Poor under-appreciated James K. Polk.
Born in Pineville in 1795, he was the nations 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 a independent federal treasury and lowered tariffs that pleased his native South.
Yet hes been referred to as the least-known president of consequence.
Now even Polks native state may be shunning his legacy, despite being 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 sites visitors center, Gov. Pat McCrorys 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 McCrorys 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 wed 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. Weve made so many cuts in recent years that weve gotten to the point that the well is dry You have to go with hard options: Weve cut contracts. Weve eliminated programs and reduced other types of services. So its gotten down to buildings and bodies.
The other three sites slated for closing: the Wayne County birthplace of Charles Aycock, N.C. governor in early 1900s; the Weaverville birthplace of Zebulon Vance, a three-term N.C. governor and 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.
Its 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. Weve already lost so much of Charlottes history and we dont need to lose anymore.
That will be our battle cry.
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 farm land 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 Samuels wife, Jane, began farming in southern Mecklenburg, just south of downtown Pineville.
Their son, James Knox Polk, was born there on Nov. 2, 1795.
Eleven years later, the family sold its 429 acres and moved to Columbia, Tenn., where Samuels 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. Graduating, he returned to Tennessee and began to practice law and launch his political career first to the state house, 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, 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 micro-manager. 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. Hes under-appreciated.
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 were going through with the renovations ought indicate that we intend to reopen the site when were 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 to tourist-rich Wilmingtons Fort Fisher, the states 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.
Were not immune to the same financial pressures, Holtzapple said. The state helps a lot, but the support association does a great of keeping this place going.
Im sorry to hear about the Pineville site. That site and our site have a nice link.
George Fleming of Tega Cay was sorry too after hearing the Pineville site might close.
After a doctors appointment last week, Fleming wound through the museum and the 1830s dwellings on the site, a house, a kitchen and barn.
I think its crazy to do away with this, he said. The state ought to be proud of it. Without history you have nothing its 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.
Its 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 back-country of Mecklenburg when President Polk was a boy here.
Its 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. Were gearing up for it again. This is too important to just roll over.
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