In a state with a presidential library, a presidential loser's library and a gallery of Oval Office wannabes, add what's being billed as the "world's smallest presidential library."
Actually, it will be as much a presidential library as some say David Rice Atchison was president -- for a day in 1849.
But it's something the Atchison County Historical Society Museum plans to open Feb. 20 -- Presidents' Day -- using the presidential story to attract visitors to a larger view of the man for whom this Missouri River town is named.
"It's our hook to get people in, and hopefully they will learn something about this man," said Chris Taylor, the society's executive director.
They'll learn that Atchison was pro-slavery but still a well-respected U.S. senator from Missouri and that his supporters founded this community and named it for him. Atchison was also a major player behind the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed voters to bring Kansas into the union as a free state. He is often portrayed as a Border Ruffian during the violent Bleeding Kansas period leading up to the Civil War.
Atchison became a senator in 1843 at age 36 and served until 1855. He was Senate president pro tem most of that time, including 1849. Whether he ever was president has been debated for decades. James K. Polk's term expired at noon March 4, when the next president normally would have been sworn in. However, March 4 was a Sunday, so Zachary Taylor waited until the next day to take the oath.
William E. Parrish, author of the only Atchison biography, sees more myth than reality to the story.
"It's a nice story, and I like the story, but he wasn't president for a day," said Parrish, a history professor emeritus at Mississippi State University.
He said Atchison's Senate term ended with the adjournment of Congress at midnight March 3, and he wasn't sworn in as a senator and elected president pro tem by colleagues until March 5.
"You could say he was president for a day, but his term as senator expired along with that of the old president," he said. "So, technically, he was out of office, too. But that doesn't make for as good of a story."
Parrish said Atchison told a reporter years later that he slept most of that Sunday and felt there was no president that day.
"If Atchison was right, it probably got started as a joke among the senators," he said.
Others, including the historical society director, maintain that Atchison probably was president.
"I would come down on the side of him being president because such an unusual set of circumstances occurred," Taylor said. "Even at the time, it was acknowledged he was in the line of succession."
Taylor said Atchison did serve as vice president during the Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce administrations. As vice president, Fillmore became president when Zachary Taylor died in 1850; Pierce's vice president, William Rufus King, died a month after taking office in 1853.
"The press at the time referred to him as vice president," Taylor said. "He assumed the duties of the vice president, which was to preside over the Senate."
Atchison's story is a favorite topic of trivia quizzes and Web sites devoted to exploring urban legends, such as Snopes.com.
"It could be argued he was no more president than Zachary Taylor that day," Snopes founder David Mikkelson said.
Finding the genesis of the President Atchison story is difficult. Most of his personal papers were destroyed by fire in the 1870s at his farm near Gower, Mo., where he lived until his death in 1886.
Parrish said Atchison didn't call himself president in the few surviving papers he reviewed. There were rumors that Atchison signed some official papers as president, but they have never turned up. News accounts of the day focus on the inauguration.
Taylor said the Atchison "presidential library" won't measure up to other presidential or president-related landmarks in Kansas.
The Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene has millions of pages of documents, and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence has 4,100 boxes of personal papers from the losing 1996 presidential candidate. The Gallery of Also Rans in Norton has 58 portraits of candidates who didn't make it to the White House.
Taylor said the "Atchison library" will be housed in a couple of display cases taking up about 35 square feet in the museum and will be part of its Kansas Territory exhibit. It will include Atchison's pistol, along with some photographs, Parrish's biography and other documents. He said the museum is looking for additional items.