Poor underappreciated James K. Polk.
Born in Pineville in 1795, he was the nation’s 11th president, responsible for expanding the United States from “sea to shining sea.” He fought Mexico for Texas – and got New Mexico and California as part of the spoils. He established an independent federal treasury and lowered tariffs that pleased his native South.
Yet he’s been referred to as the “least-known president of consequence.”
Now even Polk’s native state may be shunning his legacy, in spite of the fact he was one of two presidents known to be born in North Carolina. (Andrew Johnson, born in Raleigh, is the other. For decades, North and South Carolina debated over the birthplace of a third president, Andrew Jackson).
Months after state legislators released $130,000 to renovate the Polk site’s visitors center, Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget recommends mothballing the facility and three other state historic sites.
The Polk site in Pineville, which includes a small museum and three 1830s structures moved from Charlotte, currently gets $110,139 from the state. According to McCrory’s two-year, $20.6 billion budget released last week, closing the four sites would save nearly $1 million.
But in these spare times, apparently every little bit counts.
“Basically we’d be holding these sites dormant until there is sufficient revenue in the budget to reopen them on a regular basis,” said Keith Hardison, director of state historic sites. “We’ve made so many cuts in recent years that we’ve gotten to the point that the well is dry. … You have to go with hard options: We’ve cut contracts. We’ve eliminated programs and reduced other types of services. So it’s gotten down to buildings and bodies.”
The other three sites slated for closing: the Wayne County birthplace of Charles Aycock, North Carolina governor in early 1900s; the Weaverville birthplace of Zebulon Vance, a three-term North Carolina governor and later U.S. senator; and the House in the Horseshoe, a Colonial-era residence built in the bend of Deep River in Moore County near Sanford.
All four would close to the public, opening possibly two days a year for special events, Hardison said. The state would lay off two full-time employees at each site, keeping the site managers to protect buildings and museum artifacts.
“It’s not possible to shut the gate and lock it,” Hardison said. “We have historic buildings and artifacts there, and we have a responsibility to take care of those areas.”
Sharon Van Kuren of Union County is not about to let the Polk site close without a fight.
“This site is very important to North Carolina and Mecklenburg County,” said Van Kuren, president of the James K. Polk Support Group. “We have a home of a president. Not everybody can say that. We’ve already lost so much of Charlotte’s history and we don’t need to lose any more.
“That will be our battle cry.”
‘Between the heavy hitters’
The Polks were among the first white settlers in Mecklenburg, part of the vast migration of Scotch-Irish from Pennsylvania and Maryland who came South searching for farmland beginning in the 1740s.
Thomas Polk, James’ great-uncle, built a house in 1755 where two Indian trading paths intersected. That crossroad would become The Square formed by what is now Trade and Tryon streets in uptown Charlotte. The small park there is named for him.
Thomas’ nephew, Samuel, and Samuel’s wife, Jane, began farming in southern Mecklenburg, just south of downtown Pineville.
Their son, James Knox Polk, was born there Nov. 2, 1795.
Eleven years later, the family sold its 429 acres and moved to Columbia, Tenn., where Samuel’s father, Ezekiel, had assembled a 1,000-acre farm.
There, Samuel and Jane built a big Federal-style home while their son studied at UNC Chapel Hill. After graduating, he returned to Tennessee and began to practice law and launch his political career – first to the statehouse, then to Congress where he was a two-term U.S. House speaker, Tennessee governor and ultimately to the White House in 1844. A Democrat, he beat Whig rival Henry Clay, whose supporters jeered during the race: “Who is James K. Polk?”
Yet Polk turned out to be an able president, according to historians, accomplishing all his goals, including annexing what would become California and Southwestern states from Mexico and expanding the Oregon territory to the Canadian border – territory that would become Washington state, Utah and Nevada.
“He is ranked highly by historians,” said Scott Warren, manager of the Polk site. “He was what we would call a micromanager. He oversaw every aspect of the federal government and accomplished a great deal. But coming between the heavy hitters – the Adamses, John and John Quincy, (Thomas) Jefferson and on the other bookend, (Abraham) Lincoln – I guess President Polk has been overlooked. He’s underappreciated.”
On a tour through the South with wife, Sarah, Polk came down with cholera. He died months after leaving office.
Required field trip
Though the site could be closed for an undetermined period, renovations to the interior will go on as planned, said Hardison, the state historic sites director.
“The fact that we’re going through with the renovations ought to indicate that we intend to reopen the site when we’re able to do so,” he said.
In 1904, the Mecklenburg chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution raised a plaque at the birthplace site. Sixty-four years later, Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, helped open the Polk site on 21 acres. The site is believed to be across Lancaster Highway from where Polk was born but part of the family farm, Warren said.
Last year, the site drew 15,537 visitors, small compared with tourist-rich Wilmington’s Fort Fisher, the state’s most popular historic site. The fort, built at the start of the Civil War, drew nearly 440,000 visitors last year.
Still, it draws more visitors than the James K. Polk Ancestral Home in Columbia, Tenn. That site brings in 11,000 to 12,000 visitors a year. It is owned by the state, but a nonprofit runs it and raises all but $39,000 of the $250,000 yearly operating budget, said director John Holtzapple.
“We’re not immune to the same financial pressures,” Holtzapple said. “The state helps a lot, but the support association does a great job of keeping this place going.
“I’m sorry to hear about the Pineville site. That site and our site have a nice link.”
George Fleming of Tega Cay, S.C., was sorry, too, after hearing the Pineville site might close.
After a doctor’s appointment last week, Fleming wound through the museum and the 1830s dwellings on the site – a house, kitchen and barn.
“I think it’s crazy to do away with this,” he said. “The state ought to be proud of it. Without history, you have nothing – it’s important to protect.”
Visits to the Pineville site have risen since the economy began souring in 2008. “It upticked each year during the recession,” Warren said. “We were hoping to go over 16,000 next year.”
It’s also a required field trip for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools third-graders, he said. Nearly 3,200 third-graders have gone through the site during the current school year.
“It has historical and heritage value,” said Pineville Mayor George Fowler, who plans to fight the closing. “Anybody can go over there and gain a ton of knowledge of what life was like in the backcountry of Mecklenburg when President Polk was a boy here.”
It’s important to his town. Polk Street is a main street, and his name is in the town seal.
Van Kuren, the support group president, said the facility nearly closed two years ago because of budget cuts. A public outcry kept the doors open.
“Through emails, letters and phone calls, we are still alive and well,” Van Kuren said. “We’re gearing up for it again. This is too important to just roll over.”
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