QUINCY (AP) — Debbie Willard and David Kandra were at the Adams National Historical Park recently with her mother, Bev Willard of Holbrook. Willard and Kandra are from Cleveland, and the trio were among the first visitors on the first day of the new season— which is also the park's 70th year as part of the National Park Service, and the centennial of the Park Service's creation in 1916.
"We enjoyed seeing the history," Kandra said, after they'd finished a tour of the "Old House" and a walk around the grounds. He emphasized the word "seeing."
As both local and out of state, the family is typical of the Adams Park's 160,000 annual visitors these days. While many are South Shore and Massachusetts residents, increasing numbers are from every state in the nation — and from overseas as well.
Longtime park superintendent Marianne Peak of Marshfield says that reach and diversity reflects how much has changed at the "Old House" since the descendants of President John Adams and his wife Abigail Adams donated the property to the federal government in 1946.
From 1788 to 1927, four generations of the Adams family lived and grew up in the big frame house that John and Abigail nicknamed "Peace Field." They were followed by their son, President John Quincy Adams, diplomat Charles Francis Adams, and historian Brooks Adams.
Everyone in the city knew about the house and the 1873 "Stone Library," which Charles Francis Adams built for the family collection. But no one outside the family made visits until after Brooks Adams' death in 1927.
Brooks Adams' social secretary Wilhelmina Harris hosted the early visits, which the Adams Memorial Society started. Harris became the park's first superintendent in 1950. She retired in 1987 and died in 1991, at 95.
For years after the 1946 donation, the property was a mostly local attraction. "A big year was 3,000 visitors," said Peak, who's been superintendent since 1987. "There was no visitor center. It was a home." And no one visited the birthplaces, which the Quincy Historical Society owned from 1940 until they too were given to the National Park Service in 1979.
That changed dramatically in 2001, when author David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning and best-selling biography "John Adams" brought national attention to the park. Within a couple of years, attendance more than tripled, from 60,000 to 210,000.
"It was quick and constant," Peak said of the increase. "David's book elevated us and our story."
The National Park Service elevated the park's status from historic site to historical park just three years earlier, in 1998. Now, as deputy superintendent Caroline Keinath puts it, "we have a brand." With a staff of 30 and a $2.4 million budget, the park is telling the Adams story in a variety of 21st-century ways.
Overall annual attendance has settled back to around 160,000, including special events. House tours are still a staple— more than 22,000 visited "the Old House" in 2015. But the 285-year-old residence has its limits, so the park has turned to trolley tours to the two birthplaces and United First Parish Unitarian Church — the "Church of the Presidents" — along with a range of programs that change from year to year.
The early part of the season features a pair of lectures and a song cycle composed from John and Abigail's letters. Those are May 21, June 17 and July 2.
Then on Independence Day, the park will again host one of its most popular events— the annual re-enactment of the Continental Congress's Declaration of Independence debate and vote, with visitors taking part.
Keinath said one of the park's chief accomplishments has been to cultivate "the widest audience possible"— with students of all ages as well as cross-country tourists. The park now has a "junior park ranger" activity, by which youngsters can earn an unofficial ranger badge.
She said the park will be doing more to get "out of the house and into landscape," with more trolley tours with specific historical and biographical themes, and more attractions at the Franklin Street birthplaces — such as digital monitors and multimedia presentations.
Keinath said the park is keen to present the story of Phoebe Abdee, John and Abigail's longtime African-American house servant, who was freed by Abigail's father, the Rev. William Smith of Weymouth.
"We're always examining our programs," Keinath said.
Information from: The (Quincy) Patriot Ledger, http://www.patriotledger.com