It all started with the hair of the dog. Ronald Reagan’s dog.
For a brief period in the mid-1980s, Claire McLean was a dog groomer for President Reagan’s Bouvier des Flandres, Lucky. After clipping Lucky’s hair, McLean saved it. Her mother later painted a picture of Lucky using the dog’s real hair.
That painting started McLean’s love affair with presidential pet memorabilia. She began to collect and create other items and, in 1999, she opened the Presidential Pet Museum in a barn in Maryland, about a 30 mile drive from Washington, D.C.
McLean, who is 83, is no longer able to operate her museum, but she’s hoping that someone else is. She and David Baker, who runs the museum’s website, are auctioning the museum’s website and collection in the hopes that the buyer will reopen it. So far, the anonymous auction—which ends Tuesday—has received 19 bids, the highest being $5,600.
The collection contains an assortment of art, artifacts, letters, and novelties related to presidential pets. These include:
- An Amy Carter play set that shows her with her dog, Grits
- A stuffed toy that looks like the Clintons’ cat, Socks
- A Socks the cat shirt that says “I Tried Catnip Once, But I Didn’t Inhale”
- A photo of Woodrow Wilson’s sheep in front of the White House
- Paintings featuring hair from George W. Bush’s dogs Barney and Miss Beazley
One of the oldest items is the cowbell supposedly worn by President William Taft’s pet Pauline Wayne—the last cow to graze on the White House lawn.
“It hasn’t been authenticated,” cautions Baker, who is also editor in chief of Petful, a website about pets and pet care. “[McLean] says it was donated [by] a nephew of a White House guard,” who thought the bell resembled the one in a photo of Pauline Wayne.
Yet to modern museum-goers, the authenticity of the cowbell might not be as interesting as learning that cows (and sheep and other animals) once roamed the White House lawn. In fact, it isn’t always the items themselves but the stories the museum holds that make it an interesting package.
The museum was never able to tell those stories in one place for very long. After the barn, the Presidential Pet Museum moved to a couple of different venues until 2010. McLean had hoped to move the collection to another location that year, but it never panned out, and the materials were put into storage.
A few years later, Baker called McLean to check the museum’s hours. She told him her museum wasn’t open, and—to his surprise—asked him if he wanted to buy the website.
“When I got it I immediately started working on changing the website,” he says. “It was looking like a time warp to the late '90s.”
Although Baker was able to help modernize the website, he says he isn’t the right person to reopen the whole museum.
“I’ve always wanted to see the whole thing go to someone to carry on her legacy,” he says.
What, exactly, is that legacy? Perhaps a dogged curiosity about animals, paired with a desire to share the more obscure aspects of presidential history. Some visitors might already know the Clintons had a cat named Socks, but they might find it interesting to learn that Calvin Coolidge had 30 White House pets, including two racoons and a pygmy hippo. Or that Andrew Jackson’s parrot cursed so much during the president’s funeral that the bird had to be removed.
Even the highest bidder might not get the museum if the offer is too much lower than the reserve price—Baker says that he and McLean will have to decide if they want to sell low or hold another auction. It’s safe to say, though, that the museum is unlikely to open before the next presidential pet’s term begins.
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