By Mark Tooley @markdtooley
Wednesday several IRD staff and I traveled to Thurmont, MD for lunch with Messiah College political science professor Dean Curry, who served on IRD’s board for over 20 years. We met at The Shamrock, a restaurant on the highway that once was and perhaps is still owned by a John Birch Society member, and which once featured a prominent sign urging the U.S. to quit the United Nations. Whatever the politics, the food is reliably if modestly good. Dean enjoyably discussed with us the latest political and theological trends in evangelical academia.
It’s hard to be so close to Gettysburg and not visit. The evening before I had watched a PBS series with Evan Thomas about his new book on President Dwight Eisenhower, Ike’s Bluff. So I visited the Eisenhower farm, which the General and his wife, Mamie, had purchased before his presidency, owing partly to his fascination with the Civil War battlefield, and to which he retired, also using it as a retreat during his presidency, although Camp David was just minutes away. I hadn’t visited the farm in about 20 years, when my parents and I were there shortly after it first opened. Since then, the National Park Service has further developed it. The upstairs bedrooms are now open to the public, as are the grounds, including his main cattle barn, to which Ike often escorted visiting heads of state to showcase his livestock. Three of his cars are also displayed, including one presidential limousine.
The brick and stone farm house suits Eisenhower’s personality: dignified but very modest. Except the living room, full of gifts and artwork, including a carpet from the Shah of Iran, almost all the rooms are very small, like a rabbit warren as one writer described. It’s very 1950s, reminiscent of an “I Love Lucy” set, perhaps when Lucy and Ricky moved to the country. (Eisenhower once hosted the program’s cast at the White House.) Ike’s oil paintings are everywhere, even in the narrow hallways, making them shockingly touchable for tourists. The tiny kitchen is unchanged from 60 years ago. There’s a maid’s bedroom upstairs, and downstairs a room for Ike’s valet and the valet’s wife. Eisenhower’s office, which he often used during the presidency, is closet-sized, with a desk replicating George Washington’s. Remarkably, Ike’s presidential secretary had no desk of her own, instead having to set up in the den. The only luxury is that the house has 9 bathrooms, exceptional for a 1950s home, although each bath is minuscule compared to today’s expectations.
Perhaps for good reasons heads of state like Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Nikita Khrushchev and former Premier Winston Churchill didn’t over night here. Only India’s Jawaharlal Nehru did. From the photos, they all enjoyed Ike’s award winning cattle. An elderly Churchill worried the Secret Service by slapping the beasts in the back. The guest book shows a signature by General Omar Bradley. On my previous visit I recall seeing the name of Ike’s wartime colleague and nemesis, British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery.
The house somewhat recalls de Gaulle’s own pleasant but relatively modest and remote home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, an historic village sort of like Gettysburg. Ike and de Gaulle were both generals, born the same year, and who died one year apart. They each had grand visions but were simple in their personal habits. De Gaulle went on long hikes in the nearby woods. Ike played golf. Each socialized with the locals. The Eisenhowers became close friends with the owner of the Gettysburg Hotel and his wife. The de Gaulles faithfully attended a medieval Catholic church in their village. The Eisenhowers attended a Civil War era Presbyterian church in Gettysburg, where Ike once preached a sermon lamenting judicial attacks on religion in the 1960s, at a time, especially amid civil rights struggles, when faith in public life was more important than ever.
Ike became Presbyterian at Billy Graham’s suggestion and because of Mamie’s background. During our lunch, Dean Curry recalled meeting Eisenhower’s Gettysburg pastor, now deceased, who was long active in the Eisenhower historical society. Sadly, Ike spent his last year at Walter Reed Army Hospital, where he summoned Billy Graham for a final discussion about salvation, after which Ike pronounced himself ready for eternity. Mamie Eisenhower remained at the farm, often watching soap operas, and staying in bed until noon. As a boy I mailed a photo of her and her husband, taken on the farm, for her to sign, which she did.
A plaque on the Eisenhowers’ front door requests prayer for their home. Ike’s faith was unadorned but strong enough to sustain him through years of world war and Cold War. Visiting his farm on a Pennsylvania battlefield offers a reassuring window into his very American soul.