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HOPE, Ark. – Bill Clinton's boyhood home in Hope has been open as a museum for more than a decade, but this is the first year that visitors are seeing the home as part of the National Park Service.
The home became a national historic site at the start of the year, and Clinton said at its formal dedication in mid-April that he wants the home to stand as a reminder of the values he learned as a child.
The home's new designation as a national park site is expected to draw more tourists to Hope, a southwest Arkansas city of about 12,000 with a struggling economy.
The two-story, white, wood-frame home was restored to reflect the style of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the former president lived there. Toys from the period are strewn about one side of the yard and inside is the very couch owned by Clinton's grandparents, Eldridge and Edith Cassidy.
Clinton's father, William Blythe, was killed in a car accident while his mother, Virginia, was pregnant with Clinton, so she and her new baby moved in with her parents at the comfortable home at 117 S. Hervey St. They lived there for four years, but even after Virginia remarried and moved to another house in Hope, the Hervey Street home remained the center of Bill Clinton's family life. He spent weekends and summers with his grandparents and gathered there with extended family members.
The historic site includes a second building which has been converted into a visitor center. Inside are displays that tell how Eldridge Cassidy served black and white customers at his small grocery store — an uncommon business practice during segregation — and how he'd help families in need with free food and forgiven debts .
Opened by the Clinton Birthplace Foundation in 1997, the museum has had more than 80,000 visitors, including people from 159 countries. Clinton is widely admired abroad, so catering to foreign tourists is a key part of the museum's mission.
Local officials say they expect greater numbers of visitors to include Hope on their itineraries as they take in Clinton's presidential library and museum in Little Rock, 110 miles to the northeast. Another museum and former Clinton home is located in Fayetteville in northwest Arkansas, where Clinton lived with Hillary Rodham Clinton while he worked as a law professor at the University of Arkansas. The Clintons were married in the living room.
Clinton explained during the dedication in Hope that the way he was brought up guided him in his lifelong political efforts to ensure opportunity for "ordinary people."
"We here of a certain age were raised to see everyone. My grandfather taught me to see people without regard for the color of their skin," Clinton said, adding that he hopes that "some of the good I got out of being here will be somehow communicated" to visitors.
Clinton spoke about 15 yards from a pink granite monument that dedicates the rose garden on the grounds to his mother, who as a young widow put herself through nursing school in New Orleans while her son stayed behind in Hope.
Standing in the home or the visitor center, museum-goers can get an idea of what it sounded like 60 years ago on the property when the ubiquitous freight trains rumble by. The property is bordered on two sides by train tracks, and the racket from them interrupted Clinton and other speakers during the dedication.
"That may hurt your ears, but it's pretty to me," Clinton said as a long train passed.
The home is three blocks from downtown Hope, a long-neglected area that is showing signs of the start of a recovery with a couple of new eateries to open soon. There is a train station that serves as a city museum, and a short distance down the tracks is another old-style structure that houses an arts center and a small museum devoted to late audio pioneer Paul Klipsch, who started his business in Hope.
But despite its proximity to the Clinton home, many visitors may never see the downtown area, which also has a couple of secondhand stores and small restaurants. Most of the city's motels and restaurants are located on the outskirts of town near Interstate 30, and Exit 30 from the highway takes travelers straight onto Hervey Street, where the Clinton home is located, bypassing downtown.
The foundation that deeded Clinton's first home to the park service owns another home in Hope, the house where the future president lived with his mother and stepfather, Roger Clinton, who was the father of Bill Clinton's brother. The home at 321 E. 13th St. isn't open for tours, but displays are visible through the windows.
The 13th Street home represents a darker chapter of Clinton's time in Hope. His stepfather was prone to drunkenness and once, while his stepson watched, fired a pistol shot through a wall during an argument with Virginia. The family later moved to Hot Springs, where Clinton graduated from high school.
If You Go...
CLINTON BIRTHPLACE HOME NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE: 117 S. Hervey St., Hope, Ark.; http://www.nps.gov/wicl/ or 870-777-4455. Guided tours every 30 minutes beginning at 9 a.m. with the last tour leaving at 4:30 p.m.