In the most unsuspecting of places, a field in rural Virginia, 43 American presidents stand in silence. Washingtonian travel writer Kelly Paras set out to find just what this graveyard of former leaders is doing here.
The United States of America has had 44 men serve as president. While some have monuments to their legacy in our nation’s capital or their home cities, 43 are memorialized in pastoral Croaker, Virginia. Here, in a farmer’s field next to a woodchip production facility, 20-foot-high busts of the nation’s honored, but imperfect, leaders sit quietly waiting.
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon when I found myself face-to-face, well face-to-shoulder to be exact, with Harry Truman, Teddy Roosevelt, George Washington and co. To peer into the dinner-plate-sized eyes of these revered men, I had to crane my neck skywards. But the details were uncanny. Crafted of concrete and steel by Houston sculptor David Adickes, each president is easily identifiable in a frozen stare.
The Presidents Heads didn’t always call this patch of grass and dirt home. From 2004-2010, these larger-than-life busts filled Presidents Park, a sculpture park a few miles down the road from Croaker. Thousands of people visited the Heads before the park shuttered its doors, unable to draw enough paying tourists away from nearby Colonial Williamsburg.
Eventually the 10 acres of land that housed Presidents Park were sold to a developer and the heads of great men had to go.
Its a haunting sight; a graveyard of our former leaders, our collective triumphs and failures on a grand scale.
But how? And where? Weighting a whopping 20,000 pounds each, the thought of moving them was a daunting one. The park owner ordered them destroyed instead, but Croaker farmer Howard Hankins, who had helped construct Presidents Park, didn’t feel right about destroying the colossal busts.
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On his own dime, at a cost of $50,000, Hankins had the busts moved to his family farm, with the hope of one day restoring them and creating a new park. In November 2016, Hankins laid out his grand vision to Travel + Leisure saying, “My plan is a real White House, actual size, with tours, a ballroom—every event the White House has, I’m going to have it.”
To date, only one of the Heads, that of the seventh president, Andrew Jackson, has been fully restored. Many of the busts were damaged during the move, which required boring a hole into the skull of each one so they could be hoisted by a crane.
Walking among the giant effigies now, all but Jackson are battered and crumbling in the elements. Its a haunting sight; a graveyard of our former leaders, our collective triumphs and failures on a grand scale.
As I snaked my way through the tall grass that now encircles the Heads, a figure of President Obama was glaringly missing. His bust sits in a green shipping container next to the giant sculptures and stands only three-feet-tall. Presidents Park ran out of funding before it could commission a full-sized Obama bust, but Hankins has plans to add Obama, and Trump, to the new park.
Until then, 43 of the most powerful men in history will continue to rest under a banner of stars.
A note to visitors: The Presidents Heads are located on private property down a narrow road flanked by ‘No Trespassing’ signs. In the past, it was possible to ask permission to view or photograph the Heads, but in recent weeks, many people have been turned away. Explore at your own risk.
Donate to Howard Hawkins’s ‘Renew the Presidents’ GoFundMe page to raise money for his proposed museum.
And you can find more info about the project on the Presidential Experience website.
Seeker of adventures big and small, near and far, Kelly is a freelance writer, photographer and digital consultant based in Washington, DC. She’s an avid solo traveler, road trip and backpacking enthusiast and has a knack for tracking down the odd/awesome wherever she goes.