The Eisenhower farmhouse at Gettysburgh officially opened to the public a few days ago with no more fanfare or hoopla than if the general of Mamie had planned it themselves.
And to make it all kosher, a formal dedication -- invitation only -- will be held Sunday with Eisenhower family members present.
John R. Earnst, superintendent of the Gettysburg National Military Park, was still a trifle nervous about the grass along the simple walks -- people are going to stray off and make the grass at the edge look cruddy, he darkly suspects, "but we want it to look like the farm, not a museum with rails down every walk."
The house, which is the major attraction, was the Eisenhowers' dream -- the first house they ever owned and the only one in their 53 years together."I've kept house in everything but an igloo," Mamie Eisenhower once reflected, and there was something ironic in it, that this woman who held such a strong sense of household possession, and this man, who always wanted a piece of land to put in better shape than he found it, never had a place of their own until late in their lives, after Eisenhower's long, brilliant military career and presidency were done with.
The day John Kennedy was sworn in as president, though, Eisenhower had a vast sense of freedom -- the luxury (and no other is so great) to be a private citizen with a place of his own that he could do as he pleased with. "God what a barn," one is likely to say when pulling up to the place. It could pass for a cow cathedral anywhere.
"A lot of people think it's the house," said Bob Moore, who had the not entirely fought-for job of taking reporters around. "When we get going, people will take a shuttle bus from the Visitors Center at Gettysburg, maybe a mile from the farm. The bus is going to cost 70 cents," he said, pausing an instant to let a reporter figure out he had saved 70 cents by arriving before the shuttle service was in swing. "Tickets are free, of course, for the visit to the house but you have to get one -- you can't just drive up to the house and walk in. The house was never designed for a lot of visitors, and there'd be chaos if visitors weren't sort of spaced out."
Earnst had conducted a number of trial runs, needless to say, and discovered that about 950 people a day can go through the house. No more. As a result, first come, first served. You should show up in the morning and get a ticket for, say, the 2 p.m. shuttle, and that's the one you'd take, no other. aYou could get tickets for yourself, wife, immediate family, but not for a whole tour group, which would be unfair to the average unorganized American who just want to take the kids on a weekend to see the battlefield and the Eisenhower place at the edge of it.
"What about mud?" Earnst was asked and he trembled there for a minute. He said they put down thick carpets in the halls, the route visitors take through the house, hoping it would remind everybody they were in a house, for gosh sake, not a pasture. Time will tell.
The house the Eisenhowers fell in love with, and bought 11 years before Eisenhower finally felt himself free to retire to it, presented even more than the usual number of woes. It turned out the brick walls rested on timber which had rotted beyond help, and nothing could be figured out but to tear the place down -- except for a small wing -- and start from ground up.
Mamie Eisenhower was terribly proud of the wallpaper in the entrance hall, a soft brown with the seals of all the states printed in black. God gave every woman the inalienable right to her own notions in wallpaper. Mamie had a dress made of fabric printed the same as the wallpaper, and was crazy about it, too.
The living room, very rarely used, runs the depth of the house and boasts pink silk draperies, Mamie's grand piano (fully forested with framed photographs of family and celebrated persons, though one does not notice a picture of Richard Nixon, Eisenhower's vice president) and a very fat and complacent Victorian fireplace of white marble, one in the White House.
"Once in the White House?" you repeat, perking up considerably.
"In the White House from 1850 to 1873," said Bob Moore, "when Gen. Grant had it taken out.It was sold. The White House staff wanted to give the Eisenhowers a wedding anniversary present once. They tracked down this fireplace, bought it, and gave it to him."
Ike did not, in other words, gut the presidential house to furnish his farmhouse -- a point worth noticing, maybe, in this day and age.
"These are antiques that came down in the Doud family," said a hostess pointing to some excessively uncomfortable Victorian chairs of the sort a hostess sets people on when she is bound they aren't going to stay more than 10 minutes.
The Eisenhowers lived mainly on the back porch, which was glassed-in because Mamie had terrible allergies to pollens. The general painted in this room, when he was not in his favorite brown-velvet rocking chair here, and usually supper was served to them on this porch.
There is a bridge table at one end that thoroughly fulfilled its destiny under the Eisenhowers, who loved the game, and back of it is a bar on which an ashtray bore an inscription to the general effect, "If I invite you to stay over till Tuesday don't believe me," or something similar. This ashtray could not be located by one investigative reporter, however, and it is believed in some circles that it has been hidden, in a perhaps too-great catering to sentimental fools who might be upset at the discovery that the Eisenhowers, like all normal folk, had no itch to run a free hotel.
Upstairs is a cubicle known as the general's bedroom, with just about room for a bed and a chair in it, and a little girl touring the house asked the guide:
"Oh. Didn't the Eisenhowers sleep together?"
"Yes, they did," said the guide. "But sometimes the general took naps. This is where he took them."
The pig-tailed one bounded off for fresh horizons of possible scandal and the guide said, "They sure learn quick nowadays, don't they?"
Mamie's bedroom is as feminine as a room can well get, with squnchy silk draperies in the usual Mamie pink, and soft muted green walls, and chests covered with photographs and so on. Mamie Eisenhower adored this particular pink and green, and used to carry a stick in her pocketbook painted with these colors, as a guide to any household purchases she was tempted to make. Since the colors are quite offbeat, she must have saved thousands by this means.
The bathrooms are on view, and they are like everybody else's bathrooms, but if they had been closed, one would have speculated perhaps they were astonishing. They are not.
Mamie had things arranged that she could make a little tour from her bedroom through her dressing room to a little room (to which grandchildren could be banished to watch television) then back through a little passage to her bedroom. A little self-contained empire, which was of comfort to her in her final months of life, when she rarely left these rooms.
As early as the mid-'50s the Eisenhowers started using the farm as a retreat, and when the rebuilding was finished in 1955, the general recovered from his heart attack in this house. In its farm office he occasionally signed state papers, and from time to time entertained such dignitaries as Churchill and Nehru and Adenauer.
They always had to see his cows, Eisenhower's forbears lived in this Pennsylvania Dutch countryside for more than a century before Ike's grandfather, Jacob, left in 1878 to seek his fortune in the West. (Ike was born in Texas and grew up in Kansas). The Pennyslvania Dutch yield to no people in their admiration for cows, so it was not surprising the general was fully smitten by them. There are pictures about with Eisenhower grinning beside his current favorite Angus, also grinning, and some world leader or other standing at the side not grinning.
Mamie did not for one second propose to let her allergies interfere with her passion for flowers. She had an enormous bed of roses planted just outside the porch, running its length, since the glass protected her from any rose fumes. Inside she had lots of plastic flowers and outside she could see the real ones. She'd have preferred the real ones inside too, but in this life one makes compromises to necessity, and as it worked out she had the best of two worlds. No stinking zinnias to pitch out of their slimy vases in July. No bugs dropping off the roses into the soup. Both Eisenhowers had the knack of wearing tribulation (as the poet said) like a rose.
Outside is a paved and arbored spot where Ike could barbercue. This essentially gentle man took vast delight in throwing steaks on living coals. None of that sissy stuff of grills for him.
Beyond this place was a vegetable patch where, like the Romans in their pre-depraved days, he brooded over his okra, his beans and his squash. He liked to cook. Mamie did not. Mamie just flat out said she could only make fudge and mayonnaise and people learned to leave it at that.
At the last, though, she mastered the art of toast and kept and electric toasting machine upstairs in her little empire.
People, as it is turning out, clean their shoes before traipsing through the house. Apart from pig-tailers, people keep their voices down, too. They show what might be called an American style of reverence -- talking softly, laughing softly, chatting right along with friends as they wander through, and taking some care not to look sad.
Outside, you are really right at the battlefield, a mere hoot from the show barn (not show bar -- guides should articulate more clearly when they say the general loved to drop in at his show barn) where Ike enjoyed the honey breath and great eyes of his favorite cattle day after day.
Some visitors, a guide remarked, are struck by the contrast of this quiet farm and the general's passion for it, and the smoky seasick confusion of the invasion of Normandy and the big war. But others, and probably most, see nothing strange in any man's wanting something he can call his own, something he can improve according to his own ideas of improvement. And although it only came at the end of his life, the farm crowned his happiness and he had eight years of retirement in these agreeable fields before he died.