As everyone no doubt knows, Presidents’ Day was first established in 1885 and was originally a celebration of George Washington’s birthday. In fact, the federal holiday is still officially “Washington’s Birthday,” according to the federal government.
However, celebrating just Washington’s birthday would be exclusionary and un-American. So, over the years, the holiday has turned into a generic love-fest of presidents. (Fans of William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, rejoice; this day is for you as well.)
Now, there are countless places across this great land where travelers can learn more about presidential history. But, for anyone wanting to better understand the 43 men who have served as presidents (yes, we’re on the 44th president, so thank Grover Cleveland for messing up the sequencing), here are five unexpected places to find some unique presidential history this Presidents Day.
City Tavern, Philadelphia
Philadelphia certainly lays claim to the birthplace of the country — for good reason. After touring Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and other such attractions, head over to City Tavern. This restaurant, built in the 1970s, is a recreation of the “most genteel tavern in America,” as John Adams called it, where the Founding Fathers and members of the First Continental Congress regularly met. More than merely a recreation, the tavern’s menu features authentic 18th century fare and beers brewed using genuine recipes from the era.
St. Paul’s Chapel, New York City
Completed in 1766, George Washington attended services here on Inauguration Day, April 30, 1789, and he continued to attend the church for two more years as the city served as the nation’s first capital. An original pew that Washington used is still on display. Situated just feet away from the World Trade Center, the chapel took on a new significance following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A place of refuge for workers at Ground Zero, the chapel also serves as a memorial to that horrible day.
White Haven (Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site), Grantwood Village, Mo.
To Civil War buffs, Gen. U.S. Grant is a legend; to presidential scholars, he’s often remembered for scandals. But, to visitors of White Haven, the plantation owned by Grant’s father-in-law, he’s a more humble figure. Many visitors are apparently surprised to learn Grant worked with his father-in-law’s slaves. However, according to the National Park Service, Grant’s “experience working alongside the White Haven slaves may have influenced him in his later roles as the Union general who won the war which abolished that ‘peculiar institution,’ and as President of the United States.”
Gold Coast Railroad Museum, Miami
At first blush, a railroad museum in South Florida might seem like a strange place to find presidential history, but meet the Ferdinand Magellan. Built in 1929, the Pullman Co. observation car served as Presidential Rail Car No. 1 from 1943 until 1958. In 1943, at the height of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took this coach to Miami, then traveled to Morocco for the Casablanca Conference; he also used the coach on his last trip to Warm Springs, Ga., where he died on April 12, 1945. Years later, President Harry S Truman was famously photographed on the back of the car holding a copy of The Chicago Tribune with the infamous — and incorrect — “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline.
Pima Air & Space Museum, Tucson, Ariz.
A Douglas C-118 that is today housed at the Pima Air & Space Museum has an amazing history. The plane, a military version of the Douglas DC-6, was Air Force One for Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. It also has the distinction of being the “last propeller driven aircraft to be designated as the primary Presidential transport,” according to the museum.
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