Boone history circles have been simmering for months, and they threaten to boil over Thursday night when the Boone County Historical Society holds its annual meeting.
The trouble started in October, when the Historical Society’s board of directors decided to close the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Birthplace (MDEB) for as long as two years in order to repair the dilapidated house and try to figure out a sustainable financial future for the site, where attendance has gradually dwindled over the years almost to nothing.
The decision brought a firestorm of protest from the lovers of Mamie, mostly native Boonites or longtime residents who consider themselves the faithful keepers of the flame and caretakers of the legacy of the wife of the man who defeated fascism in Europe and went on to become America’s 34th president.
To fight the closure and all other possible changes to the MDEB, the friends of Mamie were promptly mobilized by the scion of a prominent Boone family, George Eckstein, heir to the once venerable Boone business, Eckstein’s Jewelry. Eckstein organized the campaign to save the MDEB and enlisted the Mamiephiles, many of whom are former volunteers at the birthplace home and are people of considerable antiquity themselves.
Their battleplan: to wrest control of the MDEB from the Boone County Historical Society Board of Directors.
Much of the Eckstein group’s ammunition has been trained on Mara MacKay, executive director of the Historical Society, who came to the job in April 2016. So far, the friends of the MDEB have mounted a very successful Save-the-Mamie campaign. They persuaded the Boone City Council and the Boone County Board of Supervisors to zero out funding for the Historical Society, and they elicited letters in support of their cause from state lawmakers Sen. Jerry Behn (R-Boone) and Rep. Chip Baltimore (R-Boone).
Along with running the MDEB, the Historical Society uses the city and county funding to operate the Kate Shelley Park and Museum, the Hickory Grove School and the Boone History Center at 602 Story St. The loss of funding imperils the Society’s survival.
“It’s going to flatten us,” MacKay said. “We won’t have staff. We won’t be able to keep our doors open. This is our main operating budget.”
But the Eckstein camp speaks with local moral authority. Closing the MDEB is “simply wrong,” Baltimore said in a letter earlier this month to the Historical Society. “The closure of this local and national treasure is nothing short of tragic.”
“Times and people change,” Behn wrote. “History does not. We have an opportunity to maintain a unique historical attraction for Boone. Let’s not lose it.”
The heat on MacKay and the Boone County Historical Society Board of Directors was felt at the Dec. 18 meeting of the Boone City Council, which drew an audience so large that the council moved from its usual chambers to a larger meeting room in city hall.
MacKay described the meeting, at which the council voted to withhold the Society’s funding, as a “lynching,” with “ridicule” and “vicious accusations” hurled from the overflow audience sometimes taking an ugly turn.
It is fair to say the Iowa-Nice veneer has worn thin over the Mamie issue. The unpleasant tone is heard from local stalwarts like Kevin Miles, whose Boone factory makes grain thermometers. According to Miles, “We have someone in charge of the Society that has an ego and no common sense about what is presented to her,” and with that he stopped his longstanding donations to the Society.
“You are not from Boone,” Miles told MacKay in a Jan. 18 email, “so maybe you don’t understand how this town works, but you are heading down the wrong road if you think you can win this disagreement. You can’t, and I will do my best to make sure you don’t win it!”
Eckstein — his friends call him “King George” — similarly attributes part of the problem to MacKay’s outsider status and to the way she conducts the Society’s business.
“She doesn’t live in Boone,” Eckstein said. “She lives in Ames or Gilbert or someplace else.” MacKay also gives Eckstein and his followers “no input into what’s going on,” he said. “Zero. We can’t even find out when the annual meeting is. We’ve asked for mailing addresses of the membership. She refuses to give them to us. This is extremely secretive, and this whole thing didn’t have to be this way. This has all been created by the director.”
It is worth noting, as indicated on the Boone County Historical Society’s website, that the Society’s annual meeting is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 25 at 6 p.m. at the Boone History Museums at 602 Story St.
Remember the Mamie
To be sure, the problems at the MDEB long predate MacKay, who took on the Historical Society directorship in 2016 after moving with her two children to Iowa from Michigan. After little more than one month on the job, MacKay saw the partial collapse of the facade on the Boone History Center — formerly a Masonic Temple — and she spent much of her first year scrambling for grants to make the more than $200,000 in needed repairs.
With the facade crisis under control, MacKay turned her attention to the Mamie house, and there she found serious problems, from trip hazards inside and out to flood-borne mold damage in the basement, rotting porch steps and siding without, humidity-damaged artifacts within — some on loan from the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kan.
It wasn’t always like this. Mamie Doud was born at 718 Carroll St. in 1896. The Doud family moved to Cedar Rapids when Mamie was 9 months old and later onward to Colorado. She never lived in Boone again.
Although Mamie’s life in Boone was brief, she “never lost contact with her mother’s Boone family, the Carlsons,” according to the Boone History Museums. She regularly visited Boone between the 1940s and the 1960s and “continued to return to Boone, making her last trip in 1977, two years before her death.”
By the early 1970s, Mamie’s birth home had deteriorated. Historically minded townspeople pooled their funds and bought the house from the First Baptist Church. In 1975 the house at 718 Carroll St. was moved across the street to its present address at 709 Carroll St. After restoration work, it was opened June 22, 1980, as the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Birthplace. Bob Hope spoke at the dedication ceremony.
At the height of the birthplace’s popularity in the 1980s, “there were tea shops, curio shops and attractions all along Carroll Street.” From a peak of 12,000 visitors in 1980, the attendance declined steadily, and the tea shops were “long gone,” according to the Society’s history. The birth house attracted only 750 visitors in 2017.
The MDEB Foundation originally owned and operated the house, but staffing and maintaining it grew so costly that the Foundation sold the house for $1 to the Boone County Historical Society in 2006.
“I was the director when the birthplace was acquired by the Historical Society,” said Charles Irwin, executive director of the Boone County Historical Society from 1990 to 2012. “They were running into some financial difficulties and thought they could gain some greater efficiencies by associating themselves with an existing entity.”
The greater efficiency lay in no longer paying a full-time staff member to preside at the home. The MDEB Foundation Board of Directors dissolved itself after selling the house, although the Foundation itself was preserved intact as a legal entity in order to receive any grants or bequests.
According to figures provided by MacKay, the MDEB continued to bleed money during the 11 years of Historical Society ownership just as it was bleeding when the Foundation washed its hands of it in 2006. Average annual losses amount to almost $40,000, which adds up to more than $400,000 is red ink over 11 years.
Nevertheless, faced with the temporary closure of the site, former members of the MDEB Foundation Board of Directors, led by Eckstein, want the house back from the Historical Society. The lesson of their first 26 years of ownership was forgotten.
“We stand ready to fix everything over there,” Eckstein said. “We have the staff to run it, same staff that was there before. We can do the exterior repairs. We can raise the money to do any of this stuff. We can operate that place. Bingo. Bango. All they have to do is meet with us. For three months now, we’ve written letters. We’ve made phone calls. We’ve had them face to face, and all we’ve asked for is a meeting. They just don’t respond. The board doesn’t respond. The director doesn’t respond. We’ve got a problem, don’t we?”
According to MacKay, “Not one person from this group ever called and asked for an appointment with me to discuss matters reasonably.” They talk about working together to solve this problem, she said, but strangling the Historical Society of funding “doesn’t seem very collaborative to me.” Their effort “seems to be focused on only one outcome: do what we’ve always done or else hand over the MDEB.”
No less scandalous than the sheer fact of temporarily closing the MDEB, in the view of the Eckstein brigade, were the ideas the Historical Society was entertaining for turning the birthplace into a revenue source.
“I recommended to the board that we fix the facility and all its problems,” MacKay said, “with the idea that we open it as a vacation rental, so we can get revenue, and also as a museum. We would still do tours but have vacation rentals — unless a better idea surfaces.”
This proposed profanation of the MDEB shrine was a bridge too far for the frantic friends of Mamie. “Give it back! Give it back!” they cried, and their cries reached the ears of the Historical Society’s funders.
“There was talk that it would be a bed and breakfast. Well, that takes away the whole theme of the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Birthplace,” said 17-year Boone Mayor John Slight. “There’s a passionate group, a big group, that wants to see it stay open. They’ve got the volunteers. They’ve got the money. They’re passionate. They’re willing to take this thing over and make it go. We’re trying to get the two groups together, and it’s not happening right now, so until that happens, I think our council is more comfortable with just holding on without giving any funding until there’s some resolution.”
The county leadership agreed with the city fathers.
“We’ve been approached by a number of people,” said Boone County Board of Supervisors Chair Steve Duffy, in explaining the board’s unanimous decision to freeze the Historical Society’s funding. “We had a lot of people — and, I should say, very respectable people in the community. I personally know a lot of them — who have not only given a lot of financial support for various activities in this community but also their most valued thing, which is their time as volunteers, for many, many things in this county, so to hear these people, we can’t ignore that. As elected officials, we want to be a neutral in this thing, but we also have to listen to that.”
In between meetings, letters to the editor flew like mortars between the two camps.
“We can’t stay open on wishes and dreams,” wrote Janet Tait, the Boone County Historical Society’s interim president, in an October letter to the editor. “Slowing interest and lack of funds are what we face, and unfortunately the Birthplace has become a local victim of this sad reality as we don’t get enough visitors coming anymore to sustain the home as a museum.”
The Eckstein partisans were offended at the board’s action, taken without the advice and consent of the Eckstein partisans.
“No notification was given to society members or supporters of the birthplace museum that a discussion or vote to close Mamie Eisenhower Birthplace museum would be made,” said Becky Eckstein in a November letter, identifying herself as a lifetime member of the Boone County Historical Society. “Before the Society rushes to close a museum and treat those who disagree so shamefully, a sincere effort should be made to preserve it,” said Judy Russell of Boone in November. “Let’s work together with respect instead of the shameful treatment given those who don’t support the board’s closure decision.”
In the heat of this conflict, one could look to Irwin, the 22-year director of the Historical Society who oversaw the Society’s purchase of the MDEB. Irwin now teaches history at DMACC and might be expected to have a salient opinion, given his own extensive history with Boone history.
“I really have no comment in regards to that,” Irwin said Sunday. “I really don’t, because I really don’t want to get in the midst of that whole discussion.”
Neither does Irwin have any useful advice to offer on making the birthplace a sustainable asset and generating a modest revenue stream, for instance, as a vacation rental.
“I haven’t been involved in any of those discussions,” he said. “I have not been involved for five years. That’s really all I have to say in regards to the matter. I have to go and take care of something else.”
The Boone City Council has offered the services of Boone City Administrator Bill Skare to help moderate a meeting between the Historical Society and the Eckstein group, but the Society’s board and MacKay are not eager for another “lynching.” MacKay points out that the Ledges is closing for a year, yet no one is shouting about “trust broken” in that case.
“It was turned over to us because they had no money left to support an executive director or curator and a volunteer coordinator,” she said. “Well, that’s been an experiment for 11 years. It hasn’t worked out very well. So we’re looking at new options and evaluating the options, and we hope to get it running and opened up as soon as possible. We need the financial support of the community to do that. We need the financial support of this county to do that. So I encourage you to support the museums.”
MacKay is emphatic about the Society’s benevolent plans for the MDEB.
“We are not looking to destroy the home,” she said. “We are trying to save it. Does anyone consider that this conversation only began when we decided to do something that could attract and interest more people? Do you think that millennials, by and large, will go to this museum ‘as is’ if the numbers have been steadily dropping since before 2006? What happens to it once the current followers pass on, in 10-15 years, with too few young people and no changes or vision for the future?”
Attendees will take aim at these and similar questions at the annual meeting Thursday night of the Boone County Historical Society. Voting starts at 4 p.m. and the meeting at 6 p.m.
Sen. Behn said, “Times and people change. History does not.” But is he correct? Isn’t it rather the case that everything changes? That is the pain of finitude. When your personal history intertwines with your community’s history, risks to the one imply risks to the other. Maybe the friends of Mamie could take a lesson from the fate of the Bob Feller Museum, which opened in Van Meter in 1995 and closed in 2014 amid much heartache and bumps to local pride. The former museum now serves as the Van Meter City Hall and houses a charming Bob Feller Wing.