Last night I returned from my first visit to Gettysburg of the season. This past weekend was the event called History Meets the Arts, and I had a couple of book signings scheduled around town. Plus, it was my first opportunity to visit the new Gettysburg Visitor Center.
The weather couldn’t have been better from Thursday to Saturday. When I arrived in town on Thursday around 6:30 pm, it was about 78 degrees – a bit warmer than at home here in northwestern PA. Entering on Rt. 30 from the west, it’s always great making that ride through the First Day’s field and “saying hello” to the statue of Gen. John Buford.
I met up with my good friend Duane Siskey, who lives in town, and we had a couple of steaks for dinner at Hoss’s Restaurant. We then made a couple trips around the battlefield before it got dark, and saw a beautiful sunset over South Mountain. We went to our favorite haunt, the Reliance Mine Saloon, to toss back a couple cold ones and see some old friends. One patron, at Duane’s urging, bought a copy of the book on Stuart’s ride to Gettysburg.
After breakfast on Friday morning, since Duane had to put a few hours in at work, I decided to go take a look at the new Visitor Center. As promised here, I would post my thoughts on the new facility after I had a chance to take a look around.
I believe I have a pretty even-handed opinion about the new facility. There’s lots to love about it, and lots to be unhappy about. First, the buildings are simply world-class. The “farm” style of both the VC and Cyclorama buildings fit into the landscape magnificently, and despite their size are actually quite unobtrusive. They seem extremely well-built, and I noticed over the next two days that no matter where I was on the battlefield, I couldn’t see the buildings other than a bit from Little Round Top.
When you walk in the main doors, everything is very impressive to the eye. The construction is very high quality and the place is very inviting. The display cases in the main lobby are nicely done, with explanatory plaques that were sorely lacking in the old VC.
Before checking out the museum, I decided to go right to the bookstore. Well, I should say, they call the room the “bookstore” – in actuality, 2/3 of the store is taken up by shelves of those plastic guns, rubber swords, and bobbing Lincoln heads that everyone’s been hearing about. They have certainly done their level best to present the public with a 21st-century tourist trap, lemme tell you. You have to wade through all that crap in order to get to the other 1/3 of the “bookstore,” which actually contains the books.
Whereas the store in the old VC carried about 900 titles, there are less than 300 in this new store. Instead of large bookshelves or “stacks” like the old VC (or the traditional bookstore), this one contains small cubicles of shelves. There is a cubicle for each category of books, such as Gettysburg, Photography, Medicine, Northern, Southern, and Slavery. The latter is right out front. I don’t believe that the Gettysburg section contained more than a couple dozen titles, which consisted of the standards such as Coddington, Pfanz, Martin, etc. There are precious few regimental histories anywhere in the store (although you’ll find them on the 20th Maine). Duane had told me that the book on Stuart’s ride by Eric Wittenberg and myself was indeed in there, but it took me nearly 20 minutes to find it. Instead of it being shelved in the Gettysburg section, I finally found it in the Southern section. That’s right, the Southern section. They had five copies there. I took one up to the checkout to the man behind the cash register (and bless the fella, I think he was about 80 years old). I told him I was the co-author of the book, and explained that perhaps it would be better to carry it in the Gettysburg section. I explained that yes, it was about a southern commander (Jeb Stuart) – but the title is his “Controversial Ride to Gettysburg.” The old VC, of course, carried it in the Gettysburg section. After staring at me rather blankly for a while, he mumbled something about talking to management about it. Sensing I wasn’t going to get further than that, I took three copies of the book and placed them on one of the Gettysburg shelves. I made a mental note to later go back and see if I could talk with someone in charge about the placement of the book. I decided to drop the idea of asking if he’d like me to sign any of them, since I had noticed that not a single one of any of the books in there were signed by authors. The old VC loved when books were signed by the authors, and always placed a gold sticker on the front cover denoting them as such. I guess it just struck me that no one managing this new bookstore would really care.
After noting that of the 100 or so people in the store, 90 were persuing the plasticware and only 10 the books, I decided to leave and check out the museum. At the entrance to the theater, about 500 people (perhaps more) were waiting to get into the next show. I walked into the entrance to the museum, but immediately ran into about another 100 folks (mostly children) who were pretty much blocking the museum entrance. Looking ahead, I saw the corridor completely packed with people. I immediately dropped the idea of trying to fight my way through it. Therefore, I was only able to see the opening section of the museum, which was devoted to the “Causes of the War” and the slavery issue. Once again, I’d have to go back at a time when there was less people in order to make my way through the museum.
I decided to leave the building via the Food Court section. Walking through it, which was literally packed with folks drinking $4 cups of pop and lots of pizza, etc., I wondered what effect it was having on the merchants back in town. I had easily noted that on Thursday evening and this particular morning, the Steinwehr Avenue section of town was virtually deserted. Usually, by 9am on the Friday of this weekend, you can’t find a place to park there. This day, however, I think I only saw about 5 vehicles parked along Steinwehr.
As I walked out of the building, more and more buses were dropping off school children. All the available parking lots were simply packed. As many spaces as there are available, I can imagine that all the lots will be completely full most of the summer – and I can only imagine what it will be like during the July anniversary.
I got back in my car and drove the windy road back out towards Taneytown Road, that “buzzing” of being around thousands of people in a confined space still in my head.
I still need to see the rest of the museum, which I hear is fantastically well done, but I’d seen enough to form some concrete first impressions of the new facility. First, as I mentioned earlier, the place is done on a world-class scale. It definitely fulfills a need that the battlefield has long had… a modern facility to handle the visitors, and an educational atmosphere to acquaint the casual tourist with the war in general and the battle in particular. Plus, it keeps the young folks interested. The museum, the theater, the displays, and the tourist junk all gets them wide-eyed I’m sure. Is it a place I would take a novice friend or my children? You betcha. And I know they would get much more out of it than they would the old facility.
Additionally, this new facility, off the main battlefield and unobtrusive to the landscape, will allow the Cemetery Ridge location of the old buildings to be reclaimed. Not restored mind you – that location has been irreparably damaged by the old buildings, parking lots, and the fact that the area served as the town dump for many years after the battle – but it will be wonderful to see everything gone from there one day. I look forward to the day when I can stand at the Zeigler Grove area and look east toward the Leister farmhouse and see nothing in between but grass and trees.
However, it is abundantly clear that the new facility will not be a constant haunt for the experienced visitor. Simply put, there’s really nothing there for you after your initial visit. You can find every book in the bookstore somewhere else (at at a better price). You can probably even find bobbing Lincoln heads somewhere in town, too. You’ll feed yourselves and your 2.4 kids lunch there only if convenient (checking the price list, I quickly calculated that lunch for a family of four will run you about $35 and up) so there are cheaper eats in town. I didn’t sample any food there, but I seriously doubt their pizza rivals Tommy’s. And I had no burning desires to purchase $2.50 bottles of water, either.
In summation, the battlefield has (and will) immensely benefit from the new VC due to the relocation. The casual tourist now has a world-class facility to visit, see wonderfully displayed artifacts (though there’s only about 1/10 the items of the old museum) and a top-notch educational facility.
The experienced Gettysburg visitor/student has, well, the battlefield. And thank goodness for that – and Cemetery Ridge will only get better when the old buildings are razed and the asphalt torn up.
It remains to be seen, however, how the new facility (in particular the Food Court) will affect the town’s businesses. Throughout the entire weekend, I saw far fewer people in town. Fewer people in the stores, fewer patrons in the eating establishments. The evenings, however, were very busy in town (the new VC closes its doors at 6pm). A casual survey of a few business owners confirmed that although there were as many people around this weekend as usual – and the weather was beautiful to boot – there were far fewer customers for them during the daytime hours. You couldn’t get a hotel reservation anywhere in or near town this weekend, but you could find an empty table in any of the restaurants and bars. I don’t think that bodes well for the town merchants.
During my next visit next month or perhaps in June, I will check out the new museum and post my thoughts on it. It wouldn’t be fair to do so until I’ve had a chance to take a good look at it. But it’s apparent to me now that the only thing that would draw me back to the place would be to see something I hadn’t yet seen.
By the way, don’t expect to see any type of living history on the grounds of the new facility. Conversations over the weekend with reenactor friends of mine revealed that they weren’t treated too kindly when they showed up there in their garb. A couple of them (and this is second-hand information, mind you) were apparently treated a bit rudely by one of the persons behind the Information counter. The reenactors were made to feel (according to them) rather unwelcome. I don’t take sides on this particular issue either way – I participate in living history, but I probably wouldn’t have gone to the new facility in my uniform anyway. And there are plenty of opportunities for living history presentations on the battlefield where they properly belong anyway. However, the new VC is a private-public partnership managed by private companies and concerns, and they may have little time for the reenacting segment of all this. I guess my advice would be if you’re a reenactor, leave your garb behind if you visit the new VC. Otherwise, you may get some unwelcome looks and stares from the staff. This is only my impression, not my personal experience. But I think it needs to be said.
I heartily encourage everyone to visit the facility if you haven’t already. And if you or anyone hasn’t been to Gettysburg in a long time or at all, it’s mandatory you start there. After that, it will be up to each person to decide for him/herself if there’s any need to visit again.
But if you plan on eating there, bring lots of cash.
That afternoon, I had a very nice time at my books signings at the National Civil War Museum (formerly the Wax Museum) and the Farnsworth House Bookstore. At the former, I was with Licensed Battlefield Guide George Newton, another Savas-Beatie author. His book Silent Sentinels is a terrific tome on the artillery on the field. Pick this book up sometime, you’ll enjoy it immensely. I signed about 8 books there, and two folks brought their copies in for me to sign.
I headed home after lunch on Sunday, but got to spend quality time over the weekend with many friends – Duane, Dave and Carol Moore, Stan O’Donnell, and the regulars of the Reliance Mine. I also spent more time on the field during this trip than I did of all my trips last year combined, and it was great. The weather was gorgeous for the middle of April and couldn’t have been better for battlefield stomping. As usual, the ride home left me anxiously awaiting the next visit.