Texas: Myths, Legends, and the Real Deal, Pt.3
A State Historic Site
Last week, a friend and I made the short field trip to Denison, a small city located about 75 miles north of Dallas, five miles south of the Red River, the border with Oklahoma. The town was begun in 1872, along with the establishment of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. The new little burg was named for a vice president of the railroad, George Denison.
In 1880, the census gave a tally of 3900 residents, but by 1890, the population had swelled to almost 11,000. The convergence of the railroad and the Red River had made Denison an important commercial center and a major supplier of jobs. Since then, it hasn’t grown much. The 2010 census counted just 22,000.
Mildly interesting stuff, but what gives Denison a claim to fame? Turned out, it became the birthplace of a future United States president.
Here's the house we visited. It looks a lot bigger than it actually is, because it’s wide, but not at all deep.
To learn about the particulars, we had a very knowledgeable, young tour guide. She gave us her full attention since we were the only people on the tour. She let us walk through the house at our own pace and then we stood out front, discussed, and questioned her about what we’d seen.
Dwight David Eisenhower was born in this house on October 14, 1890. His parents were David and Ida and he had two older brothers. Four more would follow. One died of diphtheria at age 10 months.
According to the tour guide, father David was a Kansas native. He met Ida at college. But David was always something of a troubled soul. He never could stick with much and become successful in the expected way. He didn’t finish college. Instead, he started a dry goods store, then grew disenchanted and shut it down. In 1889, he left his wife and two, little sons in Kansas while he journeyed to Denison, Texas in search of a railroad job. Indeed, he was hired there, but his task was only to clean the engines – dirty, labor-intensive work. He was paid a whopping $10 a week.
David brought Ida and the boys to Denison and they rented the little residence in a working-class neighborhood. It was no palace. Railroad tracks ran only forty feet or so from the front porch and trains would go by all the time. Think of the noise. How could you sleep though it? Besides, the trains would rattle the entire structure.
Also, keeping in mind this is Texas – in summer heat, windows needed to remain open 24/7 to catch any breeze. Unfortunately, those windows allowed in soot and dust. Imagine a dark brown layer covering everything. Poor Ida must have been cleaning constantly.
There were two upstairs bedrooms. To help with the rent, David sublet one to a fellow who also worked for the railroad. Times were certainly tough. Ida baked bread, cultivated a garden out back, and kept chickens. The kitchen stove used coal for fuel, which she and the little boys scavenged from those nearby tracks.
Then came that third baby. David sent their renter to fetch the doctor. Unexpectedly, the child was in a hurry. While David waited for the doctor, neighbor women acted as midwives and delivered the newest Eisenhower boy without incident. One of those women was a young schoolmarm named Jennie Jackson. She lived across the tracks and came to do whatever she could. She held the baby as the other women busied themselves with more important duties.
The neighbors considered the birth as a routine event, nothing to make note of. As soon as things settled, they returned to their homes and their own affairs.
Eighteen months later, David’s parents arranged a job for David at a creamery in Abilene, Kansas. It paid better than the railroad work. Ida packed their few belongings and the family moved back. The Eisenhower boys grew up there and Dwight considered Abilene as his childhood home.
Even with the increased wage, David still wasn’t much of a provider and for years, the family struggled to stay afloat, mostly through Ida’s ingenuity and perseverance. Of her six surviving sons, all were successful in their adult lives, probably due to her example.
The third son Dwight attended West Point because tuition there would be free. That set him on track to become a career soldier and in WWII, he rose to be named Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe. In 1952, he was elected 34th president of the United States.
Now, how did this tiny house in Denison become a Historic Site? When the family left for Kansas, locals said goodbye and that was it. No letters were written back and forth. No one in Denison gave a thought to the Eisenhower family from 1892 until the middle of WWII, when General Eisenhower’s name started to appear in the news.
Remember that young schoolmarm, Jennie Jackson? By the 1940s, she was a white-haired woman in her 70s. After all those years, she still recalled the name and the newborn she had held that autumn night in 1890. Somehow, she managed to get an address and wrote to Eisenhower’s family about the house across the tracks. She led the way and the citizens of Denison collected enough money to buy the rundown house in 1946. They all went to work, restored the place to the best of their abilities and gathered period furnishings. Not too fancy. The landlord back in 1889 wouldn’t have provided that.
When the house was polished up and ready to be seen, Eisenhower was invited to attend the grand opening. He admitted to having no memories of the place, but graciously came to Denison. Local women cooked a Big Texas Breakfast, which they served in the little dwelling to the notables in attendance, Eisenhower, Sam Rayburn, Speaker of the U.S. House, and Miss Jennie Jackson.
In 1955, locals established a foundation to do a more complete restoration of the house and add a park around it. Three years later, the foundation donated the house and park to the state of Texas.
“In the end,” our tour guide speculated, “the house is more about the people of Denison than about Eisenhower. Even though he was just a toddler when the family moved away, Denison claims him as a Native Son. And that gives them pride. – Besides, whatever you think of Lyndon Johnson, it keeps him from the title of First Native-born Texan to be Elected President!”