A visit to the Hermitage: Andrew Jackson’s home in Nashville, TN

The Hermitage is the home of Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh (from 1829 to 1837, he served two terms) President of the United States, and possibly one of our most controversial ones. To put it in a modern context, Trump is a big fan of Andrew Jackson, and a lot of people compare the two Presidents as being similar, and will view that similarity with the same intensity of love and or hate for the man, depending on their political leanings.

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How people viewed President Jackson is part and parcel with the nicknames they gave him. So for instance his names among the whites varied from “Old Hickory” which was given to him by the soldiers who served under him and loved him, to “The Hero of New Orleans,” because of his successes in the Battles for New Orleans  (December 14, 1814 and January 18, 1815) as part of the War of 1812, notably his wins happened AFTER the treaty ending the war had already been signed (December 24, 1814), but apparently that didn’t (and still doesn’t) matter in the minds of his supporters …  to “King Mob,” by his white detractors, because his most avid supporters for position of President were considered the illiterate mob. While the names the Native-Americans gave him included  “Sharp Knife,” given to him by the Muscogee/Creek people, or his even more explicit Cherokee name of “Indian Killer.”

So for instance, during my travels I’ve spoken about the Trail of Tears in numerous posts, and that act of genocide was initiated by the state of Georgia, but could never have happened but for Jackson’s who hearted support …  His supporters (current day hard core republicans) will often point to his high respect for the constitution, and how he said, “The Constitution and the laws are supreme and the Union indissoluble” when speaking against a state’s right to secede from the union, but seem to completely forget that the Cherokee had fought their forced relocation by the state of Georgia all the way to the Supreme Court and won their case, only to have Jackson, who had as part of his campaign promised to support Indian removal (the same way Trump has promised to kick out illegal aliens and build the wall) completely reject the court’s findings, “supposedly” saying (but probably didn’t) “John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” and then instructing the US military to forcibly remove the Cherokee anyway.

And yet, Andrew Jackson was a man of the people. In a government that had till then been run almost exclusively by men from America’s “best families,” essentially our upper classes … Jackson was quite the opposite. Without him Lincoln might have never been elected. The illiterate and unwashed populace supported him because he was one of them, hence the title “King Mob.” And even some of our most iconic liberal media TV shows, like The West Wing, are therefore forced to tip their hat to him.

My first visit to the Hermitage was in December of 2010, and there was snow on the ground. To be honest my desire to come here again was so I could blog about it here as part of my visiting sites around America related to our Presidents and First Spouses (in fact I’ll be doing more Lincoln stuff in a few days) and to see if there were any changes to the place. And there had been, although nothing particularly substantive.

When you first enter the property, you are now given a choice between two different sorts of tickets. The major difference being, one includes the older audio device for self guided tours (audio, but no pictures), while the new one includes a sort of smart phone like device, which adds images, a few more narrations with more information (much of it about relationship between Jackson and his slaves), and a 10% discount at the store which I wish they had actually told me about when I paid for the thing, because I bought about $80 worth of costume jewelry while there and that $8 discount would have paid for itself (I only just discovered it now).

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In the photo on the bottom left you can see a staff member demonstrating how to use the older audio device (on the wall behind her were the three sorts of tours information), while on the bottom right is one of the new smart-phone type machines, which is what I was using. Regarding the sorts of information offered, I found two things interesting: firstly, On adult devices do NOT allow you to hear the blue 200 series audio files, intended for kids, so that as a parent you can’t actually know what they’re telling your kids, or NOT telling them… that’s a problem! Also, if you think about it for a second, you get the feeling that the 300 series, the information about Andrew Jackson’s wife was added as an afterthought … as part of the whole, we need to pay as much attention to the first spouses as to the presidents movement.

After getting your headsets, or before, depending on how you time things, there’s short movie that provided a fairly level introduction to who Jackson was, pointing out that he could be mild-mannered and polite, as long as you didn’t get in the way of anything he wanted, in which case he could turn extremely violent, and you were essentially dog meat. (There’s a world for this, its psychopath … no I don’t have an opinion about this, why do you ask?)

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The movie also talks about Jackson’s war with the Central/Federal Bank of the United States, a point of history which if you don’t understand it, you will never appreciate the exquisite irony of Andrew Jackson’s face on the 20 dollar bill.

After the movie there is a small museum area you can either walk straight through on your way to see Hermitage, or you can stop and appreciate, which will teach you more about the man and his importance to American history.

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After the museum you begin to the approach the property, and this is when the audio aides come into use.

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All along the path there are detailed signs you are meant to stop and read that offer other information (not available in the audio segments)

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And then after you’ve walked a short but winding path you begin to approach the building itself, and are offered information about its building and evolution over the years before, during and after Jackson’s presidency.

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Then, you stand in a cordoned off line, and wait for your turn to enter the building. For this they’ve come up with really smart way of breaking the tourists into easily manageable groups. There is a set of benches, and only as many people as can comfortably sit on the benches at once are allowed in at a time, and each group once seated is given a short speech about what they’re about to see, with a question period after it, all of this intended to space the groups out.

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One difference I DID notice between this time and my previous visit in 2010 was back then ALL the various tour guides were dressed in period costumes, while this time they all were wearing modern clothes. (I think this change is a loss)

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Note the difference in cloths of this guy (in the black outfit) in this picture taken in 2010 with the young guy in the picture taken yesterday

Additionally, and this I’m less sure of, last time I’m pretty sure that the same docent stayed with our group along the whole tour, while this time we visitors were moved from one location to the next but the tour guides stayed put.

Both times, while in the house, we were not allowed to take pictures. However, I think this was for two reasons, firstly, picture takers can slow down the efficient movement of people from one location to the next, and secondly, picture takes tend to break the rules in favor of a good shot… crossing boundaries and using flash (which could have a cumulatively destructive effect on the antiques in the house).

But once you’re outside of the shuffled through tour part, there’s not only no one telling you NOT to take pictures, but there also plastic walls in place separating you from any chance to do anything destructive… via the servants section of the house where you can see into the main house … so… here are some.

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This was the informal part of Jackson Parlor. In the Front rooms, which are not directly visible from the servants area is where he met official visitors, this back room was where family would spend their time

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This is the dining room. The flooring which looks like linoleum is actually a waxed cloth (like wall paper for floors) that was popular at the time and even existed in the White House. The stove was a modern Franklin stove which was much more efficient than a fireplace.

The home would house any and all visitors who came that day (as at that time it was a couple of hours ride away from Nashville), offering them a place for the night. Bed rooms were filled on a first come first serve basis, separated by gender, with late comers given bedding on the floor, as was the common courtesy of the day. (There’s actually an amusing story of one time Thomas Jefferson while running for President went to visit the then widowed Martha Washington in Mount Vernon, and she hated him so much while she could not refuse to see him, she did not, as was considered common courtesy, offer him a place for the night… and he was forced to ride all the way back to Alexandria. A MAJOR diss… we know this is true because apparently he ran up quite the liquor bill that night at the inn he ended up in)

After dinner, the dinner table was designed to be easily taken apart, and the dinning room was then available for dancing and other entertainments. Right behind the dining room is of course the servants area, such as the kitchen and store rooms

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Another change I noticed was, while last time I was here, people would press the various buttons (like the one here in front of the kitchen) to listen to the recording describing the area, which was blared over a loud-speaker to the whole group at once, this time NO ONE (other than me) pressed these buttons. In fact I spotted one woman bitching to a guard that I had disturbed her by doing it… to which I’m pretty sure he responded, “Madam, that’s what they’re there for.”

After the house you walk to the fields, work houses and slave quarters that are located in the backyard area

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A view of the house from the back, less fancy than from the front

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One of the interesting things that I learned was that while one of the horrors of slavery you always hear about is families being separated, it was NOT Andrew Jackson’s practice to do this. Whenever possible he kept slave families together even to the point of it not being economically practical (holding on to the very young and the very old), to the extent of he once purchased a seamstress for his time at the white house, and then upon her request her whole family… she had informed him that they were all trained house slaves owned by a man going bankrupt and therefore at risk of being seperated (it was in one of the audio files, from her voice I think she was the same African-American historian who spoke in the movie, who specialized in the slave experience). However, according to the above sign, Jefferson did this less out of the goodness of his heart than as a modern slave management technique, designed to make slaves less likely to want to run away as the larger their families, the less likely they would be able to do it together.

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That said, back when I was studying the institution of slavery at Northwestern University with a professor who specialized in it, one of the things she taught us was one of the best measures of was, and I preface this by saying slavery is a HORRIBLE thing and should never exist, and there are therefore no “good” slave owners… that said, the way to distinguish the relatively ‘good’ owners from the really bad ones was once emancipation came, how many freed slaves chose to stay put and continue working for their former owners, versus opted to grab their freedom and pursue better options. The reality, as politically incorrect as this might sound, was that many former slaves stayed put (or came back after doing a walk about to see what else was out there)… but those owned by BAD owners, the ones who were most notorious for their evil behaviors… those saw their “families” of former slaves abandon them with a will…

That said, while Andrew Jackson had passed away about 20 years before the Civil war, and it was his son who was the owner of all of his former ‘properties’ once emancipation came to the Hermitage, according to the sign above … most of Jackson’s “black family still at the Hermitage chose an uncertain future and fled behind Union lines”

In fact, I wasn’t able to find the sign this time, but I remember that last time I was there I read one that said in fact almost ALL the former slaves but a small handful (I think the number was like three?) had run away from them, telling you pretty much everything you needed to know, at least about how Jackson’s son had treated them.

Paul Bunyan & Chippewa Valley Museums

While I came to see the Paul Bunyan, and it was OK, it was the unexpected Chippewa Valley collection that I was deeply, deeply, impressed by — ardently so, to the extent that I would argue that if you’re ever within (let’s say) an hour drive of there, it’s definitely worth making a special trip to Eau Claire just to see it. In fact just before leaving — while telling the elderly woman at the front desk how much I loved the place, I learned that their former curator (who was the one who had set the tone) had been ‘stolen’ away from them by the Smithsonian. Yes, it’s THAT good, but on a much smaller budget.

What brought me to the Paul Bunyan Museum was I had remembered seeing a truly massive statue of Paul (and his Blue Ox “Babe”) when I came here with my mother as a child (maybe middle school aged?). Apparently, based on what other people who also came to see the statue as I was waiting for the place to open, that one had fallen apart and been replaced with this much smaller and far less impressive model.

img_0034With regards to the hand, I saw a bunch of these sculptures scattered all over Eau Claire. I thought that they were a bit like the Chicago cows — which are much larger, also decorated uniquely and scattered around the city — or something of that sort, and it turned out I was exactly correct.

Initially, I arrived at the Paul Bunyan museum just as it was closing. They let me walk in and look at the gift shop collection, but that was it. As such, I opted to spend the night in Eau Claire and come back the next day before continuing my trip westward.  (I stayed at an Airbnb, a REALLY nice apartment in a high rise with an amazing view; the owner made me home-made quiche and some really good coffee for my breakfast.) The next day, because my host had to go the work, and I was intending to not return to her digs before leaving town, I arrived an hour before the Paul Bunyan was due to open.

As I sat there, I was looking at the sky and saw that there was a slight beige tint to it. It’s not as bad as say the skies in Korea but there was clearly a lot of something between me and the blue. I think Eau Claire Wisconsin is beginning to get the downdraft from that contagion of fires spreading all over southern Canada that were why I opted to take Interstate 94 across till I got to Glacier National Park, rather than going straight north and taking the Trans-Canada highway all the way to Vancouver Island, where I plan to spend to months.

The Paul Bunyan museum to be honest struck me as something of a tourist trap-ish… the employees were for the most part a bunch of spoiled teenagers who are paid to essentially sit there and do nothing (LOUSY customer service). When I went there was in fact this one blonde girl who is clearly the bully/leader who was doing her best to avoid actually working, and expected the other employees to stay with her so she could laud it over them. When I finally demanded help, she send over this other girl, a kind of passive and sweet brunette to see what the problem was. It was a rather small museum and most of what was in there in terms of interactive displays didn’t even work.

To be honest the best part of the Paul Bunyan is what I refer to as the “living Museum” part out back — a collection buildings representing a logging camp; and… I saw many locals go STRAIGHT to these, bypassing the completely the building where you pay your entrance fee… and like I said before, all the teenagers on staff were just sitting in there not doing their jobs — which would have included stopping people from entering without paying.

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Note the Green button on top of the silver box in the bottom right picture, every area had one of these and when you pushed it a “local” in this case the ‘store owner’ would begin offering a detailed narration of the room, its contents, and tidbits of about the life of the loggers who worked there.

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Again on the left, the green button you pushed for the narration

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As you continue back through the buildings you pass through a wooden gate and come to more houses, only these are no longer the logging camp and look more like part of what might have been early Eau Claire, WI, marking the transition to the Chippewa Valley Museum, in the large post office type looking building in front of you (no pic, sorry).

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Even though the two museums, the Paul Bunyan and The Chippewa Valley, are located right next to each other within a park area (surrounded by a sort of moat — see map below) they are not in fact cooperative with each other — you can not even get a discounted combo ticket for both — because they are their owned by two different groups.

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The price is the same for both places seven dollars each, but this place which is the non-for profit devoted to the overall history of the area, not just logging, actually has a much better display in my opinion. Rather than having to hit a button, the who place is automated with movement activated ‘background noises’ to give each area a feeling of veracity. So for instance, in the section about how the Eau Claire area used to be devoted to logging and wood industry, as you enter you hear the manager of the woodworkers talking to them about doing their jobs or when you walk into a section that supposed to be a schoolroom children saying the Pledge of Allegiance, that’s what you hear.

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They also have really taken a good advantage of the video game architecture as a way for people to be able to go back in time and experience various things. … So for instance, fir you walk into an area devoted to the original Native American tribes the lived in the area

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and in the trading post you can actually in a video game (built by local students) sort of manner interact with the trader. You are a Native American of the region and your language shifts between English and your native language is you negotiate with the trader and socialize.

Perrault’s Trading Post Game from Alex Bostone on Vimeo.
(The actual interaction between you and the trader begins 1 minute into the video)

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This is followed by a fairly devastating area devoted to the cultural havoc wrought on the tribes when they children were forced into boarding schools where they were forcibly ‘converted’ to meet the cultural norms of the dominate white population. This included a selection of interviews with Elderly tribal members recounting their own memories of the place, and of the abuses.

And then the presentation moved into modern times…

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Then they talk about problematic things, like the resettling of the Hmong refugees in the area and the problems they had when they came to settle,

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And then of course there are ‘fun things’ like the local fishing pond

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And the functional icecream parlor where you can get a snack

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All in all this was probably one of the best local history museums I’ve ever seen; while there I talked to a local who said as he was walking through one of the sections devoted to what life was like between the late 1800’s and around 1960, also broken down into subject categories (jobs, health, technologies, etc)… as he went through he was reading all of these quotes, and noting to me that they were from locals he knew—  and he’s lived here all his life — so whoever organized the exhibitions clearly had anthropologists and historians going through the community and collecting the local stories and supporting objects from the area in order to re-created the experiences….. and they skipped nothing, the good, the bad, and the ugly… it’s all in there….civil strife, strikes, economic upheavals, it’s all in there …. I am deeply impressed

 

First Ladies National Historic Site

Worth a visit, but underwhelming; remember to use your National parks pass!!

You know how pretty much every former US President has gotten a memorial or (at least since Herbert Hoover) a library, well this fairly new National park is a museum (consisting of two, not quite adjacent buildings) dedicated to the women behind the men… i.e., all our unsung first ladies. It was established, in order to fill that gap, around the year 2000, and consists of the historic (from 1878-1891) home of Ida McKinley (whose husband’s memorial and museum are about 5 minutes away by car), and a nearby former bank (built 1895 — so after her family had already moved out); the former bank now holds a small collection of first ladies dresses, etc., and a library/research section (on its upper floors).

The Museum is pretty easy to find, and there is free parking. However, one of the more disconcerting things about this site, at least to me, was how the area is arranged; the lot is adjacent to Ida McKinley’s house but blocking your entrance is one of those vertically swinging gates. When you get there you have to ask (via a microphone) to be allowed in, and will be asked to verify that your intent is to visit the site — I get why they do it, but it is pretty unusual, all things considered. Then you will discover, confusingly, that the building you need to go to first (it’s where you pay your fee and are then led around by a docent) is NOT the house you just parked next to, but rather, it’s the former bank building which is on the FAR side of an adjacent hotel&parking-structure. And, if you happen to be cutting it close till the tour, as I was, and have any trouble walking (as I do), then it can be quite the trek. However, and I learned this afterward having already left the site entirely, there are actually quite of few first ladies dresses and things of that sort on display in the hotel, so you should try to either time your arrival so that you have a chance to see those — either before a tour, or otherwise try to remember to do it before driving away afterwards (the docents were NOT the ones who told me about it, so odds are they won’t remind you either).

In the bank building (where you are NOT allowed to take pictures) you’ll pay your fee, don’t forget to use your national park pass if you have one, and be led to a back ‘library’ to watch a pretty propagandist movie about the first ladies. I say this, because it says things like, and I’m paraphrasing “all of the wives were supportive of their husbands” and then goes on to even mention Bess Truman who I wouldn’t describe as a ‘supportive’ first wife….

Now if you know anything about Bess, you’ll know that she DESPISED Washington and would only deem to be there when her presence was absolutely demanded (essentially abandoning her husband for the majority of his presidency). Her behavior overall made it clear that she was less than thrilled about her husband’s political career in spite of Truman doing everything he could to keep her involved, including nepotism in the form of finding her paying jobs. Once, when asked if she’d like her daughter to one day be President, she said, “most definitely not.” Bess held only ONE press conference over the course of Harry’s two terms in office and only did that once her repeated refusals to do them had become a political issue. While one could give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she feared her father’s suicide would become a public issue (back then the ‘heinous sin’ of a suicide in the family was like a permanent ‘taint’ on the blood of all descendants), or perhaps one could argue that it was a before-her-time feminist stance (if the press asked her what she might be wearing to a public event her “written” responses were usually pretty sarcastic) the overall effect is still of a woman whose behavior could not be described as “supportive of her husband.”

…. hence why I mean it when I say the movie they showed us about the first ladies was pretty “propagandist”; for me, I prefer my history presented unapologetic-ally, with the good, the bad and the ugly intact.

Then we were led into the front room where the docent offered to either let us just wander the exhibits independently, or he could share with us what he knew. I promptly said “share what you know” and he made it clear he knew his first ladies (although he did edit some of the most controversial stuff out), including things like the fact that Jackie-O felt she was cursed. The docent then essentially keeps us in the ‘first ladies room’ for what I’m pretty sure was a set amount of time — it was clear my group was ready to go one well before he allowed us to do it, and then we were told to all go as a group past the hotel (again) to the Ida McKinley’s house where we led around by a different docent.

Over all, I felt the place was underwhelming; the exhibits in the first building were, in my opinion, worth seeing but not quite ‘ready for prime time.’ It was like they knew they HAD to have something, and this was the best they could come up with.  I have not yet seen the Smithsonian’s first ladies exhibit, but I’m guessing it beats the pants off of what I saw here. And then, while the lower floors of Ida’s house impressively attempted to ‘recreate’ the home — based on old family photographs of the rooms, the top floor of Ida’s house then discordantly tried to tie back into the first ladies theme by offering a gallery of portraits of the women. While up there I brought up the topic, “what are you guys going to do if Hillary wins the presidential campaign?” The docent admitted it was an issue they were currently trying to wrap their brains around — even though it was something they should have considered at the outset. Insisting that first ladies need to be recognized is a feminist stance… Yet,  Just looking at the place, in my opinion, how they set the place up is evidence that its founders essentially bought into the belief that presidents are and always will be male. Considering organized the place not 16 years ago, you’d think they’d have prepared, nay… looked forward, to the eventuality of a female president, but it is clear they had not.

Before leaving the site entirely, I struck up a conversation with some retired folks who were in the parking lot. To my great luck, one of them had grown up in Canton and started telling me about just how different the site had been then — reiterating something I had spotted in an image that was in the house.

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Ida’s childhood home had been converted into a business, and the parking lot we were standing in, as well as the home’s garden, had been occupied with other businesses/buildings … all of which have since been torn down (in order to restore the site, something that probably could not have happened but for a downturn in the Canton economy).

The Mary Todd-Lincoln House.

Definitely worth a visit: Apparently the first museum devoted to a first lady. I learned a lot about her during the visit and now have a lot more respect and sympathy for her than I did previously.

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Finding this place wasn’t difficult (with GPS helping), and once you’re in the right part of town the house its self is easy enough to spot, in fact there are signs everywhere of the “hi you’re here” variety — but I’ve got to warn you, that the signage that was supposed to direct visitors to it’s parking lot was horrible! There’s this narrow little alleyway that odds are you won’t spot, which is where you need to turn down off of the busy main street in order to get to the parking lot behind the house, and G-d help you! It really is NOT clearly marked, nor is the traffic pattern in front of the house set up to aid out-of-town visitors to make the turn safely.

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I enjoyed my visit here. A lot of historical research, time, effort, and money was invested in order to try to recreate the home as Lincoln might have known it when he visited here. According to our docent, a retired female lawyer, as a result of various historical flukes, historians have a pretty good idea of exactly what items were in the house, and if they weren’t successful in tracking down the specific items the Todds owned (although happily in many cases they were), then they were able to replace them with items sufficiently similar as to give visitors a fairly accurate sense of being in their home. Anytime the items were known to have been owned by the Todd or the Lincoln families, the docent would point them out, and she always made it clear when they were not. So for instance they knew Mary Todd had a preference for the work of a particular furniture designer, and they have some of his pieces but aren’t sure if they’re the exact ones own by Mary… etc. In the picture below for instance, the table she (in white sweater) is standing next to was the actual one from the home, as was the bible laying on it.

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I learned a lot of interesting things, such as the house (after the Todds had sold it) became the brothel where a soon to be famous madam, Belle Brezing, who many believe became the template for the Belle Watling character in ‘Gone with the Wind,’ got her ‘training’; and that after Lincoln’s death, Mary’s son, who didn’t recognized the symptoms of laudanum/morphine addiction (which she had been proscribed as a cure for migraines) had his mother declared insane, and tried to get control of her money.

The first time I read about this place was in a blog devoted to ‘things worth stopping to see while road-tripping with the kids down to Disney World.’ However, back in June of 2015, when I was initially making that trip south from Chicago to Orlando, I was still one month shy of the end of the proscribed (by Jewish law) 11 months of mourning for my father, and as such couldn’t do anything ‘fun.’ However, I remembered it now, almost a year later, and since I discovered it was effectively on my path from my friends home in Georgia, to visiting another friend currently doing time in Ohio, I made a point of stopping to see it (in fact, all other things I did while in Lexington were peripheral to this stop).