A new look at Abilene’s Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum
For this month’s Hidden Kansas, Beccy Tanner explores new exhibits that provide a different perspective on the Eisenhowers.
ABILENE — For decades, a trip to Abilene offered visitors a chance to see Dwight Eisenhower rose through the military ranks to become one of the nation’s top generals and later, the nation’s 34th president.
But now, after undergoing the first major renovation of its permanent galleries and exhibits since 1971, the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene has a new look and feel. Decades after the Eisenhower administration, “I like Ike” is taking on new meaning.
The library and museum annually attract more than 200,000 visitors, making it one of the top Kansas tourist destinations. But many of its visitors were born long after Eisenhower’s lifetime and may not always understand his prominence in the world.
“At the end of the war, (World War II), Ike is thinking globally,” said William Snyder, the Eisenhower Museum’s curator. “He was all about involving everyone and being friends with everyone – even if they were your adversaries. (Eisenhower believed) there had to be common ground and a way that we could live together.
“During his administration, the standard of living is dramatically raised in the United States. It really demonstrates what an effective leader he was and that much was done behind the scenes.”
Civil rights were advanced in the Eisenhower administration, NASA was founded, and the interstate highway system was started.
When the Eisenhowers returned to Abilene following the end of World War II, the couple was approached by town leaders who wanted to create a museum telling the story of Eisenhower -- how he attended West Point and became the supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe. Eisenhower, however, thought the museum’s focus should be more of a memorial honoring those who had served during the war.
Later, the 22-acre complex also became the site of his Presidential Library.
“So, we are thrilled that we could bring him and his partner along a little bit more fully this time,” Snyder said of the museum’s most recent renovation.
“When Ike left office … he was a fairly humble person.
“He was certainly aware of his own faults. He’d be the first to admit it. I think he was … upset that some of the historians … who study the presidency and sort of rank presidents … that he was usually at that time in the mid-to-low 20s, in terms of ranking. Now, in more recent rankings, Ike is generally now in the top five. So, we’ve got Washington, Lincoln and both Roosevelts and Eisenhower.”
The new exhibits showcase Mamie and Dwight Eisenhower as a couple.
There were Maime bangs – the first lady’s signature hairstyle — Maime Pinks, for her favorite color. Ike’s passion for painting and his love of golf.
“He was always working, even on the golf course,” Snyder said. “You look at his appointment schedule and you see he is talking with other world leaders, other political leaders.
“The other thing about golfing is that he was showing that the president of the United States is comfortable enough going out on the course. You can’t live your life in fear. This was the Cold War and people lived in fear of the Soviets dropping the bomb on us.”
Several of the iconic Eisenhower artifacts are still showcased. Visitors can still see the electric car that belonged to Ike’s mother-in-law, Elvira Doud. They can see his staff car used through World War II and into his presidency; the collection of pearl necklaces and earrings that belonged to his wife; the table Eisenhower used to plan strategy as the commander of the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France; and the Order of Victory medal he received from the Soviet Union.
There is even a piece of the Eisenhower’s wedding cake from July 1, 1916.
“It was found in Maime’s parents’ home in the attic when her mother passed away in the early 1960s,” Snyder said. “It had been preserved all those years.”
The renovation closed the museum in the spring of 2018 and when it was finished, much of the nation was in shutdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, things are back in full swing.
Museum officials say they are looking forward to celebrating Kansas Day – Jan. 29th – because of Eisenhower being the nation’s 34th president and from the state that was the 34th admitted to the Union.
February is also a great month to celebrate the Eisenhowers, Snyder said, because of Presidents Day and because Feb. 14 celebrates Ike and Maime’s engagement in 1916.
Snyder said that since the Eisenhowers left the White House, their popularity has risen as more and more classified information has become unsealed and released to the public. Simply put, more information is available to tell the Eisenhower story.
The Eisenhower campus has five buildings: the library, the museum, the visitors center, Eisenhower’s boyhood home and a chapel.
A man of profound faith, Eisenhower started the National Prayer Breakfast and added two words to the Pledge of Allegiance – “under God.”
Visitors learn how proud Eisenhower was of being a hometown boy from Abilene – that Kansas shaped and made him into the man he was.
They see he came from a poor family of all boys and that Maime came from an affluent family.
And there is more about Maime, including her right to “bare arms.”
“She always said that ‘I’m never going to wear old lady clothes,’ never dark colors,” Snyder said. “She insisted on wearing color all her life.
“You’ll notice that most of her clothes are short sleeve or sleeveless. She always said that her arms were Ike’s favorite feature. So, she always bared her arms for Ike, even into her 60s, 70s and 80s. She always left her arms bare.”
There is a campaign video encouraging women to vote for Ike because a vote for Ike meant Maime would remain in the White House.
“The women of our country swept Dwight D. Eisenhower into office four years ago,” a voice-over on the ad says. “They will probably decide the election, and they like Ike, and here’s somebody else they like: Ike’s beloved Maime, whose smile and modesty and easy natural charm make her the ideal First Lady. Let’s keep our First Lady in the White House four more years.”
And then, there is a special gallery exhibit called By-The-Numbers.
“As you may know, President Eisenhower was a hobby painter, something he didn’t take up until a couple of years before he was elected president … maybe at the urging of his good friend Winston Churchill, who was also a hobby painter,” Snyder said
Friends and celebrities often gave the Eisenhowers completed paint-by-number works. The collection is impressive.
“And this is Fred Waring, the big band leader,” Snyder said, pointing to one painting in particular. “Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians were one of Ike and Mamie’s favorite groups. They performed at the White House several times.”
There is even reference to an Eisenhower scandal at the White House.
“So, you’ll see the … large color photograph of what the Eisenhowers used as the Master Bedroom in the White House,” Snyder said. “They caused a bit of a scandal because Ike and Maime not only slept in the same room but the same bed together.
“Maime saw all the raised eyebrows in D.C., and she’s like, ‘We have spent so much of our married life sleeping apart, that we’re going to sleep together, and I basically don’t care what anybody else thinks.’ ”
If you go: The Eisenhower Presidential Museum and Library is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
It is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.