I drive to or through Nashville fairly often, and every time I drive that way I see a sign pointing to President James K. Polk’s home in Columbia, TN. I often thought about stopping, but never had the extra time (or people were with me who would whine incessantly about visiting a “boring” historic home). A few weeks ago I decided to make some time to drive up to Columbia specifically to visit the home of a president I know very little about.
The only things I really knew about President Polk before my visit to his home were 1. he started the Mexican-American War in 1843 (and those were the days when Congress actually declared war, presidents didn’t just start wars without Congressional approval) and 2. he expanded the US borders to the Pacific ocean. After visiting the Polk House museum, I realized how much I don’t know about this very interesting and very significant president.
It’s really easy to find the Polk home. First, there are lots of brown signs on interstate 65 before the exit. Head towards the middle of Columbia and signs guide you all the way there. When I pulled up, I saw the county visitor’s center across the street from the stately white old home. I decided to stop at the Visitor’s Center to pick up information about other interesting sights to see in the general vicinity. A very friendly woman was working in the office and pointed out all of the numerous brochures free for the taking. The walls were lined with photos of people with their horses. I asked if people in the county just really like horses. Turns out that the photos are all of mules. Mules grow exceptionally large in this part of Tennessee (the woman said because of the phosphates in the soil) so the mules in the photos looked suspiciously like horses. She told me about the Mule Day in Columbia in April 2014, a giant and well attended festival celebrating local mules. The festival’s been going on for decades and is quite popular in the area. Who knows, I may go to that in the spring. After picking up about a million brochures of other museums and historic sites that looked interesting, I wandered across the street the to Polk home.
The home is a Registered National Historic Landmark. One thing that always strikes me about historic homes from this period is how small they are. The ceilings are often quite lofty, but the actual size of the house is frequently smaller than the house I live in. Of course, the furnishings are always nicer than mine.
The tour starts next door to the Polk house in a house where two of Polk’s sisters lived at various times (it’s called the Sisters’ House). This house features a small but very good museum and a gift shop. I watched a short introductory video before looking around the museum. Be sure to watch the video when you visit, it helps you understand Polk better. The museum displays start with Polk’s birthplace in North Carolina, charts his family’s migration to Tennessee, and describes his early career. Polk was a protege of Andrew Jackson (one of my favorite presidents to read about but one of my least favorite as far as policies).
Polk trained as a lawyer then started a successful political career. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1825 when he was only 29. He married to Sarah Childress, and she seems like a woman who would be amazing to meet in person. She was educated and very intelligent and helped her husband in a variety of ways during his career, including serving as a recording secretary, adviser, and confidant.
After browsing the museum, I headed next door to the actual Polk House. One of the interesting displays in the Polk home is the contrast between two paintings of Sarah. The first one we saw (on the left) was painted by a trained and obviously talented artist. It’s a lovely portrait. The second one on the right makes her look like a pointy nosed elf.
Along the way, Polk became chair of the Ways and Means Committee and eventually became Speaker of the House. He was evidently a quite eloquent speaker and a very capable politician. In 1838, he retired from Congress to run for Governor of Tennessee. He won. He did not, however, win re-election. So here was a very capable politician, excellent public speaker, and guy who was not holding elected office when the presidential election of 1844 rolled around. Polk was one of the candidates who supported expanding the United States to the west (expansion was controversial at the time, in part because of how slavery would be addressed in different regions were the country to expand). Various people supported annexing Texas as well as acquiring the Oregon territory. Polk won the Democratic nomination in large part because of his support for westward expansion, and he won the presidency. Here’s a great poster of the first 11 presidents in the Polk museum.
A very interesting aspect of Polk’s presidency is he vowed to only serve for one term and he set four goals he wanted to accomplish as president:
- Reestablish an independent treasury
- Reduce tariffs
- Acquire some or all or the Oregon territory (much larger than modern Oregon)
- Acquire California and New Mexico (then held by Mexico)
He accomplished all of his goals and did only serve one term. The docent at the museum said he’s the only president to actually fulfill all of his campaign promises. I’m not sure if that’s actually true, but the fact that he did accomplish four very sizable goals is really quite impressive. Of course, as part of getting control of the southwest involved starting the Mexican-American War, which is an interesting aspect of history because many of the key players in that war later served as key leaders on both sides of the Civil War.
Polk’s presidency also marked another first. This is the first daguerreotype of the interior of the White House. It shows Polk and his cabinet. Pretty cool.
Polk’s house is really not very large so the tour didn’t take long. The home features a great selection of period furnishings and paintings and is well worth the tour.
After I finished touring the home, I headed to a building next door to visit a special exhibit on clocks. A local clock repairman, Roy Fuston, started collecting clocks many years ago and over his lifetime amassed a huge collection of historic clocks of all shapes and sizes. Fuston’s family allowed the museum to display some of his clocks, and they are gorgeous.
My grandfather made grandfather clocks so I appreciate the beauty of clocks. This exhibition started with traditional European clocks which were often out of reach of ordinary Americans because of their huge pricetag, and moved through time as Americans became proficient in constructing their own beautiful timepieces.
One of my favorite parts of the exhibit explained the dark history of one clockmaker, Elmer Stennes. He built beautiful clocks, but killed his wife and was sent to prison. Even in prison, he made clocks, and some of his clocks are now very popular collector’s items since they were manufactured inside a prison.
This museum is a great destination if you’re driving between Nashville and Huntsville, AL. Now I want to read a biography about Polk.
Museum Information: find all of the information you need about the museum, including a phone number and email address, and list of current exhibits, on the museum’s webpage.
Hours: The museum is open every day except for Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Hours change seasonally so check the web page before you visit. Go to the Sisters’ House on the right for tickets and to start with the video and the museum.
Costs: You do have to pay to visit the museum, but the costs are reasonable. It’s $10 per adult, $8 per senior, $7 for youth, $5 for a child, or $25 for a whole family. If you want to visit the extra exhibit (the clock exhibit was extra) you pay a little more. Check the web page to verify current prices.
Lodging and Food: The museum is smack in the middle of Columbia so there are plenty of hotels and restaurants nearby. There are also several state parks fairly close if you want to camp. The closest state park for camping is Henry Horton State Park in Chapel Hill.
Directions: Find Columbia, TN on your map. The Polk House is in downtown Columbia. It’s very easy to get to and to find and there are plenty of signs. It’s right off of interstate 65 that between Nashville, TN and Huntsville, AL.