Big Stick Theory: Wilson’s Canes on Display

Posted March 3, 2010 at 3:40pm

Even before a stroke left him debilitated, President Woodrow Wilson was rarely seen without a cane. Wilson, who considered himself to be in fragile health for much of his adult life, collected them over a lifetime.

“My Third Leg: Woodrow Wilson’s Walking Sticks” is the Woodrow Wilson House’s one-room display of the canes the 28th president used from early in his life when he used them as a fashion statement to later in life when he depended on them to walk.

They tell the story of a young man graduated from Princeton University who grew into the presidency and was later worn down by war, stress and eventually the stroke.

Individual canes among the 50 in this collection stand out for the materials they were made from and the designs carved into them. The first case features canes from Wilson’s younger years. One is made of shark vertebrae strung along a metal rod. Another hides a small sword.

A second case contains folk art canes Wilson collected while he was president. The most interesting one is a wooden cane into which the grandson of a Louisiana governor carved the abbreviated story of Wilson’s life. Others have animal heads or hands, and a particularly elaborate cane shows off brightly colored flowers and vines. Another is carved from the wood of the General Beauregard, the Confederate ship destroyed during the Civil War’s Battle of Memphis.

In the third case, visitors can see the canes Wilson relied upon near the end of his life. These are more utilitarian, with the first hooked canes among them and lighter materials, including bamboo, more common. By this time, according to curator John Powell, canes were less a status symbol, and Wilson needed them just to get around. In recognition of his failing health, his home has an elevator that allowed him to get to his third-floor bedroom.

Woodrow Wilson House is the most American building on a Kalorama street now lined with embassies. The president lived the last three years of his life in the house, which he bought from a carpet lobbyist. Edith Wilson, the former president’s second wife, left it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation when she died in 1961. Items inside are originals, not replicas, that she saved, including the bed where he died and a microphone from which he delivered his first radio address.

Wilson, who died in 1924, isn’t lacking for love in 2010, especially in the nation’s capital. In addition to his preserved home, several area landmarks are named after him: the Beltway’s Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge, which crosses from Alexandria into Maryland; the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, ironically located in the Ronald Reagan Building; and Woodrow Wilson Senior High School. Not far from the capital is the privately owned Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum in Staunton, Va. (Unlike official presidential libraries, it is not run by the National Archives.)

Wilson’s childhood home in Augusta, Ga., is also open to visitors, and his family’s home in Columbia, S.C., will be once rehabilitation begun in 2005 is completed.

The Woodrow Wilson House (2340 S St. NW) is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Tours are $7.50 for adults, $6.50 for seniors over 62 and $3 for students under 18 or with valid student ID. Children under 7 can visit for free.