Land of Lincoln in Lee
Almost every county in the United States has a Republican Club, but the Lee County chapter now hosts something that only one other one in the entire nation can boast – a museum dedicated to the history of the party, dating back 163 years!
“After the contentious presidential election of 2016, former Mexican president Vincente Fox said all kinds of terrible things about President Donald Trump,” said Pat Baldwin, who is the 2nd Vice President of the Lee Republican Women Federated organization and the museum curator. “That and similar points of view do not represent the right side of our party and current president, and I wanted our grandkids to know the long, rich, proud history of the Republican Party. Now protesters all over want states and counties and cities to take down their Confederate statues, so we are losing our historic perspective and need to know our past.”
Before relocating to Southwest Florida, Pat “worked at the Rockwood Museum in Bloomington, Delaware, about 20 years ago, so I know something about museums. I made my pitch to the Federated Board and Doris Cortese, our president, said ‘Really?’” I thought I had no chance, but they gave me a beginning allocation, with Doris being extremely supportive while not interfering – the perfect combination! I started with the Ronald Reagan Room, as I thought that would be great for kids, and now we have The Republican Museum of Southwest Florida!”
In addition to the exhibit on ‘The Gipper,’ the museum has displays on the founding of the Republic Party in 1854 in a little schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin; The Civil War; how the nation formed as a Republic and not a Democracy; photographs of all 19 Republican presidents; a First Ladies display with photographs of them as teenagers, in the fashion of their times, and wedding portraits; a full-size illustration of Abraham Lincoln with a real stovepipe hat for children to wear; and rooms dedicated to the Bush Family and the Trump/Pence administration.
A Mixed Bag
The museum pays special attention to The Civil War. “Together abolitionists and slaves brought attention to the dire circumstances of slavery,” Pat explained, “with results being a mixed bag, so it is complicated! The dynamics of white slaveholders is very intense and across the board, from those who really cared, to preachers who were not exactly saints. Some owners paid for the education of their slaves, and some set them free, though that often occurred because they were actually the parent of that slave. Those who did receive opportunities proved they could learn anything a white person could, even if their education was little more than writing in the dirt with a stick. What slaves could teach themselves or learn was absolutely amazing!”
While Pat is proud of their Civil War display, she emphasizes that “we are not competing with the Military Museum in Cape Coral, as that is wonderful, but our exhibits are educational and moving, like the stories of the drummer boys, and children troops as young as 12 who received wounds, or the Confederate nurse whose petticoats are sopped with blood from treated over a thousand patients before she turned 21 – it is all very emotional.”
Pat acknowledged that since the museum just opened in late August, “we are still a work in progress, but now that the word is out, donations are coming faster than we could ever expect, as you can see by our current displays. Last week, for example, we received via donation a voting machine from the 2000 presidential election, made famous by the hanging chads, that kids can use as a hands-on experience. What we have now is mostly national material, so we would like to add local items, and that will come with time. We do accept donations but won’t take just anything, so please understand that if you approach us, we may turn you down. Even if we accept something, it might be in storage for a while, but we are happy to look at anything you have in mind. We eventually want enough material to rotate collections, but that will not happen for at least the first few years.”
The Best in Each Other
Pat said, “It is important for the children to learn the glorious history of our nation, as well as what the Republican Party traditionally stands for, like its belief in God and pro-life stance. We have a beautiful photograph in the Trump/Pence Room of a little girl blowing out her birthday candles, and that to me is the perfect parallel to The Civil War Room: our party began as a mission to stop mistreating those who others thought of as less than human, and now we fight the abortion of those that people today consider less than human – the parallels are striking! Every so often, an evil comes out of us as a society and I don’t know why.”
The Republican Museum offers one-hour tours to the general public, school groups, scout packs, and senior organizations; there is no charge but you must make reservations in advance through Pat at 239-936-8779. The Republican Museum of Southwest Florida is located in the Republican Headquarters Office at 7910 Summerlin Lakes Drive in South Fort Myers, kitty-corner across from the new Suncoast Credit Union Arena on the Florida SouthWestern State College campus, with convenient parking and wheelchair accessibility.
“We have two senior groups who already reserved tours for November,” said Pat. “We are starting slow, to see how it goes. I hope to get good foot traffic, and the local Republican party appreciates our noble effort, as there is not another nation on earth where a group of people pulled together to gain the freedom of another group, of a different color and religion, where we fall down and get back up again, and that makes us a nation where we bring out the best in each other.”