An exchange with Laura Bush

The First Lady, honorary chair of Save America's Treasures, is promoting the White House's Preserve America initiative.

What was your involvement as First Lady of Texas in preservation?

History really came alive when my husband was elected governor of Texas and we moved to Austin. We would wake up in one historic building and much of our work was done across the street in another. We loved being surrounded by history. I was inspired to take an interest in such efforts as the Trust's Main Street Program and restoration of the Texas capitol and county courthouses.

From Alpine in far-west Texas, where the adobe buildings are of traditional Mexican style, to Kerrville in the hill country, where buildings reflect the German roots of its original settlers, it's clear that Texas is diverse and beautiful. Historic downtowns are the heart and soul of its communities. The downtown square was the center of activity for many fledgling towns in the 19th and 20th centuries. Many of the communities have boosted their downtowns with help from Main Street.

County courthouses also serve as the hub of Texas communities, but many of these historic buildings were at risk of being lost. When I was a child, my mother would take me to the Midland County courthouse in west Texas, because that's where the public library was located. I loved spending afternoons there. I remember thinking that the old courthouse must be a very important building because it had so many fabulous books and so many people coming and going all day long. In 1999 then-Gov. Bush proposed a program to help counties hold on to these structures, and the legislature appropriated $50 million that year for the Courthouse Preservation Program.

Why are you promoting Preserve America?

I want every American, especially children, to learn about our nation's heritage and enjoy our national treasures. Preserve America will help ensure that they do. It encourages greater appreciation of our heritage, from monuments and buildings to landscapes and main streets. The departments of Interior and Commerce and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation are strong partners. The Preserve America executive order directs federal agencies to inventory and promote greater use of historic sites with state, tribal, and local governments. The initiative will encourage preservation, tourism, and economic development.

Should historic structures and landscapes pay their own way?

The issue is not whether taxpayers should support preserving historic sites, but rather how can historic sites better serve the taxpayers, and that's what Preserve America sets out to do. We know that heritage tourism is a great economic development tool. Through Preserve America initiatives and funding, our natural and cultural treasures will be protected while communities benefit economically, culturally, socially, and environmentally.

Is there someone whose preservation work you find inspirational?

Lady Bird Johnson is one of my great inspirations. Mrs. Johnson made America more beautiful by restoring city and national parks and replanting native grasses and wildflowers. She worked tirelessly to preserve them and promote their use in planned landscapes. Her work is evident in the fields of bright wildflowers and native grasses that line our roadsides and parklands.

Is there a building associated with the past that's special to you and why?

Certainly the Texas Governor's Mansion stands out. At one time when it needed major repairs, some suggested building a new mansion. Fortunately, others had the foresight to preserve it as the governor's home. As a result, my family and many other people have had and will continue to have the chance to walk the same halls that Sam Houston once walked. The mansion stands as a living memorial to the hard-working men and women who built Texas.

Who is your favorite historical figure?

One who comes to mind is Meriwether Lewis, who endured incredible hardships as he led his Corps of Discovery out into the West. But he knew how to lead in desperate situations. Two hundred years ago Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps took off on a three-year adventure that changed our nation forever. But they were only part of the reason for the expedition's success. The other part belongs to the American Indians who helped them along the way—the Mandan, Hidatsa, Shoshone, and many others.

One of the most remarkable characters in this adventure was the young Shoshone woman named Sakakawea, who helped Lewis and Clark communicate with other Native Americans. She was a guide, a friend, and an explorer. At the age of 17, with an infant on her back, Sakakawea traveled with the Corps to the Pacific and back. Her role in the expansion of America was as vital as that of Lewis and Clark. The small town of Salmon, Idaho, where Sakakawea was born, sought a fitting way to honor her and to celebrate the bicentennial of the expedition, so they partnered with the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management to create the Sakakawea Interpretive Center. What is happening there typifies what Preserve America aspires to do.

 

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