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Budget cuts threaten presidential museums

North Carolina’s Polk site could close, scale back

The James K. Polk museum in Pineville, N.C., had 16,000 visitors last year, including thousands of third-graders on field trips from Charlotte area schools.

Jeffrey Collins/Associated Press

The James K. Polk museum in Pineville, N.C., had 16,000 visitors last year, including thousands of third-graders on field trips from Charlotte area schools.

PINEVILLE, N.C. — Supporters of a North Carolina museum honoring James K. Polk, America’s 11th president, are learning a lesson that’s hitting home at other monuments to lesser-known US leaders: Government spending on their memorial sites is declining, so private money and grants had better be found quickly.

The small museum on the land where Polk was born is the target of Republican state lawmakers looking for budget cuts.

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Similar problems are besetting other sites that honor some of the presidents least likely to make historians’ top 10 list. Ohio has been cutting funds for state-run museums honoring Rutherford B. Hayes, Warren G. Harding, and Ulysses Grant.

The North Carolina budget proposal initially removed nearly all the $110,000 needed each year to run the Polk museum, meaning it would close for all but a few days a year. Now, the House and Senate are trying to reach a compromise that makes some cuts, with hopes that private gifts or grants could make up the difference.

However, even the compromise might be a fatal blow to the Polk site, said Ben Pelton, treasurer of the Polk Memorial Support Fund, which has also morphed into a group called Keep Polk Open.

‘‘We are not structured to raise money. We’re a support group. How are we going to find $110,000 a year quickly?’’ Pelton said. ‘‘How can the state shut down the birthplace of a president? How many other states have one of those?’’

Just 21 states can claim a presidential birthplace. More than half of those birthplaces are in four states: Virginia, Ohio, New York, and Massachusetts. Presidential birthplaces and museums are a patchwork of national historic sites, state-run facilities, and private museums. Many have cut back the days and hours they are open. For lesser known presidents like Franklin Pierce, Chester Arthur, or Martin Van Buren, tourists have to visit during the summer because they aren’t open for most of the year.

The state-owned President James K. Polk State Historic Site in Pineville includes 21 of the 150 acres that Polk’s parents owned, farmed, and lived on when he was born in 1795.

The Polk site had 16,100 visitors last year, including more than 2,800 third-graders on field trips from Charlotte areas schools. The museum includes a short film on the president who went to war with Mexico and cut a deal with Great Britain over the Pacific Northwest that led to America stretching from sea to shining sea — a man many historians consider the country’s most successful one-term president.

Polk’s family moved from North Carolina when he was 11, and he is much better known as a Tennessean. The federal site dedicated to Polk is at his adult home in Columbia, Tenn. That location also has Polk’s presidential papers.

Ohio, home to seven presidents, has cut funding to its presidential museums. The museum is now open just five days a week and only in the afternoon, said Sherry Hall, site manager for the Harding site.

Harding is a tough president to sell. His administration was tainted by the Teapot Dome oil bribery scandal and several of his appointees went to jail. But he also supported women’s right to vote and advocated for educational and economic opportunities for blacks.

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