But a funny thing happened on my way through the Wikipedia list of American Presidents. I found that Van Buren did represent some kind of transitional moment between an era of Presidents who were quasi-feudal lords and those more associated with the rising professional class of largely self-made men--lawyers, merchants, soldiers. And my sense that this trend continued through the rest of the 19th century was essentially correct. But when you get closer to the 20th century Presidents, farming starts coming back into the picture in some intriguing ways which have left their mark on the historic sites associated with these men.
|Coolidge as a yeoman farmer - a carefully-crafted photo op?|
|Plaque at Harry S. Truman NHS|
Dwight Eisenhower wasn't raised on a farm--his grandfather was a farmer, but his father was an engineer and mechanic--but in fine early republican fashion, he retired to a working farm in Gettysburg, which he purchased in 1950. My quick Internet search turned up a mention of a herd of Angus show cattle, but nothing on the Eisenhower National Historic Site website indicates whether the farm is still being worked today.
Lyndon Johnson was one of the more interesting examples of 20th century Presidential farming. He was born in 1908 in a modest farmhouse which he was involved in reconstructing during his Presidency and which later formed the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. For Johnson's mother, an educated woman left to run the farm on her own while her husband was traveling for business and political purposes, the realities of hand-pumped water and wood-stove cookery seem to have been a trial, according to the NPS account. LBJ, on the other hand, found that the rustic and rural setting gave him a "home field advantage" over more highly-educated advisors and guests who visited him at the "Texas White House." The ambiguous position of the American farmer--salt of the earth but perhaps too close to the soil for comfort--seems to have suited this President's strategic style. Johnson donated his ranch to the American people with the stipulation that it remain a working ranch and not "a sterile relic of the past"--a very clear challenge to the "pastness" that bedevils so many historic agricultural sites.
Jimmy Carter, of course, was a successful peanut farmer when he ran for President (less so afterward--having put his farm in trust during his Presidency to avoid conflicts of interest in making policy decisions, he found himself a million dollars in debt thanks to the mismanagement of his trustees when he returned to Georgia in 1981). Carter belonged to the Future Farmers of America as a boy, and like Harry Truman, came back home to run the family's farm in young adulthood.
|More image than substance? Reagan at Rancho del Cielo|
Overall, though, what strikes me is the strong thread of continuity in these Presidential lives. Aside from that late 19th-century break, the association of elite political power with agricultural and ranching estates is one that links the earliest chief executives with many of their more recent successors, and that harks back not only to aristocratic histories but also to more mythic ideas about the American soil. It's surely no accident that Presidents' boyhood rural homes and farms seem to loom so large in the commemorative landscape, and a closer study of whether any of these sites are actually moving back toward active agricultural production again might tell us something interesting about that mythic relationship between Americans and their land.
The National Park Service offers a travel itinerary of Presidential sites, and there's a Wikipedia page on Presidential gardens.
 Ferrell, Robert H. The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge. University Press of Kansas, 1998 (p. 86).
 McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992 (pp. 78-79).
 Harris, Marvin. "Taming the Wild Pecan at Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park." Park Science 19, no. 2, December 1999 (p. 2)
NOTE: I know I said I was going to mention Martin Van Buren's own "arugula gap" in this post, but it ended up not fitting with the direction that things went. The story, though, is that in the "Log Cabin campaign" of 1840, when Van Buren was running for reelection and encountering mud-slinging that makes today's politics actually look pretty tame, an obscure congressman from Pennsylvania made a name for himself by depicting Van Buren as an elite fop whose expensive tastes in clothes and food revealed him to be out of touch with the common folk, especially in a time of economic hardship. The charges, while exaggerated, probably contributed to Van Buren's losing the election, at which point he retired to his recently-acquired country estate and took up the life of a gentleman farmer (albeit one who continued to run for President when the opportunity arose).