its walls contain. Formerly a Navy officers’ quarters, the Little White House near Old Town has served as a summit meeting location and personal retreat for presidents Taft, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton, but is most closely associated with Harry S. Truman, who used it as a vacation home and functioning headquarters from 1946 to 1952. It was here that Truman worked on rebuilding Europe and Japan following World War II and signed the landmark Civil Rights Executive Order of 1951, which mandated that federal contractors make minority hires.

The house is open daily for tours, which showcase furnishings original to Truman’s 1949 remodeling. Restored design elements include wallpaper re-created by acclaimed American textile maker Scalamandre featuring colonial churches, covered bridges, and country inns.

Woodrow Wilson Boyhood Home
Augusta, Georgia

Woodrow “Tommy” Wilson and his family moved to Augusta from his birthplace of Staunton, Virginia, in 1858. Two years later, First Presbyterian Church of Augusta purchased this redbrick Classical Revival home for the family in an effort to keep his father, Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, tending the prominent flock. Visitors to the house will find it much as it was during the family’s time there. The dining room table still bears young Tommy’s scuff marks, and the room the future president shared with his younger brother is painted the original shade of pink.

Woodrow Wilson’s Boyhood Home

Photo courtesy of Explore Georgia

Wilson’s leadership qualities began to emerge during his time in Augusta. An avid baseball fan, he founded the Lightfoot Baseball Club and served as its president, holding meetings in the hayloft above his carriage house. Other boyhood experiences also forged his character and worldview. Wilson said his first memory was of standing outside his house and hearing that Lincoln had been elected—and war was imminent. A few years later, when his father’s church was used as a Confederate Army hospital, Wilson encountered wounded and dying soldiers. While these experiences shaped Wilson’s eventual pacifist inclinations (he created the League of Nations after World War I), they also contributed to a legacy that included promotion of the Ku Klux Klan and the segregation of federal government agencies, effectively rolling back gains made by Black Americans after Reconstruction.

Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage

TN Dept. of Tourist Development

Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage
Nashville, Tennessee

When viewing history through the lens of modern awareness, few figures are as controversial as Andrew Jackson, the orphan turned military hero turned president who embodied for many the self-made-American ethos, but also represents the country’s legacy of racial injustice and white imperialism. “I was born for a storm, and a calm does not suit me,” Jackson famously said.

Reflecting the complexity of Jackson’s legacy is the exhibit Born for a Storm at the Hermitage, Jackson’s estate outside Nashville. It showcases not just the former general’s military acumen and homespun mannerisms, which earned him the nickname the “people’s president” for over a century, but also explores the darker side of Jackson’s presidency and policies—including the forced removal of American Indians from much of the Southeast.

Sprawling over 1,100 acres, the Hermitage includes the mansion that was the centerpiece of Jackson’s post-presidency from 1837 until his death in 1845—and was widely regarded as the finest house in Tennessee. (The property also included a racetrack, a tavern, and a general store.) Visitors to the estate may choose from a number of tours, many of which include the mansion, which was restored in the 1990s and is considered one of the country’s best-preserved presidential residences. Other Hermitage tour offerings spotlight the residences and experiences of the more than 100 enslaved African Americans who lived and labored on Jackson’s property.

Exploring the exhibits and the grounds illuminates the man and provides insight on the country—then and now. “To understand him and his time helps us to understand America’s perennially competing impulses,” wrote historian Jon Meacham in the Jackson biography American Lion. “Jackson’s life and work—and the nation he protected and preserved—were shaped by the struggle between grace and rage, generosity and violence, justice and cruelty.”

Woodrow Wilson’s family home

Photo by Brett Flashnick for Historic Columbia

Woodrow Wilson Family Home and Museum of Reconstruction
Columbia, South Carolina

After spending the Civil War in Augusta, Reverend Joseph Wilson moved his family—including fourteen-year-old Woodrow—to Columbia, South Carolina, in 1871. It was there they built a charming Italianate villa, the only home they ever owned.

In addition to providing a glimpse into the daily lives of the Wilson family, the site houses the Museum of Reconstruction, which looks at the post–Civil War period and its impact on the future president and the nation. The museum explores the segregated policies of the era and showcases prominent Black leaders such as Richard Greener, the first Black faculty member at the University of South Carolina.

Ulysses S. Grant

Photograph courtesy of Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, Library of Congress

Ulysses S. Grant Presidential Library
Starkville, Mississippi

Just how did a museum and research center dedicated to the general who led the Union Army to victory end up in Starkville, Mississippi? Here’s the back story: The Ulysses S. Grant Association had been housed at the University of Southern Illinois since its inception in 1962 during the Civil War Centennial. When the founder died in 2008, the board named Mississippi State University professor John Marszalek to the top job; a few years later, the presidential library and museum opened on the MSU campus. The directors and university hoped that housing the general’s papers and artifacts in the Deep South and creating a museum about his life and beliefs would shine as a “beacon of reconciliation.”

Visitors to the museum can follow Grant from his time at West Point in the 1840s through the Civil War and on to his two terms as president from 1869 to 1877. Highlights include life-sized sculptures of Grant and engaging exhibits that address more controversial—and now timelier than ever—topics such as Grant’s views on slavery.

This article appears in the Spring/Summer 2021 issue of Southbound.