RALEIGH — With his face half-hidden by a bushy black beard, Leonidas Polk looks forever stuck in the 19th century. Maybe that's why Raleigh has mostly forgotten him.
In his time, Polk helped open N.C. State University, start the state Department of Agriculture and found Progressive Farmer magazine. Near the end of his life, he launched a nationwide populist movement that had him racing for the White House on the back of the common man.
But when Polk's former home opens to the public today on Blount Street just outside downtown, much of Raleigh will meet him for the first time. They will wonder, too, what might have happened if he hadn't died in 1892 at age 55 while relentlessly campaigning.
"He galvanized the little people," said Lucinda MacKethan, a board member with the Polk House Foundation. "He gave them a voice. He kept saying they had a right to the piece of the pie. I think the establishment was very afraid of him."
Polk's Victorian house, built between 1890 and 1891, was modest for its time and neighborhood. The state's power brokers lived in towering mansions on Blount Street, while Polk, a journalist for much of his life, scraped by in a few rooms strewn with papers.
"He was always just a county line in front of the bill collector," said Peter Daniel, chairman of the Polk House Foundation.
The house, along with much of its original furniture, lets you see a historic home that lacks expensive trimmings and servants' quarters. Rather, you get a glimpse of a prominent family that struggled. What you see in this red and yellow home with a wraparound porch is the den of a driven statesman.
"He never rested," said his great-great-grandson Jay Denmark of Raleigh, "and he never took care of himself."
Born in 1837 to wealthy parents in Anson County, Polk, a distant relative of President James Knox Polk, was elected to the state House at 23 and later fought as a colonel at Gettysburg with the 81st North Carolina Militia. He was a reluctant rebel who had opposed secession.
Poor farmer's voice
At war's end, Polk returned to a scarred South and found penniless farmers and freed slaves without land. In his home county, he founded the town of Polkton and started the Ansonian newspaper as the poor farmer's voice. This advocacy got him appointed to the new post of agriculture commissioner in 1877 - a job he quit in disgust after a few years. Basically, his family reported, he kept bumping up against moneyed interests that ran counter to his farmers' agenda.
"Our farmers buy everything to raise cotton, and raise cotton to buy everything," Polk once said, "and, after going through this treadmill business for years, they lie down and die and leave their families penniless."
He continued that tone through the Raleigh News, then the Progressive Farmer, and used his political weight to help open both Agricultural and Mechanical College - now N.C. State - and Baptist Female University - now Meredith College. His goal with N.C. State had been to teach farmers the "practical arts," and he faced fierce opposition from advocates of UNC-Chapel Hill, who feared competition for state dollars.
White House ambitions
By the 1890s, Polk rose to national attention with the idea that big business was strangling small-time farmers. The Populists led by Polk stripped power in state government away from railroads, banks and other fat cats of the time. Barring his unexpected death while campaigning, he would have been nominated to run for president under the People's Party banner.
"He did a lot of things that people didn't know," said his great-granddaughter in Raleigh, Anne Beaty. She noted that "all the attention" went to James K. Polk.
The Polk House has moved twice in its history. It came to its spot on Blount Street in 2000. The foundation has spent the past 10 years renovating it with about $500,000 in state money and some private donations.
At tonight's open house, the Polk House will serve local foods including Howling Cow Ice Cream, which Leonidas would have favored. An actor will appear in full 1890s costume, showing off not only Polk's common touch, but his impressive beard.
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