At the edge of Manhattan, Kansas, biologists from Kansas State University and the National Science Foundation have established a long-term research project. They have planted an area, owned by the Nature Conservancy, with native prairie plants. Grazing is strictly limited -- a herd of buffalo is held on a portion, deer on others, elk may eventually be reintroduced. Different sections are burned at 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, and 20-year intervals.
On a muggy afternoon we took a nature trail through the Konza Prairie. We walked up hill and down dale until there was prairie in all directions. The image that jumped to mind was Wyeth's painting, Christina's World, which we both love. When we stared at this grassland every blade and flower stood out. And Konza prairie when we looked up at the sky the clouds had ominous stripes of grey and white. Of course it's a great time of year -- the prairie is green and full of wildflowers.
We weren't alone on the trail. Several young women jogged by us briskly, while we slowly overtook a father with three boys hiking along with day packs. The youngest looked about four. We passed them just at the point where the shorter, 2.8 mile trail headed back, while the longer 7-mile loop stretched up a long hill. We took the short path, but they continued on the longer loop. We found ourselves hoping the littlest one would hold out all the way, and that they'd make it back to the parking lot before dark!
This prairie is not all grass; the variety and beauty of the land was astonishing. Trees grow up alongside the creeks, and can propagate into the prairie without fire. The area is known as the Flint Hills of Kansas, where the soil is too rocky for farming. Quarries are located throughout the Flint Hills, providing beautiful limestone for central Kansas buildings.
It was easy to imagine there was nothing but prairie in all directions. The nineteenth century settlers invested their labor and money to turn the prairie into farms and ranches, enduring tornados, droughts, blizzards, prairie fires, and dust storms. For a family living in a sod hut or a tarpaper shack, life was far from beautiful.
Abilene, Kansas, is a small town with broad streets and many brick or limestone buildings dating from the late 1800s. We stopped at the Visitor Center, declined a ticket on an excursion train, accepted a sugar cookie baked from Mamie Eisenhower's own recipe, and got directions to the town library. Finishing our genealogical research quickly, we hastened to visit another presidential library. The Eisenhower Center has the old family home, a visitor center, a museum, the library, and the Eisenhowers' graves, in a peaceful park-like setting.
Dedicated in 1962, the Eisenhower Library houses personal and Presidential papers and is managed by the National Archives. As with other presidential libraries, the materials are accessible only to "researchers." Unlike the other Presidential libraries we have visited, the library building itself did not have much exhibit space; there was a small gallery used for traveling exhibits. The current display paid tribute to the Marine Band -- the President's Own -- developed by John Philip Sousa. The library also had two portraits: President Eisenhower and Harry Darby. We didn't recognize Darby. He was a Kansas Senator who had donated an eleven-foot tall statue of then-General Eisenhower.
The Museum holds the biographical and Presidential displays we have come to expect. We have learned to walk rather quickly past the displays of state gifts; they do little to educate the visitor about the character or accomplishments of the president.
The biographical display revealed Ike to be a rather straight-arrow son of a solid family, who preferred athletics to academics as a young man. He requested an appointment to Annapolis, but was appointed to West Point instead, where he played football until a severe knee injury curtailed his athletic career. He graduated well down in his class; his military career moved along slowly until he was selected for the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, where he ranked first.
He missed the First World War, but was a Lieutenant Colonel shortly before the start of the Second World War. He was advanced to temporary Colonel, then Brigadier, where he was assigned to a planning job in the War Department. His work was outstanding, so General Marshall gave him another promotion and a more important planning job -- the European campaign. This was again done splendidly, and so Eisenhower was selected to lead the U.S. Forces in Europe, and then became the Allied commander.
Eisenhower excelled in organization and planning, and managed the Eisenhower library difficult task of coordinating the allied forces quite effectively. He returned from the war a hero, and after a very short stint as president of Columbia University, returned to Europe as NATO commander.
Three times the United States has called upon a war hero to be President. George Washington was faced with great political and diplomatic challenges to establish an infant nation and its government. Ulysses Grant was a disaster as president. Eisenhower was just a caretaker. He had no personal program to speak of, either in domestic or foreign policy, and was far from charismatic.
The museum exhibits describing his presidency actually revealed these weaknesses. The most important piece of legislation mentioned during an 8-year presidency was the Taft-Hartley Act, which was a Republican Party plank and not an Eisenhower initiative. The museum showed a videotape of a televised press conference; Eisenhower appeared hesitant and inept. A rather odd display showed some original charts used for a government reorganization; Eisenhower appeared to be trying to run the country the way he ran the allied forces.
There was a special exhibit in the museum concerning the Korean War, done in connection with the 50th anniversary commemoration of that conflict. While the displays were very interesting and informative, it reinforced the impression that Eisenhower was much more a soldier than a president.
As we left the Eisenhower Center, carefully dissecting his political career like caustic Broadway critics, we stopped to reflect that Ike, like every President of the United States, was a tremendously capable and accomplished individual -- a great man. It's unfortunate that the job of President demands so much that few individuals can possibly succeed. The more Presidential libraries we visit, the more sympathetic we are toward these men who were faced with the impossible job of running our country.