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Iowa Town's Tribute to Its First Lady

Charles Hillinger's America

July 19, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

BOONE, Iowa — Museums honoring America's First Ladies are rare. This small Iowa farm center has one--the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Birthplace.

"As far as we know, only two birthplaces of First Ladies have been set aside, restored and preserved as museums for the public to visit," noted Larry Adams, 39, curator of the home in which Mamie Eisenhower lived for only nine months after she was born there Nov. 14, 1896.

The other First Lady birthplace museum is the 300-year-old saltbox home of Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams, the second President, in Weymouth, Mass.

Mary Todd Lincoln's girlhood home in Lexington, Ky., is a museum and so is Val-Kill in Hyde Park, N.Y., the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site.

Val-Kill was Mrs. Roosevelt's weekend and holiday retreat when her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was President. After F. D. R. died, Eleanor Roosevelt lived in the house until her death in 1962.

Memorabilia of other First Ladies for the most part is housed in presidential libraries and museums.

Mamie Eisenhower, wife of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President, was of Swedish-English ancestry. Her grandfather on her father's side came to Boone in 1868, where he owned and operated a flour mill, the Doud Milling Co.

John Sheldon Doud, Mamie's father, had a meat-packing business in Boone. When she was 9 months old, her father moved his family to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where they lived for nine years; then they moved to Denver.

But Mamie Eisenhower had strong ties to Boone throughout her life. Her grandparents and her favorite uncle, Joel Carlson, lived here, as did other relatives and friends.

She kept returning to Boone, visiting and staying a few days or a week or more each year, even when her husband was President. While they lived in the White House, Eisenhower accompanied his wife to Boone to visit Mamie's Uncle Joel and his wife, Carolyn.

One of the main streets in Boone, (pop. 12,000), is Mamie Eisenhower Avenue.

"We all feel very close to Mamie and Ike. They were in and out of Boone all their married lives. People in Boone care about Ike and Mamie. It is important to them that Mamie's birthplace is here," said Jacqueline Erbe, 66, as she leaned on the wrought-iron fence outside Mamie Eisenhower's birthplace.

It is fitting that Erbe is one of the 30 trustees and a volunteer guide at the Mamie Eisenhower Birthplace, for she, too, was a First Lady--from 1961 to 1963, when her husband, Norman, was governor of Iowa.

Mrs. Eisenhower's birthplace is a modest yellow frame house restored as closely as possible to the way it was when she lived here as an infant.

The oak bed she was born in is in the main bedroom. Her birthplace is duly noted in a family Bible on a mantle as well as an entry for the day Mamie Geneva Doud married Lt. Dwight David Eisenhower on July 1, 1916.

Backyard Summer Kitchen

Furnishings in the house belonged to Mamie Eisenhower, to her Uncle Joel and his wife, and to her grandparents. The house has a summer kitchen, common in those days in Iowa, a one-room structure in the backyard.

During the hot summer months, women did their cooking and canning in the one-room kitchens to keep the heat away from the rest of the house.

Married to a soldier, Mrs. Eisenhower lived in 35 different homes in 35 years on army bases from Manila to Paris. After eight years in the White House, the Eisenhowers retired to the 190-acre farm they had purchased in Gettysburg, Pa., in 1949, the only home they actually ever owned.

The 300-member Mamie Eisenhower Birthplace foundation was formed in 1970 to acquire and restore the First Lady's home--the same year Mrs. Eisenhower came to Iowa to receive the prestigious Iowa award.

There have been only eight recipients of the award honoring outstanding Iowans, including President Herbert Hoover and Vice President Henry Wallace. Mamie Eisenhower is the only woman so honored.

The First Baptist Church of Boone owned the birthplace home and was using it as a Sunday School. The church donated the house to the foundation.

The Mamie Eisenhower Birthplace was open to the public in June, 1980, eight months after Mrs. Eisenhower's death Nov. 1, 1979, at age 82. President Eisenhower had died 10 years earlier.

President Eisenhower and his wife are buried with their 3-year-old son, Doud, who died of scarlet fever in 1921. The three crypts are in a small chapel on the grounds of the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kan.

Scholars, writers and historians are among those who use the resources in the Mamie Eisenhower Library in the basement of Mrs. Eisenhower's birthplace. Included in the archives are personal letters, documents and memorabilia of the First Lady.

Exhibit cases include magazines such as Life and Newsweek featuring Mrs. Eisenhower on the cover.

For sale in a gift shop in the home are books about Mamie Eisenhower and about America's First Ladies, post cards, spoons and dishes with portraits of the President and his wife, and Christmas cards with reproductions of paintings by President Eisenhower.

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