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Archive for February, 2005

San Antonio, Texas
Visited: February 27, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 161 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website; Alamo Website

Misión Espada
WHAT IS IT?
Four of the five 18th-century Spanish missions that served as the foundation for the city of San Antonio and for the spread of Spanish life and Catholicism in the western portion of the New World. The fifth and northernmost Spanish mission, San Antonio de Valero, is not a part of the National Park Service. It is run by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas and more commonly known as the Alamo.

BEAUTY (8/10)
We have all seen the pictures. White limestone bell towers setting off an impossibly blue sky. Spanish crosses silhouetted against sunsets the color of blood oranges. Ornate wooden doors with yucca and cacti as sentries. These are the pictures most of us conjure when we think about the Southwest. We wanted those pictures.

It took a few days of trying, but we think, we hope, we were able to capture some of that beauty. Each of the four Mission churches is built in a typical Spanish Colonial style, yet each are infused with their own personality, shaped by those who built them.

Mission San José houses la Ventana de Rosa, which may or may not be named after a craftsman’s true love lost at sea en route to San José. The window is said to be the premier example of Spanish Colonial ornamentation in the New World. San José is the largest of the Missions and was considered a model community. It bears its title of “Queen of the Missions” proudly.

Mission Concepción still offers visitors patches of its brightly colored walls. Bold geometric patterns have faded but some interior rooms show religious symbols mixed with decorative shapes.

Mission San Juan still bears its original wood door. There was time to peek into San Juan before Sunday services began. Stark, except for the graphic imagery of the dying Jesus, we could understand why some Indians were hesitant to convert to this new faith.

The Church at Mission Espada is technically incomplete. Plans to enlarge the church were postponed when the master artisan abruptly left the mission taking his designs with him. His journeymen and apprentices were left to patch together a smaller version, which may explain the strangely shaped stone archway over the main entrance.

Misión San JoséHISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (7/10)
The San Antonio Missions were one of Spain’s most successful forays into New World settlement and mark the clear beginning of both the City of San Antonio and the State of Texas.

17th-century Spanish attempts to colonize the American west varied from the English models in the East. The Spanish had few people to spare as colonists and wanted to ensure that the Kingdom was devoutly Catholic and theirs. The French threatened to expand into Spain’s western territories. Spain’s solution was to build missions and convert the native Indian population to loyal Catholic subjects of the Spanish crown.

The missions were self-sustaining communities based on strict social, moral and religious discipline. The San Antonio Missions flourished because hostile tribes from the North terrorized the local Indians, the hunting and gathering Coahuiltecan. The Spanish missions provided them sanctuary and defense. As time passed, the Indian and Spanish cultures became one.

The Missions were secularized in 1824 when Spain left the New World. The City of San Antonio grew from this base. In 1836, Santa Anna’s bloody siege immortalized the San Antonio de Valero Mission. The massacre at the Alamo became a rallying cry for Sam Houston’s Texas army who would defeat Santa Anna a month later at San Jacinto and claim their independence.

CROWDS (8/10)
All four Missions remain active parishes. They were alive with activity on the Sunday of our visit.

Despite their proximity to a major urban center, the southern two Missions, Espada and San Juan, still feel isolated and rural. Only Mission San José brings a large tourist crowd. Its grounds are ample and there is never a feeling of visitor claustrophobia; unlike the mood downtown near the Alamo where you feel like herded cattle.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5)
The southern-most mission, Mission Espada is located halfway between Exits 42 and 44 of the San Antonio Beltway, Interstate 410. It is at about the 5 o’clock point on the beltway’s circle. From there the well-marked Mission Trail winds northward up the San Antonio River to Mission San Juan and then Mission San José, the location of the Park’s Main Visitor Center. The Park Service’s northernmost mission is Mission Concepción.

The distance from Espada to Concepción is only about 5 miles. If you continue north for about 2 more miles you will reach San Antonio’s City Center and the Alamo. There should be enough parking at the NPS sites unless you go on Sunday. The missions are still active parishes and the church services fill the lots, especially at Mission Concepción.

Parking at the Alamo is pricey and difficult.

Misión Concepción CONCESSIONS/ BOOKSTORE (5/5)
The bookstore located at the Mission San José Visitor Center has stacks and stacks of books about the area’s history and culture. Here are a few of the more intriguing titles: Origins of New Mexico Families: A Genealogy of the Spanish Colonial Period; Bricks Without Straw: A Comprehensive History of African Americans in Texas; Chilies to Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave the World; and Mexican Tiles: Color, Style, Design.

There are hardcover tomes dedicated to the Conquistadores, and sections on Mexican Folklore, Tejano culture and Comanche Indians. A few titles are in Spanish. The bookstore sells a Spanish-English dictionary if you need help with a few words.

We also liked the posters emblazoned with chile peppers and a southwestern kitchen.

COSTS (5/5)
Entrance is free. There are anywhere from 10-14 free Ranger-led guided tours given at the Missions every day.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
San José, by far the most visited of the missions, was adequately staffed with no less than five Rangers. Ranger-led talks and tours are regular and frequent. When we asked about tours in the other missions, a portly Ranger laughed. They’ll be so happy to talk to you; you won’t be able to leave. Two Rangers did fill our ears at Mission Espada but we were willing receptacles. Rangers at Mission Concepción and San Juan were a little harder to find.

TOURS/CLASSES (6/10)
In addition to Ranger-led activities, an “award winning” film entitled Gente de Razon is shown at the San José Visitor Center every half hour. We didn’t much care for it but we were the minority. Other audience members oohed and ahhed the well-produced video which seeks the spirits of lost Native American cultures in the walls of the missions.

There are small museums at each Mission, each focused on a different aspect of the Spanish Colonial Period. The electronic map at San José is broken.

San José, the “Queen of the Missions”, is the most visitor friendly of the four sites. Exhibits line the Granary and a Spanish Colonial bookstore and a religious gift shop fit nicely into the outer walls of the mission. San José’s Grist Mill has been completed restored; a volunteer was demonstrating the milling process as we walked through.

We enjoyed walking the grounds of each mission. Church was in session during our visit. What we missed seeing the interiors of the churches, we gained in atmosphere. On this beautiful spring morning, it was easy to see the San Antonio Missions aren’t relics from a forgotten age; they are vibrant centerpieces of Tejano culture.

FUN (6/10)
Our first trip to Mission San José was shrouded with grey clouds, not very camera-friendly. We decided to watch the film and come back the following day. Of course, it rained and rained and rained. Still hoping for some decent photographs, we delayed our visit yet again. This time it was a Sunday morning, the sun was shining and we made it to Mission Espada before the Rangers even opened the doors.

We spent the next four hours traveling north along the Mission Trail towards San Antonio, hoping to cap off our delightful day with a stop at the Alamo and lunch along the city’s famed Riverwalk. The closer we got to the city, the more we wished we had spent more time on the dewy lawns of Espada and San Juan. Parking was tight at Concepción and nearly impossible near the Alamo. By the time we took our place in line to reverentially stare at something we can’t remember because photos aren’t allowed, we were darn near frazzled.

The Alamo is overrated and a lot smaller than we had imagined.

 Misión San JuanWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
While the Alamo is overrated, its four NPS counterparts are not. All of the Missions within the San Antonio NHP preserve the memory of not one event, but of a series of events which transformed the lives and identities of thousands of Native Americans and shaped the look and feel of present day San Antonio and large portions of the American Southwest. Go see the Alamo but spend the day among the lesser known Missions and understand the origin of a culture that is now neither Spanish nor Indian, but both.

TOTAL 62/80

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near Johnson City, Texas.
Visited: February 24, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 160 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website; LBJ State Historic Park Website

Texas LonghornsWHAT IS IT?
Two sites located 14 miles apart in the rural Texas hill country that tell the life story of our 36th president, Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Johnson City portion includes his boyhood home and commemorates the 19th-century Texas ranching industry. The second section includes LBJ’s Birthplace, his Texas White House Complex, his working cattle ranch and his gravesite.

BEAUTY (6/10)
While not breathtakingly beautiful, one can see why LBJ found peace and comfort at his Ranch. This is the landscape of rural Texas. It looks exactly like you think it does: hilly, intermittently brown and green, dotted with cattle and tumbleweed. Sing a few bars of Home on the Range and a vision of LBJ’s Ranch will emerge in your mind.

The Johnson City portion of the NHP is a living history farm, complete with costumed interpreters going about their daily chores. We walked into Sam Ealy Johnson Sr.’s cabin just as its caretakers were about to enjoy the lunch they had prepared over the open hearth. The smell of fresh bread and pie and the glow of the embers turned the historical structure into a cozy home and gave us a feeling of warmth that would come in handy as we toured the barns and other buildings on the farm.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (6/10)
While LBJ’s name adorns the Park, the Site goes beyond the life and times of our 36th president, detailing and commemorating the history of American cattle ranching and life on the Texas frontier.

The Johnson City District’s focus is on the legendary cattle driving lifestyle of 19th-century Texas, the history immortalized in great westerns like Red River, Lonesome Dove and Rawhide. The restored buildings on LBJ’s grandfather’s open range cattle ranch just feel like Texas.

LBJ’s working ranch, cars, show barn, one-room schoolhouse, and birthplace are all preserved in the LBJ Ranch District. LBJ’s final resting place is in his family’s traditional cemetery, on Site and situated along the gentle Pedernales River. He passed away in 1973, just 4 years after leaving office. He spent those four years in the Texas White House, watching over the Park’s establishment (and even giving tours), driving around the grounds in his convertible Lincoln Continentals, relaxing and growing his hair long.

You can see the Texas White House from the outside but tours are not permitted. Lady Bird Johnson still lives in the property. She is 93 years old.

CROWDS (7/10)
The small number of visitors at the Johnson City portion of the Site meant that we had room to wander the farm and a personal tour of his Boyhood Home.

We found out where everyone was as we searched for a parking space at the LBJ State Park and Historic Site, which houses the Ranch District of the NHP. Most of the seats in the theatre were full and some of the bookstore’s aisles were a bit snug. There were few children. The median age of visitors appeared to be around 55.

We had no trouble securing two seats on the next bus tour and spent the following hour and a half with a pleasant set of people.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)
Johnson City is located 45 miles west of Austin, Texas along U.S. Route 290. Both portions of the Park are just off 290. The LBJ ranch is 14 miles directly west of the Johnson City district. The quaint and well touristed town of Fredericksburg, Texas is just 16 miles west of the Ranch. Fredericksburg is home to the popular Adm. Nimitz National Museum of the Pacific War and many German restaurants. If Weiner schnitzel and knockwurst is not your thing, the nearby town of Llano stakes its claim as the center of the Texas BBQ universe.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
Nothing short of a definitive collection of LBJ-related books, a few of them are even signed by the author. Good or bad, if it has been written about LBJ and in print, it is probably here. The LBJ NHP bookstore is terrific. All the shelves are thickly stacked with books; there is no filler. Sections cover Texas history, cowboys, first ladies, local cookbooks, the 60’s and Vietnam.

Vietnam and LBJ-Related BooksThere are over two dozen books that deal with the Presidency in general as well as biographies of nearly every American president. Michael was interested in the James A. Garfield bio but it is not the right time. There are more George Bush books here than in his own Presidential Library.

The store also pays homage to Lady Bird Johnson, selling packets of wildflower seeds, floral stationary and quilting kits. The Bookstore also includes suggestion cards from Rangers if you are unsure about what to buy. Whenever we encounter a bookstore of such caliber, we know that our Museum experience will be carefully researched, knowledgeable and substantive. We appreciate the careful thought that went into shelving the stacks.

COSTS (3/5)
The Johnson City part of LBJ NHP is free.

LBJ’s birthplace and working ranch must be seen via an NPS narrated bus tour. This one hour and twenty minute guided tour costs $6 per person.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
A smiling Ranger helped us plan our day at the Johnson City Visitor Center. Since it was a drizzly chilly morning, she recommended we spend some time in the VC to warm up, then try to time our walk through the farm to coincide with a tour of the Boyhood Home. We were escorted through the Boyhood Home by another Ranger, whom we saw at the Bookstore later that day.

LBJ’s Ranch was sufficiently staffed as well. It was hard to tell who was who in the VC and Bookstore (NPS Ranger? State Park employee? Volunteer?) but we never got lost and always had someone to ask if we had a question. Our bus tour was narrated by a young Ranger from southeastern Pa.

TOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
There is a wide assortment of learning experiences to enjoy at LBJ NHP, all well done and enjoyable. You could be here for an entire day. We were and still could not see everything.

LBJ’s BirthplaceThe Johnson City Visitor Center recounts the political life of LBJ in a more comprehensive way than his Presidential Library and Museum in Austin. Two films show every half hour, one on LBJ’s political life and one on Lady Bird. A self-guided walking trail leads you to the Boyhood home and around the historical cattle ranch.

Guided tours of the Boyhood home are given as staffing permits (ours was terrific) and there are costumed interpreters ready to answer questions at the Ranch. Displays at the Ranch’s exhibit center go through the history of Texas cattle drives. And all that is free! Thus far, no National Park Site has offered more tours at such a high level for no cost than the Johnson City District of LBJ NHP.

The most wonderful class provided at the Site is the film shown at the LBJ Ranch District Visitor Center. See the film before you go on the bus tour. The film is a guided tour of the ranch done by LBJ himself. It is touching, tragic and very personal.

Visitors hear more of LBJ during segments of the guided bus tour. The bus tour combines a scripted narration with segments from an audio tape which can be purchased in the Bookstore. Stories told by Johnson and members of his family coincide with where they took place on the Ranch. We listened to LBJ laugh about the practical jokes he played on members of his Cabinet as we admired his collection of cars and his daughter ruefully admit to ruining an ambassador’s visit by fishing the stocked pond dry.

We rode through the Ranch stopping at LBJ’s Birthplace, which he renovated and used as a guesthouse, his final resting place in the family cemetery, and the Show Barn, where Herefords are bred to look just like they did when Johnson was alive: shorter and stockier than current breeds. Day-old calves blinked and yawned as we admired them reminding us that this section of the Site was still a working ranch.

But wait, there is more. Attached to the LBJ Ranch VC is a new museum dedicated to the farming life in the Texas Hill country. We think this museum is a part of the LBJ State Park and Historic Site. It is free. We did not have time to go to the adjoining Sauer-Beckmann Farm (part of the LBJ State Park), a free Living History museum where costumed interpreters demonstrate the rural farming life of German immigrants circa 1915.

Day-Old CalfFUN (7/10)
All of the films we watched were superb. The guided tours of Johnson’s Boyhood Home combined with the bus tour of the Texas White House complex and Ranch painted a portrait of a complex individual who enjoyed so many simple things in life, nothing more than the Texas Hill Country where he was born and raised.

As the bus rolled through more rugged sections of the Ranch and back across the Pedernales River towards the parking lot, we learned one more thing about LBJ: his favorite song. Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head from the soundtrack of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid concluded the tour and left us both a little melancholy.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (8/10)
The LBJ NHP takes visitors through the complete life cycle of our 36th president who was an active participant in the formation of the park. Johnson opened his life and his lifestyle to the American public. But the appeal of this Site goes beyond the history of one man.

LBJ NHP is as Texas as it gets.

P.S. – Deer and antelope really do play here.

TOTAL 57/80

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Austin, Texas
Visited: February 23, 2005
NPS Site Visited: Not an NPS Site
Presidential Library Visted: 7 of 12
Local Website

WHAT IS IT?
The Presidential Library and Museum of our 36th president, Lyndon Baines Johnson.

BEAUTY (2/10)
The LBJ Library is an unbearably ugly eight-story travertine structure. It looks like a giant white version of the nightstand that budget hotels put between two double beds. The top floor juts out on all sides over the buildings first seven floors furthering the tabletop imagery.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (6/10)
LBJ presided over a singularly compelling period of American history, a time whose themes threateningly recur and whose battles are still being fought. The Museum successfully throws you back into the era but only analyzes it superficially. It is up to you to delve further.

CROWDS (6/10)
The crowds were large but evenly disbursed. We did not have to wait to use any of the interactive displays.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5)
LBJ’s Library is located along the eastern edge of the University of Texas campus near downtown Austin and in the shadow of Darrell Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. The Site is less than a ¼ mile from Exit 235B of Interstate 35. Parking is free. There are many signs but be careful. Austin traffic is dense; the town seems to have grown too fast.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
The Bookstore carries a large number of books written about LBJ, many of which have won the Pulitzer Prize. A remarkable number of authors have utilized the wealth of information documented at the LBJ Library. Because the Site is an academic magnet regarding 60’s research, most of the books for sale here have been autographed by their author. The bookstore’s emphasis is on the written word rather than presidential knickknacks.

COSTS (5/5)
The LBJ Museum is the only Presidential Library that does not charge an admission fee.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (2/5)
A few docents who aimed to help were situated at the front desk and throughout the Museum.

TOURS/CLASSES (7/10)
The exhibits begin at LBJ’s birth in small town hill country Texas. These sparingly informative floor-to-ceiling displays show events in LBJ’s life and are paired with a general world timeline and numerous black and white photos. Johnson’s great strength as a Senate leader is unfairly understated; we would have liked to learn more about the man pre-Presidency.

The Museum pathway leads you into a narrow corridor and the Site’s most powerful display the entire original hand-written note from Jacqueline Kennedy to LBJ after her husband’s assassination. The note is extremely moving. It is hard to think of anything else for the next hour or so. The portions of the Museum that discuss the Great Society and the War on Poverty are a blur. History has treated LBJ the same way, only remembering JFK to the detriment of Lyndon’s social crusade.

The exhibits detailing Johnson’s social programs, passage of the Voting Rights Acts and role in the Civil Rights struggle are placed in the back of the first floor, tucked away and forgotten by most tourists. The 1966-68 displays are out in the open along the left side and receive most of the traffic. Terse recaps recount the Vietnam War, the rioting American inner cities, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and the nightmare year of 1968.

There is not nearly enough space for these displays. Any academic distancing has already been lost because of the many tragic black and white photographs. It is hard to understand what happened to America during this disturbing time. LBJ did not know and the Museum does not make an attempt to justify its subject or explain the confounding years.

The explanation does come upstairs in the form of a traveling exhibit called “Signs of the Times: Life in the Swingin’ Sixties”. This tremendous and engaging display is a perfect companion piece to the LBJ Museum, exactly opposite in every way. It is colorful, interactive, exciting, rebellious, loud and joyful and a perfect explanation of the times that LBJ never understood.

Signs of the Times rarely mentions Johnson but is perhaps more vital than the rest of the Museum in understanding his Presidency’s successes and failures.

FUN (6/10)
Signs of the Times is F-U-N fun. All areas of pop culture are covered. We spent at least 20 minutes watching a truncated version of A Hard Day’s Night in the Mod Cinema Theater. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Dr. Strangelove, Dr. No and The Graduate were also being shown in the comfortable viewing room. Another room was decorated as a nightclub where a television set played loops of 60’s stand-up comics like Bill Cosby and Woody Allen. Had to keep it safe for the kids, we suppose. Interactive TV sets allowed us to watch snippets from The Smothers Brothers, Laugh-In, That Girl, Batman and many others. Other rooms were dedicated to Motown, Mod Music, Psychedelica, Pop Art, Literature and renegade sports heroes like Clyde Frazier and Joe Namath.

The LBJ Museum was drab and did not have the spirit of the vibrant Signs of the Times. The permanent Museum was a place of tragedy and sorrow. Even the animatronic Lyndon telling humorous west-Texas tall tales seemed profoundly sad.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
Go before the Signs of the Times exhibit leaves in August 2005 or hope that the Museum curators decide to keep it on permanent display.

TOTAL 51/80

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Natchez, Miss.
Visited: February 17, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 158 of 353
NPS Website

Melrose PlaceWHAT IS IT?
The National Park Service entry into the Natchez, Mississippi antebellum (pre-Civil War) home tourism industry. The Natchez NHP two tour-able Units are Melrose, an attorney’s lavish estate, and the William Johnson House. Johnson was a freed black man who worked as a barber.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The Melrose Estate is the Park’s centerpiece. The complex consists of nine buildings, the most impressive being the two-story Greek Revival mansion. Its four white pillars, red-bricked façade, green shutters and perfect symmetry are typical if not breathtaking. Most of the other Natchez mansions are more lavish and decidedly excessive.

Melrose’s interior is decorated primarily with original furniture, wall coverings and carpets. The Ranger informed us that the NPS bought the estate because its furnishings were authentic, in good condition and indicative of the time. The estate grounds are pleasant especially when the flowers are in bloom. Melrose was a large house and not a working plantation.

The William Johnson House had not yet opened when we visited. We tried to peek in the windows, but they were covered with newspaper; the buildings grand opening was in just a few days and nobody was allowed a sneak preview. The House occupies a half a block in downtown Natchez. Its two-story red brick exterior distinguishes it none from the town’s other constructions.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10)
Natchez, Miss. was spared U.S. Grant’s rage as he bypassed it on his way to the integral town of Vicksburg. As a result, the town has become an intact example of the glorious and elegant mansions and city centers of the old South. Natchez is the western equivalent to Savannah, Georgia. Natchez holds a “pilgrimage” every year where tourists come back to old Natchez and tour the antebellum homes.

At Natchez NHP, the life and small circle of friends of Melrose owner, John T. McMurran, takes precedent. The Park aims to show a normal monied lifestyle in pre-war Mississippi. Even though the Site purports to be the first NPS to deal with slavery, the retelling of the lives of those who worked here is a low priority.

The most interesting part of the Natchez NHP was McMurran’s background. He was a northern attorney, born in Pennsylvania. In fact, the Park Ranger insisted, most of the rich land owners, lawyers and politicians in Natchez (and thus, the South) were recently transplanted from the North, hoping to make an easy dollar. Michael was blown away by this revelation and pestered the Ranger with slavery/Civil War related philosophical questions during the entire tour.

CROWDS (7/10)
We took the Melrose tour with six other tourists. We were the only ones under the age of 60. They all peppered the Ranger with furnishing and construction related questions. They had all either been on privately-run Natchez house tours or had stayed in a refurbished bed and breakfast. The Ranger clarified a few of the misconceptions perpetrated by the other tour guides. Their questions were not things we would have thought to ask.

Restorative WorkEASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
Natchez, Mississippi is located along the southern portion of the Mississippi River and is not particularly close to anything. Alexandria, La. is about 75 miles due west, Baton Rouge, La. is 90 miles to the south, Vicksburg, Miss. is 75 miles due north and Jackson, Miss. is 115 to the northeast along a scenic portion the Natchez Trace Parkway. The closest the Interstates get to Natchez is through the aforementioned cities. If you want to get here, you need to make your own personal pilgrimage. No heavily trafficked roads run through the old town, thus ensuring its historical essence and charm.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5)
The Site’s bookstore is located on the first floor of the building that was once served as the Mansion’s kitchen. The selection includes a number of books about William Johnson, the freed black barber of Natchez. Nonetheless, there are just as many Natchez Historic Homes coffee table books for sale than total titles regarding slavery and African American history.

COSTS (2/5)
Tours of Melrose leave hourly and cost $8 per person. Cash only. The National Parks Pass provides no discount.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5)
Natchez NHP offers Ranger-led tours of Melrose every hour on the hour. Our Ranger answered a wealth of questions from all eight people on her tour.

TOURS/CLASSES (6/10)
We enjoyed our tour of Melrose. The Ranger had an extensive knowledge on a wealth of the Park’s wide range of subjects. In successive questions, she discussed the in-depth roots of the Civil War, Melrose owner John T. McMurran’s confusing genealogy and the methods for restoring antebellum floorings.

We wished that her script would have included more discussion of slavery at Melrose. She told us a few times that the gentile estate owners sequestered the slaves in specific parts of the house. The result was that both guests and the McMurran family often forgot that slaves lived and labored in their midst. We fear that slavery’s memory enjoys the same fate on the NPS tour, out of sight, out of mind.

FUN (5/10)
If slavery were the tour’s focus, who would want to come? It is easy to choose to forget about the ugly past, especially when there are dozens of other splendorous Natchez houses offering guilt-free tours. But the reality of slavery persists even while learning ad nauseum about where the beds were purchased and which type of wood and gold leaf was used in the construction.

At least on the NPS tour you know you are going to get an informed and educated answer when you venture into the slavery questions.

It was always easy for us two Northerners to dismiss slavery as a Southern scourge. Melrose makes this distinction impossible. The owner was from Pennsylvania, of all places. Most of Natchez was from the North. The town and its Northerner slave owners even supported the Union Civil War effort. That is the material reason that Grant did not destroy Natchez, the town was friendly to him. Ironically, Natchez exists today as an idealized antebellum Southern town because was at its essence a Northern enclave.

And yes, the Natchez residents continued to own slaves while simultaneously supporting the Union.

The more you learn about the Civil War and slavery, the more complicated they get. Natchez NHP was an eye-opener, but it was not exactly fun.

BlossomsWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (5/10)
If you enjoy tours of antebellum Southern mansions, then Natchez is the place to be. Melrose is among the town’s cheaper tours, the Rangers are extremely knowledgeable and the house is in terrific condition. However, if we do not ever see another antebellum Southern home interior, we think we will be fine.

TOTAL 45/80

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Vicksburg, Miss.
Visited: February 17, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 157 of 353

NPS Website; Local Website

Monument WayWHAT IS IT?
Site of Union Army’s May 18, 1863 to July 4, 1863 siege. The South’s surrender of Vicksburg gave the Union forces complete control of the Mississippi River.

BEAUTY (4/10)
Vicksburg NMP is shaped like the number 7 and contains over 1,700 acres. This shape follows the city’s high ground, contains miles of Confederate and Union earthworks and is generally narrow. The Park’s svelte character accentuates the innumerable Civil War Monuments. The remembrances are everywhere ranging from the grandiose neo-classical excess of the Illinois Memorial, replete with an open sunroof and a gold-plated eagle, to the subtle wrought iron intertwined circles of the Kansas Monument.

The most impressive monument to the Battle is actual U.S.S. Cairo ironclad gunboat, sunk in one of Grant’s preemptive raids in December of 1862 and dredged up from the bottom of the Mississippi River in the 1960’s. The boat sits under a huge white canopy fully intact, looking much as it did just prior to its demise. Displays in the nearby museum showcase items found during the salvage.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (9/10)
The Confederate forces surrendered Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, just a day after the Southern defeat over 1,000 miles to the northeast at Gettysburg. These are often considered the two most important battles of the Civil War.

While the Northern victory at Gettysburg was a turning point in the eastern theater of battle, their triumph in the west at Vicksburg was a fait accompli. The War’s western turning point had occurred a year and a half prior at Fort Donelson. Since then Grant had methodically pushed down the rivers into the South scoring many decisive victories.

U.S. GrantVicksburg was the last Southern stronghold in the west. Perched along a narrow stretch of the Mississippi, it was dubbed the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy”. After a few failed amphibious assaults, Grant bypassed Vicksburg, landing south of the town and defeating the Rebels at Port Gibson on May 1.

The Federals marched eastward to Jackson, Miss. taking the town on May 14, and then proceeded back to Vicksburg where they would besiege the town four days later. For 46 days, Grant bombarded the city with constant cannon fire. Town residents and Confederate soldiers built underground shelters and were reduced to eating rodents; neither food nor artillery could break the Northern lines.

Without any means of retaliation and further survival, the South’s capitulation occurred on the 4th of July, Independence Day; a holiday that many Mississippians had refused to celebrate until World War II because it coincided with Vicksburg.

CROWDS (6/10)
The Park is viewed primarily via a 16-mile auto tour route. The road is winding and isolated from Vicksburg proper. Parking might get tight along the route during the Park’s busier seasons, but we had no problem viewing whichever monuments we desired; there are enough for everyone.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (4/5)
The Vicksburg NMP entrance is located just off Exit 4 of Interstate 20. From every direction the route to the Battlefield is well marked. Vicksburg is a modestly sized located 45 minutes west from the State Capitol, Jackson, along Interstate 20.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5)
The bookstore carries at least four books titled Vicksburg that ALSO have “siege” in the title. They are Vicksburg: Southern Stories of the Siege; Vicksburg: 47 Days of Siege; Vicksburg: Southern City Under Siege and Vicksburg: A City Under Siege. There are plenty more books regarding the battle itself including the Confederate Roll of Honor which is just a listing of every Southern soldier who died here and the intriguingly titled My Cave Life in Vicksburg.

U.S.S. CairoThere is a section of books about Civil War Generals, many of whom did not even fight here and a section about Women and the Civil War. It is all here. If you have been desiring a frosted and embossed Vicksburg NMP Christmas tree ornament, you know where to come.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $5 per car or free with your National Parks Pass.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (3/5)
They were there but many of our questions were left either unanswered or accompanied with a reference to where we could find a response. We probably would have been better off asking one of the many Civil War buffs touring the grounds.

TOURS/CLASSES (4/10)
The introductory film is old, long and not so good. Since the Battle was not a traditional battle, the film tells the story with many abstract conceits. The camera zooms in and out of a man painting watercolors of the Mississippi while the viewer is asked to become the steadfast old river meandering its way into the Gulf. We wished we had meandered our way out of the theater. The film taught us nothing.

The auto tour is nice and the short explanations on the Park pamphlet help to fill in what exactly happened during the fight. The Museum holds original objects and does a much better job than the film in explaining Vicksburg especially in its detailing of the horrors endured by the besieged Southerners.

The U.S.S. Cairo Museum, located halfway through the driving tour near the National Cemetery, is a must-see. The personal objects, the ship itself and the salvaging method are fascinating.

Echo Ensues Inside Illinois MemorialFUN (5/10)

Your amount of fun at Vicksburg NMP is directly proportional to your interest in the Civil War. Kids might have fun at the U.S.S. Cairo but the rest of the auto tour is bound to be a snoozer. There are not any hiking trails through the Park, but we did see a few people walking along the auto tour road. We enjoyed Vicksburg NMP mostly because of Vicksburg’s charming downtown. Before, during and after the auto tour we sipped excellent, strong black coffee laced with a tad of Southern Pecan flavoring at the Chocolate Derby on Washington Street.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (6/10)
History places Vicksburg alongside Gettysburg as seminal American moments. Does visiting the Site add anything more to your understanding of the siege? Of course. Even though the Mississippi River has completely changed its course, the high ground remains as it was in 1863, complete with lines of cannons. Even though old town center has been rebuilt, one can only imagine the streets lined with antebellum mansions.

TOTAL 49/80

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near Epps, La.
Visited: February 16, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 156 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website; Video Website

Imagined Drawing of Poverty PointWHAT IS IT?
Gigantic and elaborate prehistoric earthworks whose construction began in 1700 BC.

Despite the name and inclusion of Poverty Point NM and SHS on the published list of National Park Sites there are no federal facilities and it is not, by our account, actually a National Park Site. Confused? Us, too.

In the late 1980’s a Louisiana Congressman lobbied for Poverty Point to be a Park Site. Poverty Point was declared a National Monument in 1988; problem was that the Louisiana State Park Service had jurisdiction and did not want to give up the Site. So to date, it is a State Park, run by Louisiana with no federal help.

BEAUTY (6/10)
From the ground, Poverty Point is barely distinguishable from the rolling fields around it, until you look a little closer and realize the different shades of grass form a pattern of concentric crescents stretching back to a large hill, which is, upon further inspection, a mound built in the shape of a bird.

These six giant concentric crescents were once six-foot high artificial embankments until 19th-century plowing leveled them out again. The ends of the outermost crescent are nearly three-quarters of a mile apart. If the embankments had been extended to form a complete circle, this distance would roughly be the outermost circle’s diameter.

The eagle effigy, located in the center of outside half-circle’s edge is 70 feet high and measures 640 feet from wing to wing and 710 feet from head to tail. Its immensity is now hidden by woodland growth; it looks like an anonymous hill.

A bird’s eye view would show Poverty Point in all of its geometric perfection. Unfortunately, the Observation Tower is outdated and in need of repair. It was closed during our visit.

Different Color Grass = Former Embankments HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (8/10)
Poverty Point stakes a claim as the oldest known city in the United States. It is hard to argue with the evidence. Everything about the Site is astounding: the age, size and geometric exactitude. You are left with a profound sense of wonderment. Who were these people? The time coincides with Hammurabi’s Babylon, Tutankhamen’s Egypt, and the England of Stonehenge. The earthworks at Poverty Point show a civilization just as advanced. The excellent Museum is filled with artifacts unearthed at the site. Poverty Point is deservedly on the UNESCO shortlist for World Heritage Sites.

CROWDS (6/10)
We were alone. There were no crowds to affect us in any way.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
Poverty Point NM and SHS is a relatively short distance from Interstate 20, about 15 miles. Those 15 miles will take at least a half-hour to traverse. Take the Delhi Exit; travel north on Louisiana Route 17, then east on LA 134 and then north on LA 577. Signs are few and far between.

Do not approach the Site from U.S. Route 65 north of Tallulah. The Rand McNally shows a road, LA 580, that travels right to the Site. There may be a road, but for the 15 or so miles from U.S. 65 to Poverty Point, the road is one lane and extremely bumpy. It passes mostly duck hunting camps and is not made for delicate Nissan Altimas.

At the Site itself, a one-lane road weaves through the embankments and takes you to the base of the eagle effigy.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (2/5)
Not much for sale, but the thick Poverty Point booklet you receive free with admission is more than enough.

COSTS (4/5)
$2 per adult. The Anthropological Study Series #7 booklet on Poverty Point and a 20-minute film comes with the price of admission.

Objects Found at the SiteRANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5)
The woman who greeted us explained why Poverty Point wasn’t really a National Monument and still convinced us to stay with her humor, knowledge, and that booklet! She sent us in to watch the film and two other volunteers were in her place when we emerged.

TOURS/CLASSES (8/10)
The introductory film and the Site Museum were both excellent, as is the 36-page Anthropological Study Series book. The video, which originally aired on Louisiana Public Television, utilizes snazzy 3-D computer graphics that make these earthwork wonders more understandable.

The highlight of the Museum is its extensive collective of artifacts unearthed at the monument. Fertility sculptures, decorated objects, molded clay balls used for cooking and hundreds of spear points. We had a constant sense of astonishment and admiration at the 3,000-year-old culture revealed at Poverty Point.

FUN (8/10)
We were a little disappointed when we arrived at Poverty Point and found out it was not a National Park Site. It had taken us about an hour and a half to get there from Vicksburg, Miss. where we were staying the night. This was going to be a long detour.

Our disappointment heightened when we saw no cars in the parking lot, a shut down observation tower, no apparent evidence of earthworks, a $2 a person entrance fee and no National Park Passport stamp. How long would we be here, do we even want to go into the Visitor Center?

Thank heavens we went in. The State Park Service Ranger quickly drew us into the incredible artifacts that had escaped our anger-clouded eyes. We soon understood that we were at one of the more amazing and mysterious places in North America. We had a great time letting our imagination go free because of the wonderful background information and hard evidence provided at the Visitor Center/Museum.

Arrowheads on DisplayWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (7/10)
Poverty Point has been our favorite earthwork-related Native American Site partly because it is so much older than Ocmulgee and Hopewell Culture. The educational opportunities are stellar; this Site is an unknown world wonder. The Site’s main deterrent is its inaccessibility. northeastern rural Louisiana is not an A-list tourist destination.

Another is the human destruction that the Site has undergone. If you expect to see the Pyramids of Giza at Poverty Point, you will be let down; farmers destroyed much of this old city as they leveled the land to plow. Had the ancient people of Poverty Point had stone to build their cities, this Site may have looked similar to the towering temples of Central and South America.

TOTAL 56/80

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Baldwyn, Miss. and Tupelo, Miss.
Visited: February 15, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 154 and 155 of 353
NPS Brices Cross Roads Website; NPS Tupelo Website

Tupelo or Brices?WHAT IS IT?
Two tiny Civil War-related National Park Sites commemorating two debatable Confederate victories due largely to the skill of Confederate cavalryman Nathan Bedford Forrest.

BEAUTY (3/10)
Gab thinks that these two Parks are what Battlefield Sites should be: a placard explaining the fight and one memorial to honor those who served. They both are only one acre in size, a complete contrast to most other Civil War sites.

The Monuments at both Sites are identical except for the engravings commemorating the Battle. They are both topped with the same eagle. The NPS clearly got a two-for-one deal.

The Tupelo NB acre is located on Main Street, a four lane commercial avenue that cuts through the center of town. Across from the simple granite memorial is a Pizza Hut and a check-cashing store. The Tupelo NB is often named the most endangered Civil War Battlefield Site, whatever that means.

The Brices Cross Roads NBS acre is located, of course, at a rural Mississippi highway crossroads. Local residents have acquired much of the actual Battlefield site and have created a few hiking trails and interpretive panels on the grounds. The same residents have also built a non-affiliated Brices Cross Roads Visitor Center that is well done, but not included in this review because it is not technically a National Park Site.

HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (4/10)
The National Park Service seems to have wiped its hands clean of these two Battlefield Sites. There is no updated National Parks Brochure, no Visitor Center – the Tupelo Natchez Trace VC is supposed fill this role but has nothing dedicated to the Battles – and only two acres of parkland. These Sites’ omission from the NPS eye is especially striking given the tremendous Museums afforded to other Civil War parks.

Some might also argue that Confederate victories still get the federal short shrift. We think the reason is Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Born an impoverished farm boy, Forrest, among other entrepreneurial efforts, traded slaves in Memphis and became rich. He still entered the Confederate Army as a private. He swiftly rose up the ranks to General, becoming the only person in either army to achieve this heady climb. By most accounts, he was the greatest of all Confederate fighters, military tacticians and cavalrymen. Tupelo and Brices Cross Roads are among his most daring hours and evidence of his strategic brilliance.

In 1877, Forrest also became the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. Forrest, the cult that has recently developed to venerate him and the NPS’s complete disregard of such an integral and, at the same time, representative Southern figure are much more interesting than the Battles themselves. Tupelo and Brices Cross Roads may contain esoteric evidence of strategic genius but they were largely inconsequential to the overall southern War effort. The fights both occurred late in the War, in 1864, represented no military gains and did not help the South’s already dim prospects.

NBR SketchCROWDS (6/10)
The two Parks are on a combined two acres. There is really nothing to see. If other people had been there, they may have cramped us in the five minutes it takes to read the panel and look at the monument.

EASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)
The Tupelo NB acre is easy to find, located on Main Street in downtown Tupelo. We got lost three times trying the find the Brices Cross Roads NBS acre. There are no brown NPS signs that lead you to the Site. In addition, rural Mississippi back roads are not marked well. We do not remember how we finally found the place. Our advice is to go first to the Baldwyn Brices Cross Roads VC, located just off U.S. Route 45 about 15 miles north of Tupelo. Ask them for directions.

CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (1/5)
The Tupelo Natchez Trace VC bookstore had a few books regarding the Battles. If you are itching for Nathan Bedford Forrest books the NPS Sites at Stones River NB, Shiloh NMP, the Corinth Interpretive Center, Vicksburg NMP and Fort Donelson NB have more than enough.

If you want cute and kitschy memorabilia about the KKK’s first Grand Dragon, the independently run Brices Cross Roads VC in Baldwyn is the place to go. Included in their stock are numbered pen and ink Forrest sketches, figurines and T-shirts emblazoned with his visage and infamous quotes. We were tempted to buy a pen that cycled through these quotes when the clicker is depressed. The sayings included “War means fighting and fighting means killing.” and “get there first with the most men”.

COSTS (4/5)
They are both free, but you get nothing. Entry into the Baldwyn VC is $3 per person; the National Parks Passport is, of course, not valid here.

RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (1/5)
There are no National Park Rangers related to these two Sites.

TOURS/CLASSES (1/10)
The NPS offers only an exhibit panel at both Sites. The Brices Cross Roads Visitor Center, not related in any way with the Park Service, has a nice museum, a video narrated by Shelby Foote and an extremely knowledgeable woman working behind the desk. They are not constrained by any federal guidelines in interpreting the controversial Forrest.

The Most Endangered BattlefieldFUN (3/10)
Getting lost on the unmarked back roads of Mississippi is NOT fun.

Finding a book you have been wanting to purchase $8 cheaper than retail at the Brices Cross Roads VC is pretty fun. Confederates in the Attic is a must read for this leg of the journey.

Spending a total of ten minutes at two NPS Civil War sites is tremendous fun.

WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (3/10)
You will most likely drive past the Tupelo NB on your way to Tupelo’s more famous attraction, the birthplace of Elvis Presley. You will most likely never find yourself at the Brices Cross Roads crossroad. Depending on how you feel about Nathan Bedford Forrest, these federally funded monuments are either a wasted two acres or important historical tributes to one of America’s most contentious figures. We fall somewhere in between.

TOTAL 28/80

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