Show Thumbnails

Show Captions

Forget presidential myths about cherry trees and log cabin birthplaces, our leaders’ lives were much more complicated — and intriguing, says Thomas Flagel, author of The History Buff’s Guide to the Presidents (Cumberland House, $16.99). “When we look beyond the top one or two things we know about them, we understand them better. We can’t make villains or heroes of these guys — like most humans they’re somewhere in the middle.” He shares surprising presidential history sites with Larry Bleiberg for USA TODAY.

Teapot Dome

Natrona County, Wyo.

Generally considered one of the worst presidents, Warren G. Harding got into trouble when his Secretary of the Interior took bribes for selling leases in Wyoming’s Salt Creek oil fields. Those who drive the state’s Black Gold Byway north of Casper will be struck by the landscape. “It’s barren and beautiful, and also a site of terrific corruption,” Flagel says. 307-777-7697;

United First Parish Church

Quincy, Mass.

Pay your respects to founding father John Adams, and his son John Quincy Adams, at the parish church where the two former presidents are buried next to their wives. “They are the quintessential story of the power of education, and the rise of the middle class in the United States. When someone visits this unadorned church and the simple tombs, you get an idea of how humble these people were,” Flagel says.  617-773-0062;

Minidoka National Historic Site


Franklin Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of more than 100,000 ethnic Japanese during World War II remains one of the most controversial actions of any president, Flagel says. “This place epitomizes what a nation can do when it’s afraid.” The story is movingly told at this remote relocation camp, once home to 10,000 evacuees. 208-933-4100;

James K. Polk Home

Columbia, Tenn.

Our 11th president is often overlooked, but had a huge impact, Flagel says. He made the country a coast-to-coast nation, annexing Texas, and adding the Southwest and California after war with Mexico. “In one four-year term, he acquired more land than the total space of England, France, Germany and Spain combined.” His home exhibits artifacts from his term. 931-388-2354;

Horseshoe Bend National Military Park


Rough-and-tumble Andrew Jackson burnished his reputation at this battlefield, winning a bloody victory over Creek Indians in 1814 in what has been called the largest loss of Indian life in a single engagement. “He was extremely aggressive, and this is the site that epitomizes this behavior, and so well tells the story of the Native American,” Flagel says. 256-234-7111;

Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza


Flagel says it wasn’t until he saw the site of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that he finally understood the crime. Visiting the sniper’s nest and the spot where Kennedy was struck let him picture how the event unfolded. “It was an easy shot. Once we walk on the very grounds where things transpired we understand it on a whole new level,” he says. 214-747-6660;

Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

West Branch, Iowa

While Herbert Hoover is often blamed for the Great Depression, Flagel thinks he gets a bad rap. “When one sees the house of his birth, it’s nothing short of shocking how small and simple it was. He has been turned into a scapegoat … he was blamed for something he did not create.” 319-643-2541;

Eisenhower National Historic Site

Gettysburg, Pa.

Flagel can’t explain why the WWII commander chose a home in a town tied to the continent’s bloodiest conflict. “He had seen the worst in human existence and then he goes to a battlefield to find solace,” he says. But the home, adjacent to the Civil War site, is undeniably peaceful, with sweeping mountain views. “It’s a gorgeous place.” 717-338-9114;

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Medora, N.D.

The future 26th president was in poor health when he came west in 1887 to hunt bison, and then returned the next year to mend a broken heart when his wife and mother died on the same day. His exposure to the rugged badlands and wide open plains, now preserved at this site, fueled his appreciation of the wild, later seen in his establishment of parks and monuments. 701-623-4730;

Lincoln’s New Salem State Historic Site

Petersburg, Ill.

As a young man, Abraham Lincoln educated himself through voracious reading when he lived in this tiny village.  “Those of us who admire Lincoln think of his intellect, and to me he developed all of that in New Salem,” Flagel says. The living history site near Springfield recreates the frontier setting. 217-632-4000;

Read or Share this story: