A political field trip through time

by Mike Parks

The Political Conventions exhibit at the President James K. Polk Historic Site near south Charlotte will run through the November election. Find the site at 12031 Lancaster Hwy. in Pineville. Mike Parks/SCW photo

It may not be the same as seeing the president or other political leaders this September in uptown Charlotte, but local elementary kids are getting a taste of what it would be like to take part in a convention thanks to the President James K. Polk State Historic Site right down the road in Pineville.

The museum recently opened its new Political Conventions exhibit, which shows artifacts and gives detailed information about the role of conventions in American government and how they’ve changed since Polk’s time in the mid 1800s to now, when the Democratic National Convention will be held this Labor Day weekend in Charlotte. Courtney Rounds, a historic interpreter at the historic site, hopes kids who come see the exhibit will leave with a greater knowledge of the importance of conventions through time and politics in general.

“I want them to have a better understanding of how elections work and to be able to start appreciating the process,” Rounds said.

Of course, the candidates for president will be well known by the time this year’s conventions arrive. But that wasn’t always the case, Rounds tells students.

Take then-soon-to-be President Polk, for example.

When Polk came to the Democratic Party convention in 1844, he wasn’t expected to be the party’s nominee. The likely favorite was Martin Van Buren, who had been the country’s eighth president. But Van Buren didn’t want to annex Texas into the country, because it would throw off the balance of slave-holding states in the union, which cost him the 178 votes needed to win the nomination.

To avoid a deadlock at the convention and seeking a compromise candidate, the delegates turned to Polk, the former speaker of the house and Tennessee governor. He then went on to defeat Whig candidate Henry Clay, who also opposed admitting Texas into the country and became the 11th president.

Mike Parks/SCW photo

At the historic site, people can see a number of artifacts from Polk’s life. The museum and grounds sit on some 20 acres of land off Lancaster Highway that used to belong to the president’s father. Collectors, and the North Carolina Museum of History and Polk Memorial Support Fund, have helped shape and maintain the exhibits at the site. It’s one of the main field trips for third-grade classes in southern Mecklenburg, and a hot spot for home-schoolers.

And while most of the site is dedicated to Polk, since he lived there until he was around 11, the new conventions exhibit is very much about the history of the political process. Panels lining the wall explain the history of conventions, and how they have grown from small affairs to the nationally-celebrated events the country now has every four years. The exhibit includes campaign materials and buttons from recent elections, whether it’s President Jimmy Carter’s smiling mug saying “The Grin Will Win Again” from a large campaign button or a plain but pointed “Kennedy and Johnson” pin.

It’s free to attend the site, though donations are accepted. But for those who can’t get their kids out to Pineville, the museum will be coming to them.

Rounds and the historic site team are putting together a “traveling trunk” to start touring area schools with. The truck will include worksheets for students to do about presidential conventions and maps about where conventions have been throughout history showing how places like Chicago have had so many events because of how the country grew and transportation concerns. There will even be a class election, where students create ribbons, posters and buttons to campaign for a candidate and elect a president.

Say you want your kid to get even more of the Polk experience? The historic site has a number of camps this summer for cheap (see below).

Otherwise, call the site at 704-889-7145 or go online to www.polk.nchistoricsites.org, for more information.

Be the President For a Day
Kids ages 8 to 12
July 23, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Children will learn about the electoral process and the Polk campaign of 1844. Kids will nominate their vote for president and hold a mock election filled with speeches, campaign posters and slogans. Cost: $35

Mecklenburg County Settlers
Kids ages 8 to 12
July 30, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Children will experience life as an early pioneer of Mecklenburg County. Kids will learn about the early days of settlement in North Carolina and try their hand at land surveying, panning for gold, building a portion of a log cabin and preparing lunch over a campfire. Cost: $35

Young Artisans
Kids ages 8 to 12
Aug. 6, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Children will let their creative side take charge as they learn about various artistic mediums common in the 19th century. Kids will have an opportunity to create their own pottery, learn about period music, try their hand at quill writing, design their own tin punch decoration, learn about blacksmithing and more. Cost: $35 q

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