CivicFest: 200 years of history under one roof

Convention week in Minneapolis featured countless parties, a veritable who’s who of Grand Old Party and protesting worlds.

But the Convention Center was home to one of the greatest private collections of political memorabilia in American history — CivicFest.

One of those collections is owned and shown by John Zweifel. To call Zweifel a collector is an understatement; he’s a patriot. The Floridian has spent the last 55 years — and upwards of $1 million — gathering a nearly unmatched cache of American political memorabilia.

On Aug. 25, Zweifel, his wife Jan, a few other volunteers could be found piecing together a replica of the White House for the 336th time. It usually takes up to four weeks to light the chandeliers, plant the grass and get the model limousines (which were sitting atop the White House roof) placed on the driveway. Zweifel and his crew only had four days.

One has to wonder why he would take the time to photograph the Oval Office of every president since John F. Kennedy? Why he would take five years to weave together a painstakingly perfect petit-point rug? And why, most of all, he would travel the length of the United States, paying the gas money to ship the model in an old, diesel flatbed truck marked “White House Replica” week-in, week-out?

“I really wanted to inspire people,” Zweifel said. “I had heard so many negatives [about politics] that I really wanted people to see some positives.”

The 150,000 patrons expected to weave through the three-hour long exhibit lines no doubt came away with some real insight into the White House.

“It is exact in every detail,” said CivicFest Director Maxene Fernstrom. “It stands out because it allows people access to spaces in the White House they don’t usually see.”

Zweifel’s 60-foot-long White House was so precise, it featured working representations of flatscreens in the presidential bedroom (on this day they were broadcasting one of the omnipresent “judge” shows) to a model of Vice President Dick Cheney’s heart monitor.

But Zweifel’s wasn’t the only standout exhibit. Other highlights included:

• Multiple presidential
 limousines;

• “Forgotten” Founding Fathers’ documents (1771–1790);

• Gnome-like miniatures of — and documents pertaining to — all 43 presidents;

• Antique appraisals; and  

• A live North American Bald Eagle.

The latter, featured in an eagle showcase produced in collaboration by the National Eagle Center with the University of Minnesota Raptor Center, was a special treat. However, it was a bit sad to see this country’s symbol of freedom and liberty tethered to the stage. Small children gawked alongside equally amazed parents while the bald eagle seemed confused as a DVD featuring a number of birds of prey was being shown directly behind it.

And what would a political event be without a little memorabilia? Dozens of vendors from around the country peddled a number of McCain-Palin trinkets. While it was billed as a nonpartisan event, CivicFest was very Republican-heavy when it came to vendors.

Still, mesmerizing exhibits featured Franklin D. Roosevelt (seated in his customized presidential limo) and the dresses of First Ladies dating back centuries. Dozens of medals of honor could be found alongside delegate credentials to the 1892 RNC held on the east bank of the Mississippi. It was there, at the “Exposition Center” that thousands streamed to the new Midwestern city for the first time.

This time was no different.

“I’ve had delegates from Vermont, New Hampshire, Georgia,” said Pamela, one of the many employees overseeing RNC memorabilia. “And even a few from Puerto Rico.”