Has Gettysburg Kicked Its Kitsch Factor?

Historian Tony Horwitz travels to the Civil War battlefield and finds that even where time is frozen, it’s undergone welcome changes

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We closed the bar at 1 a.m. and I marched the mile to my hotel, weighed down by Minié balls a relic shop owner had given me. In the morning, feeling rather battle-weary, I skirted the Civil War in favor of a different century. Just over a ridge from the military park lies the farm that Dwight Eisenhower used as a presidential retreat and a retirement home. It’s now a national historic site, managed by the park service, which provides ranger-guided tours.

Eisenhower first visited Gettysburg during World War I and commanded troops training for tank warfare on the field of Pickett’s Charge. He loved the landscape and in 1950 bought a 189-acre farm adjoining the battlefield park—the only home he and his wife, Mamie, ever owned. Though the remains of a Confederate soldier were found in the backyard, the farm is otherwise a curious time capsule of cold war America. The Eisenhowers transformed the farm’s neglected house into a plain brick Georgian, more suburban than rural and strikingly modest for the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in World War II and 34th president of the United States.

The interior is likewise unassuming, apart from a formal living room crammed with porcelain, Ming vases, a Persian carpet from the shah of Iran and other expensive gifts (the Eisenhowers were the last White House occupants allowed to keep such gifts without paying for them). Ike considered the living room “stuffy” and preferred the glassed-in sun porch, where the Eisenhowers often ate on TV trays (Mamie liked soaps, Ike preferred “Bonanza” and “Gunsmoke”). He also used the sun porch as a painting studio and a number of his landscapes and portraits hang in the house. But most of the décor reflects Mamie’s down-home tastes. Though the daughter of a millionaire, she loved cheap knickknacks, including Hummels, a plate she bought for $2.61 at the battlefield Stuckey’s and plastic presidential figurines she collected from cereal boxes.

Downstairs is a kitchen filled with green linoleum and appliances from the “I Love Lucy” era, Ike’s den (books, old weapons, fishing flies) and items such as a rotary phone (EDgewood 4-4454) that bring a wave of nostalgia to anyone born before 1960. “A lot of visitors say they feel like they’re back in their grandparents’ house,” ranger Rick Lemmers told me.

But life here wasn’t quite so homey as it first appears. During Ike’s presidency, particularly during his recu- peration from a heart attack in 1955, the farm served as a temporary White House. Ike met with de Gaulle, Khrushchev and other leaders and was guarded by Secret Service agents (whose headquarters in a milk barn included a safe that held the satchel holding nuclear codes). Ike also turned the property into a major cattle farm, which he liked showing off to world leaders.

The house and gardens, which include Ike’s putting green and skeet range, are not only a museum piece of 1950s Republicanism. They also offer panoramic views of the Pennsylvania countryside free of monuments, cannons and tourist buses. I felt a similar sense of escape that afternoon as I drove west from town, past rolling farms, orchards and picture-book barns. About eight miles from Gettysburg, I followed signs leading to the Adams County Winery, one of many vineyards that have sprung up in Pennsylvania in recent years.

Housed in a converted barn, the tasting room has old beams and an ambience very different from the Reliance Mine Saloon I’d visited the night before. Visitors listened raptly as a “wine-tasting associate” intoned: “Pairs nicely with cheesecake....Sweet, with a dry finish....Would you like to sample the chardonnay?”

I did, as well as a wine made from blueberries, another from apples. Not exactly grand cru, but a nice and unexpected break from burial trenches and battle-themed tourism. Then I studied the labels. The blueberry wine was Yankee Blue, another I’d sampled was Rebel Red. A third was named Traveller, after Robert E. Lee’s horse.

“We’re the official winery of the 150th commemoration at Gettysburg,” explained Andy Mello, a wine associate, handing me a fresh glass. He brought out a bottle with a mournful picture of Lincoln on the label. “This is our hallmark wine. It’s called Tears of Gettysburg.”

I doubt this is what Lincoln had in mind when he urged us, “the living,” to finish the work of those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” at Gettysburg. But I still had some Civil War sites to see, and Andy assured me the wine was an appropriate sacrament for my pilgrimage. “Have some of this in your system,” he said, “and you’ll be ready to go back into battle.”


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