Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum

Location: Staunton, Virginia

Webpage: Presidential Library

General Description: The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum is located at President Thomas Woodrow Wilson’s boyhood home in Staunton, Virginia, where he was born on December 28, 1856.  He was barely a year old when they moved to Augusta, Georgia where he grew up into his early teens before once again moving to Columbia, South Carolina.  Wilson briefly attended Davidson College and later transferred to the College of New Jersey (to become Princeton University) where he graduated in 1879.  He later attended the University of Virginia in pursuit of a law degree and later received a PhD at John Hopkins University.  Finally settling on a career in academia he began his teaching career Bryn Maer College before accepting a faculty position at Wesleyan University in 1888.  In 1890 he was invited to return to Princeton as professor of jurisprudence and political economy.  He went on to become President of Princeton University in 1902 where he oversaw major changes in the curriculum and direction of the University.  Political connections convinced him to run for Governor of New Jersey and was elected in 1910.  He only served for as Governor for 2 years as he resigned to run for President in 1912.  The Republican Party was split between William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, who ran as a third party candidate in the Bull Moose Party, opening the election to the Woodrow Wilson as the Democratic candidate.  While President his wife, Ellen died in 1914 and he remarried Edith Galt in 1915.  As president, Wilson was responsible for many social and economic reforms including the passage of the Federal Reserve Act, the Child Labor Reform Act, and legislation that supported unions to ensure fair treatment of working Americans. The 19th Amendment was ratified during his second term, guaranteeing all women the right to vote. Wilson is best remembered for his leadership during World War I, and his attempt to establish the League of Nations.  His Presidential Library was located at his birth home in Staunton, Virginia through the efforts of the Mary Baldwin College to raise funds to create a memorial building following his death in 1924.  Funds were raised to purchase the manse from the First Presbyterian Church which was rennovated in 1941 back to its appearance in 1856.  Today visitors can tour the home and spend time in a self guided tour of the museum.

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Impressions:

1) Today the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum sits on the edge of Mary Baldwin College and is surrounded by the residential sprawl of Stanton, Virginia.  However, in 1856 this home was the manse constructed by the First Presbyterian Church to entice Reverend Joseph Ruggles Wilson, a professor at Hampden-Sydney College, to become their minister.  Thus the bottom floor of the home was used as much for social functions of the church as their home and was meant to be a showplace for the town sitting by itself on the top of the hill above Staunton.  There is a small fee for the tour and is well worth the price of admission.  They have done an excellent job of finding period furniture and other pieces to provide a good sense of life for the influential Reverend Wilson and his family.  After moving to Staunton in 1854 with his wife and two daughters, they moved to Augusta Georgia, in 1857 barely a year after their new son, Thomas Woodrow Wilson was born.  It may seem odd that this home, where he lived for barely a year, would be so important to Woodrow, but he returned many times to Staunton over the years.  His Aunt, Marion Woodrow Bones, lived there and his sisters and many cousins attended Augusta Female Seminary, later to be renamed Mary Baldwin College.

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2) There is a nice formal garden behind the house, which would not have been original at the time in 1856, but today adds a nice quiet place to the house.  Unfortunately, while we were there they were in the process of removing all the boxwoods due to a fungus killing them and we could only look out over the area.

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3) The museum itself was a bit of a disappointment.  After visiting other Presidential Libraries I had expected a large museum providing detailed information about the life and accomplishments of the President.  In comparison this museum is very small consisting of four small rooms with exhibits about Woodrow Wilson.  The first room is devoted to his education and career at Princeton University where he authored numerous books on history and politics.  It was interesting to note that Woodrow Wilson was our only President holding a PhD.  The next two rooms outline his political career as Governor, the 1912 Presidential campaign, and his accomplishments as President.  The final room is devoted to memorabilia and art.

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4) The highlight of the museum is the 1919 Pierce Arrow, Woodrow Wilson’s official limousine.  Weighing in at over 2 tons, this beautiful antique is on display.  It is amazing that it is being maintain in operating condition and is still taken out for parades a couple of times a year.

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5) Be sure not to miss the recreation of a trench and bunker the soldiers lived in and fought over during World War I.  There are also displays of rifles, armaments and other equipment from the war.  Since it is located in the basement of the museum, it can be easily missed and is one of the highlights of the museum.

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