Originally created 08/21/05

'Billgrimage' drawing Clinton fans to Arkansas



LITTLE ROCK - The summer travel season in full swing, the Clinton Presidential Library is drawing 2,000 visitors a day, and a new tourism phenomenon is being seen 115 miles away in the town of Hope: "Billgrimage."

"People are coming from the library saying they're making a Billgrimage to Arkansas; it's so cute," giggles Crystal Altenbaumer, director of the Clinton Birthplace museum in Hope.

Among those on a recent "Billgrimage" was Ava Carter, a Democrat from Dallas, who convinced her Republican travel partner, James D. Stearns, to give their summer trip a Clinton theme.

"I'd never even been to Arkansas, but last year we planned to go to Clinton's birth home in Hope, up to Hot Springs (where Clinton grew up) and here," Carter said. "James said, 'Sure, let's go.'"

They and other pilgrims to all-things-Clinton are helping to put the Clinton Birthplace back in the black after a period of financial uncertainty.

Clinton lived in Hope in a white foursquare house until he was 4 with his mother and his grandparents, Eldridge and Edith Cassidy. The house is now owned by the birthplace museum and is open for self-guided tours.

But the birthplace museum ran deficits eight years in a row before finally generating its first operating surplus in the 2003-04 year - a mere $806, but a big improvement from the $51,000 shortfall the year before. Buzz related to the November 2004 opening of the presidential library in Little Rock apparently increased interest in - and contributions to - the birthplace museum.

Gary Johnson, who runs the city-owned Hope Visitor Center & Museum down the road, said visitation to the center has increased on average about 40 percent since the library opened.

"These are the best numbers we've had since 1999 or the year 2000," said Johnson.

Most of Hope's visitors have already been to the library or are en route, said Johnson, whose mother, Elaine, chairs the Birthplace Foundation. "I've actually had people come in here complaining that there were too many people at the library," he added. "But I knew it would only help us."

Altenbaumer said the birthplace museum brings in many, but not all of those who stop at the visitor center. Many, she said, simply drive by the house and slow down, but don't have time to see the memorabilia, the house's 1946 decor, rotating photograph exhibits on loan from the library archive and the gift shop.

The Clinton Library, meanwhile, has drawn more than 400,000 visitors since opening in November, with some 2,000 a day in the summer and 1,500 a day on average.

Visitors are coming from all over the country, with the top 10 out-of-state markets being Memphis, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington-Baltimore, Kansas City, New York City, St. Louis and Atlanta.

Clinton Foundation president Skip Rutherford attributes the strong attendance to interest in Clinton and his wife Hillary; the location near two major interstates, I-30 and I-40, providing easy access for travelers passing through; and the growth of the convention business in Little Rock, which is bringing in travelers from around the country.

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If You Go...

CLINTON CHILDHOOD HOME: 117 South Hervey, Hope; www.clintonbirthplace.com, (870) 777-4455. Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Adults, $5; seniors, $4; children 6 to 18, $3. Another home where Clinton lived as a child, between 1951-53 before he moved to Hot Springs, is located at 321 E. 13th St., in Hope. This home is a private residence and not open for tours.

CLINTON PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY: River Market District, downtown Little Rock; www.clintonlibrary.gov/ or (501) 374-4242. Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sundays, 1 p.m.-5 p.m. Adults, $7; seniors and students, $5; children 6-17, $3.

HOPE VISITOR CENTER & MUSEUM: 100 E. Division St., Hope; (870) 722-2580.