Need for tourism dollars a possible motive to dig up President Polk

Need for tourism dollars a possible motive to dig up President Polk

A relative of President James K. Polk reportedly says the state’s proposal to dredge up his corpse at the state Capitol and ship it to Columbia is about nothing more than generating tourism.

Tennessee Watchdog’s prior reporting suggests Polk’s ancestral home in Columbia, where he lived as a young adult, doesn’t get many visitors, much to the consternation of city officials.

As news outlets nationwide have reported, members of the Tennessee General Assembly are likely to pass a proposal to dig up Polk and his wife and move them to Columbia.

Teresa Elam, who the New York Times described as one of Polk’s distant relatives, called the plan “macabre and an unsavory effort to promote tourism in Columbia.”

As Tennessee Watchdog reported in 2015, City Council members jacked up hotel taxes to a record 20 percent yet had no idea what to do with all that extra revenue — about $400,000 a year.

Furious hotel owners at the time said city officials begged them for ideas on ways to generate more tourism in the city. These business people said city officials would probably spend some of that money on Polk’s ancestral home, which gets local and state funding.

But this week  City Manager Tony Massey said in an emailed statement that the money will develop a new soccer complex at a cost of $6.5 million.

COLUMBIA: The city has searched for ways to boost tourism (photo by Chris Butler)

COLUMBIA: The city has searched for ways to boost tourism (photo by Chris Butler)

“Once completed we anticipate a significant boost to our sports tourism and  increased business to our area restaurants and motels,” Massey said.

“We are also planning on hiring an individual to market and promote our community’s tourism opportunities. The tax will also help fund that position.”

Tom Price, curator of Polk’s ancestral home, couldn’t say how much it gets from the local government but that it does get $39,000 a year from the state, about 10 percent of its yearly budget.

Mayor Dean Dickey, Vice Mayor Christa S. Martin and the city’s five council members did not return requests for comment this week.

Moving the body 

Price said even if members of the General Assembly OK the plan it still needs approval from the Tennessee Historical Commission, the Tennessee Capitol Commission, and a Davidson County Chancery Court.

Tony Massey (story courtesy of the City of Columbia)

Tony Massey (story courtesy of the City of Columbia)

The entire process will probably take a year, Price said.

“This is not about tourism,” Price said.

“This is about following the wishes of Polk in his will. He wrote it a couple of months before leaving the White House, and he died three months later.”

Polk died of cholera in Nashville in 1849.

He was first buried in a Nashville cemetery and later, per his wishes, at his Nashville home. His wife died more than 40 years later.

Price said 55 of Polk’s family members sued his estate on the grounds a dead person could not say what may happen with their property. Those family members won their case. The Polk’s Nashville home was sold, and the surviving family members split the proceeds 55 ways.

That’s when the governor at the time offered to have Polk buried in front of the Capitol, Price said.

But Polk belongs at his ancestral home, which is also a museum of information and artifacts from Polk’s life, Price said.

“This location is where people come to learn about the 11th president. It is fitting that his tomb be here,” Price said.

If all goes according to plan it would cost about half a million dollars. Price also said no taxpayer dollars would be used, even though Polk’s ancestral home is a state facility.

According to the New York Times, “Price acknowledged that it was difficult to get students, even from schools around Columbia, because Andrew Jackson’s famous Hermitage is so close by.”

The Polk Ancestral Home (photo by Chris Butler)

The Polk Ancestral Home (photo by Chris Butler)

Whether Polk’s tomb would draw more tourists to city hotels is unknown.

Hotel owners in the city did not immediately return requests for comment, but two years ago said most of their clients are construction workers or people there to visit relatives.

People who Tennessee Watchdog interviewed at Polk’s current gravesite said in 2015 they wouldn’t use a hotel in Columbia just to see his ancestral home.

Contact Christopher Butler at

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