Eisenhower museum failing to draw tourists

January 01, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

ABILENE, Kan. -- The town motto here is: ``History. Heroes. Hospitality.'' No one could call it false advertising, either.

Wild Bill Hickok served as sheriff here in 1871, so there's your history. Dwight D. Eisenhower called Abilene home, and he's a hero for sure. As for hospitality, the whole town smells like animal crackers thanks to a mill that churns bulgur wheat into flour. If that's not enough, the cheery greeters at the visitor's center hand out sugar cookies made from Mamie Eisenhower's favorite recipe.

The problem is finding people to hand them to. Abilene's No. 1 tourist attraction, the Eisenhower Center, is having a tough time persuading folks to stop by.

Just 35 percent of visitors to the Eisenhower Center come from Kansas. A decade ago, the center -- which includes Dwight and Mamie's graves, Ike's boyhood home, the presidential library and a museum -- attracted 200,000 visitors annually. Last year, 89,000 came.

Eisenhower boosters don't like those numbers. They're determined to remind Kansans, and Americans everywhere, why they should still like Ike.

``All at once we woke up and said, 'Here's our most outstanding citizen ever, and it appears we are doing nothing special to recognize him,' '' recalled John Neal.

To atone for the lapse, Gov. Bill Graves recently appointed a nine-member commission to be chaired by Neal and charged with giving Eisenhower a public relations boost. Just how they'll accomplish that, commission members don't know. An annual Eisenhower holiday? A glitzy Eisenhower dinner at the statehouse each year? Or maybe Ike could use a slogan, something more dramatic than the ``peace and prosperity'' historians use to describe his presidency.

Harry S. Truman has a lock on ``the buck stops here,'' of course, and his presidential library has dibs on ``legacy of leadership'' as well. The Ronald Reagan Foundation in Simi Valley, Calif., talks about Reagan's commitment to the ``four pillars of freedom,'' meaning liberty, democracy, opportunity and patriotism. And then there's Eisenhower. The most resonant phrase matched with his presidency is ``I like Ike,'' which makes him sound like a nice fellow, but not all that significant.

``I'd like to come up with something very catchy that we could use to portray Eisenhower's importance,'' said one commission member, retired Army Lt. Gen. Richard Seitz. Eisenhower Center Director Dan Holt likes the idea. A slogan emphasizing Eisenhower's accomplishments might lend some sizzle to the $6-million fund-raising campaign he's launched for a much-needed museum renovation.

The museum's military wing was overhauled in 1994 for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, and visitors can spend hours lost in its treasures. But while Eisenhower the general receives his due, the rooms dedicated to Eisenhower the president aren't exactly five-star attractions.

The only nod to the Korean War is a glass case displaying the pen used to sign the armistice and a crude map of the Korean peninsula. The only hint that Eisenhower established a national highway system is a faded interstate sign. And there is nothing to read about why Eisenhower founded NASA.

``Kids go through the whole presidential gallery in about two minutes,'' Holt admitted. Then he sighed. ``Adults too.''

Pub Date: 1/01/99

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