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What a difference 30 years makes

In the summer of 1981, Mom and Dad loaded up the family in the Dodge and took us for our first family trip east. 

Looking back, I think they went east to appease their eldest son's interest in history. 

We visited Washington, D. C. and then headed out to see George Washington's Mt. Vernon. 

A few old signs led us to the house. We parked up near the mansion and went up to the door where a guide let us in. 

There weren't that many people there. The tour was short and sweet, and we walked the grounds afterwards in relative peace. 

Then we drove down to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's signature mansion near Charlottesville, Va. 

We drove right up the mountain, parked in a graveled lot and darn near had to knock on the front door to get a tour. 

The place wasn't particularly well-kempt. Just as at Mt. Vernon, the guides bemoaned the lack of funds to keep up the decaying mansion. Repairs progressed very slowly, they reported. And the grounds were a bit of a mess. 

Fast forward to this past week. As a part of a history tour with a group of history teachers from Northwestern Minnesota, we stopped both at Mt. Vernon and Monticello. 

What a difference thirty years makes!

Now, you can't even get close to the presidential homes in a car. You park in beautiful parking lots, walk through immaculate landscaping to get to the mega-million dollar visitors center. 

There's a gift shop. A foofy cafe. A state-of-the-art movie theater. A museum. An education center. 

To get into the actual Monticello mansion, you must buy a ticket. Then you have to stand in line for a shuttle that takes you to the top of the mountain. 

Then you are herded into a new line where you are divided into groups of 25 or so. 

Finally, you get ushered Jefferson's home where you are led through the rooms in a carefully choreographed process designed to pump the maximum number of tourists through mansion in the minimum of time. 

At Mt. Vernon, they don't even divide you up. The poor tour guides just shout at the passing lines of people and start their speil over ever three minutes. It is pitiful to hear them repeating their mantra like parrots as you move on to the next room and transfer your attention to the next guide. 

In 1981, Monticello and Mt. Vernon were the only presidential residences open in northern Virginia. 

Last week, we also stopped at the residence of James Monroe, which is now well-restored, as well as the residence of James Madison, the mansion of Montpelier, which has recently undergone a significant renovation. 

By significant, I mean the remodeling project has thus far cost $25 million. 

That amount does not include the cost of the beautiful visitor's center, the immaculate parking lots and perfectly groomed grounds. 

No, they spent that $25 million just on the house. And they're just getting started. 

What is happening here? Where is all this money coming from?

Rest easy, Tea Partiers: The cash comes from from private foundations, not the government. Etched on a marble wall at the sparkling museum at Mt. Vernon are the names of hundreds of donors. 

To help with funding, they not only charge an entrance fee, but most people get trapped in the enormous gift shops for at least a half-an-hour. Few leave empty handed. 

Usually I am immune to such temptations, but at the James Monroe museum gift shop, I stumbled on a rare treasure: A paper doll book of the Richard Nixon family. 

There is Tricky Dick on page 3 in his underwear. Pat is on page 4 in the same state. The rest of the book provides cutout clothing so you may dress up the couple as you please. 

How could I pass up such a rarity? 

Virginia's presidential homes have changed remarkably in the past thirty years, and the well-stocked gift shops are just the tip of the iceberg.

Thirty years ago, only a few eccentric families with kids interested in history showed up at the doors of the aging mansions. 

Today, throngs of school groups, tourists and weekend thrill seekers drink Starbuck's coffee as they sit in the air conditioned multi-million dollar multi-media museums getting a little taste of history. 

Emphasis on little, for as history goes, the presentations provide pretty thin gruel.

  Every display, every movie, unabashedly promotes the memory of the president who once owned the estate. 

Yet, one has to be heartened that both wealthy philanthropists and vacationing masses seem to be interested in preserving and enjoying our past. 

The shamelessly commercialized results are better than the alternative.