NC may close home site of Mecklenburg-born President James K. Polk

dperlmutt@charlotteobserver.comMarch 27, 2013 

  • James Knox Polk timeline

    1795: Born just south of downtown Pineville.

    1806: Polk family moves to Columbia, Tenn., just before James’ 11th birthday.

    1835-1839: Serves as the 17th U.S. House speaker.

    1939: Elected governor of Tennessee.

    1844: Elected 11th president of the United States as a dark horse candidate. He oversaw opening of the Naval Academy, the Smithsonian and groundbreaking of the Washington Monument. Promising to seek one term, he didn’t run for re-election. During his tenure, Polk and wife Sarah took only one two-week vacation.

    1949: Polk left office and died months later on June 15, apparently of cholera.

Want to go?

The President James K. Polk Historic Site, 12031 Lancaster Highway, is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Phone: 704-889-7145. Online: www.nchistoricsites.org/polk/

Poor underappreciated James K. Polk.

Born in Pineville, N.C., in 1795, he was the nation’s 11th president, responsible for expanding the United States from “sea to shining sea.” He fought Mexico for Texas – and got New Mexico and California as part of the spoils. He established an independent federal treasury and lowered tariffs that pleased his native South.

Yet he’s been referred to as the “least-known president of consequence.”

Now even Polk’s native state may be shunning his legacy, in spite of the fact he was one of two presidents known to be born in North Carolina. (Andrew Johnson, born in Raleigh, is the other. For decades, North and South Carolina debated over the birthplace of a third president, Andrew Jackson).

Months after state legislators released $130,000 to renovate the Polk site’s visitors center, Gov. Pat McCrory’s proposed budget recommends mothballing the facility and three other state historic sites.

The Polk site in Pineville, which includes a small museum and three 1830s structures moved from Charlotte, currently gets $110,139 from the state. According to McCrory’s two-year, $20.6 billion budget released last week, closing the four sites would save nearly $1 million.

But in these spare times, apparently every little bit counts.

“Basically we’d be holding these sites dormant until there is sufficient revenue in the budget to reopen them on a regular basis,” said Keith Hardison, director of state historic sites. “We’ve made so many cuts in recent years that we’ve gotten to the point that the well is dry. … You have to go with hard options: We’ve cut contracts. We’ve eliminated programs and reduced other types of services. So it’s gotten down to buildings and bodies.”

The other three sites slated for closing: the Wayne County birthplace of Charles Aycock, N.C. governor in early 1900s; the Weaverville birthplace of Zebulon Vance, a three-term N.C. governor and later U.S. senator; and the House in the Horseshoe, a Colonial-era residence built in the bend of Deep River in Moore County near Sanford.

All four would close to the public, opening possibly two days a year for special events, Hardison said. The state would lay off two full-time employees at each site, keeping the site managers to protect buildings and museum artifacts.

“It’s not possible to shut the gate and lock it,” Hardison said. “We have historic buildings and artifacts there, and we have a responsibility to take care of those areas.”

Sharon Van Kuren of Union County is not about to let the Polk site close without a fight.

“This site is very important to North Carolina and Mecklenburg County,” said Van Kuren, president of the James K. Polk Support Group. “We have a home of a president. Not everybody can say that. We’ve already lost so much of Charlotte’s history and we don’t need to lose any more.

“That will be our battle cry.”

Though the site could be closed for an undetermined period, renovations to the interior will go on as planned, said Hardison, the state historic sites director.

“The fact that we’re going through with the renovations ought to indicate that we intend to reopen the site when we’re able to do so,” he said.

“It has historical and heritage value,” said Pineville Mayor George Fowler, who plans to fight the closing. “Anybody can go over there and gain a ton of knowledge of what life was like in the back-country of Mecklenburg when President Polk was a boy here.”

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