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National Park Service Adds New Historic Landmarks

In a world where many people never look beyond their PDA screens, history needs all the help it can get. The National Park Service, through its National Historic Landmark program, tries to support and publicize places where historical and culture resonance can be found, whether that comes from a person, an event or a creative act. When 16 new sites got landmark designation recently, the list grew to a total of 2,479 honorees. A cynic might consider this overkill—how many Indian War battlefields do you want to tour?—but one of the two new Indian War battlefields to be designated helps to explain how George Armstrong Custer and his troops died with their boots on. Another new landmark site preserves the home and workplace of Aaron Copland, arguably this country’s greatest composer. And another represents the place where Cesar Chavez successfully fought for the rights of migrant farm workers. Places like these shouldn’t need a boost to be visited and studied, but they do. You can look it up. Even on a hand-held browser.

Highwaymen Find An Ancient Home

A new highway project in southern Utah has brought the discovery of an American Indian dwelling that dates back some 1,200 years. The Utah Department of Transportation funded a study near the Arizona border of ground that “on the surface showed almost nothing—a few flakes of ceramics,” according to Pam Higgins, a specialist on environmental policy and historic preservation at the transportation department.

But buried—and well protected— under the sandy terrain was the home of a farm family whose tribal affiliation is not known. No remains were discovered, but the area’s floor plan was well preserved, including a hearth and a storage area “big enough for people to stand,” according to Higgins. Among the artifacts were shells and what seems to be turquoise—items that may have come from nomads who traded them for the family’s crops.

Newly Minted Coins Honor Honest Abe

Nothing says “Happy Birthday!” like having a coin released in your honor by the United States Mint, and 2009 will be an especially festive year as the Mint rolls out nine different coins in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday.

Four pennies with new designs on the reverse (or tails) side will be issued starting February 12. The image of a log cabin represents his birthplace. Because Lincoln’s family was poor, and no one could have predicted his later importance, the actual cabin is long gone. The design is based on the “symbolic cabin” displayed at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in Kentucky.

The other designs show Abe taking a break from rail-splitting to read a book, the young lawyer Lincoln in front of the Illinois state capitol and a Lincoln-free image of the half-finished U.S. Capitol dome as it looked during his time in office. These four coins—produced with today’s standard mix of 97.5 percent zinc and 2.5 percent copper plating—are intended for general circulation.

The Mint will also release five numismatic (or collectible) coins that will sell for more than their face value. Special editions of the four bicentennial penny designs will be produced with the metal content used at the time of the 1909 Abraham Lincoln centennial one-centers: bronze in a mix of 95 percent copper and 5 percent tin and zinc. In addition, in the world of bigger denominations, 2009 will bring the Lincoln Bicentennial Commemorative One-Dollar Coin—made up of 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper—with a reverse image that has a Gettysburg Address theme.

Statuesque Strangers Greet D.C. Visitors

Tourists who wander through the new Capitol Visitor Center, right next to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, might be forgiven if they’re a bit puzzled. Pick any of the 23 statues that populate the airy spaces of Emancipation Hall, and there’s an excellent chance that no one around, except for a guide, will know who it is. That’s because the subjects honor favorite sons (and a few daughters) from several states and many of the people are as unrecognizable as they were important. Take, for example, the tall, lean man with the high forehead (pictured at right), who represents the state of Utah. Because of his genius we have television—he is largely responsible for the technology— and maybe his appearances on it before he died in 1971 would have made him a more familiar face back then. Be honest. Did you know this was Philo T. Farnsworth?

Cracks Surface in the Tomb of the Unknowns

Even marble doesn’t last forever. Visible cracks in the monument at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery have the Department of the Army considering a total replacement of the 1932 monument. A DOA report from last August conceded that damage has not affected the monument’s structural integrity, but it raised concerns about a “shabby” appearance and the dwindling supply of high-quality replacement marble. “We place a high value on retaining the original fabric of the monument,” says Robert Nieweg, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who believes annual evaluations and more frequent re pairs could keep the marble in great shape “for the foreseeable future.”

Television Prompting Apparatus Patent No. 2,635,373

What does a newbie president delivering an inaugural address have in common with a local TV anchor reciting high-school football scores? Each one appears to talk effortlessly and at length without referring to notes. That’s the beauty of the teleprompter, a device that allows the speaker to read a script that’s invisible to a live audience or a TV camera. The idea came from actor Fred Barton, who realized that in the fast-paced world of television, performers would not have time to memorize all their lines. Barton, engineer Hubert “Hub” Schlafly and radio/TV producer Irving Kahn came up with the idea of placing a motorized scroll next to the camera, and together, they formed a company called TelePrompTer to develop and market the device. They even talked Herbert Hoover into using an early version of it when he addressed the 1952 Republican National Convention. When the former president lost his place in the text, he said, “Go ahead, TelePrompTer, go ahead.” It brought an avalanche of media attention about the new gizmo and broadened the business beyond television.

Vice President vs. Posterity

Vice President Dick Cheney intends to keep possession of the vast majority of his papers after leaving office, citing a 2001 executive order by President George W. Bush that only “executive records” need to be archived and made public in compliance with the Presidential Records Act of 1978. Cheney’s lawyers maintain that only records relating to duties “specially assigned” by the president must be preserved. That would exclude the vice president’s work on the National Security Council and his role in establishing the controversial warrantless wiretapping program, among other things.

More than 30 leading historians, including Pulitzer Prize–winner David McCullough, joined a lawsuit against the office of the vice president calling for compliance with the 1978 law, which ordered all presidential records to be turned over to the archivist of the United States when the president leaves office. Historians say the records are vital for future studies of perhaps the most powerful vice president in history. U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly issued a preliminary injunction against the office of the vice president, pending further litigation.

Lincoln’s Gentlemanly Tastes Revealed

You have to wonder how much our 16th president packed away at the dinner table—after all, he reportedly entered the White House in 1861 with only 180 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. Two recently published books provide some insight. Lincoln’s Table: A President’s Culinary Journey From Cabin to Cosmopolitan by Donna McCreary has come out in an expanded second edition with a wealth of historical detail and more than 130 recipes. And the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., has put out A. Lincoln Cookbook: A Cookbook of Epic Portions, a fundraising project that includes a section of Lincoln-era recipes amongst contributions from local cooks.

Many of the connections between Lincoln and food are speculative—rural Indiana folks ate raccoon, and young Abe lived in rural Indiana. Thus, A. Lincoln Cookbook reprints a recipe for roast raccoon that begins, “First catch your coon. Having dressed him and hung him out overnight….” The most direct connection that can be made is for a pecan cake served to Lincoln when he visited Mary Todd’s home during their courtship—both books include modernized versions. But McCreary, who gives presentations in the guise of Mary Todd Lincoln, questions this—and other claims—on Abe’s tastes. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the man was a very gracious cake eater,” she says, “and that his favorite piece of cake was the latest one he ate.” Maybe, just maybe, Abraham Lincoln ate like a politician.

Hemingway’s Cat Heirs Get Reprieve

Cats at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Fla., have a new lease on their nine lives. After five years of legal battling, the museum recently reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow the 50 felines—descendants of the author’s six-toed cat Snowball— to remain on the grounds and roam free. The agriculture officials had wanted the museum to have an animal-exhibition license and to cage the cats, but settled for a new fence around the one-acre property.


Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.