Caldwell: “It Makes You Fit Your Corner of the World Into Something Larger”

Live from Caldwell, NJ: the modest 170-year-old site of Grover Cleveland’s 1837 birthplace. It’s not much—the house has been expanded significantly since Cleveland’s birth, but the site itself still blends seamlessly into the background of Caldwell’s quiet suburban sprawl. (Yes, I drove past it initially and had to circle back. Sorry, Grover. Just be thankful I didn’t steal your parking spot.)

But it is “the only house museum in the country dedicated to the interpretation of President Cleveland’s life.” (“Pretty much for Cleveland, this is it,” explained Janice, my tour guide, though there is a bit of information in Princeton, where he retired and was eventually buried.  “If you want to learn about Grover Cleveland, this is where you can learn more than any other place, with the possible exception of the Library of Congress.”)

Janice, a retired pharmaceutical worker, was my private guide, or “interpreter,” of Cleveland’s life and home. (There were no other visitors, at least until John Butters arrived. This did not seem out of the ordinary.) She told me about Grover’s birth to a minister father, his childhood among eight siblings, his eventual relocation to New York, admission to the bar, election as Governor and, eventually, president of the United States. She showed me a bowl belonging to Cleveland’s mother, a cradle in which Baby Grover was once rocked, a piece of fruit caked actually served at Cleveland’s 1886 marriage to Frances Folsom, a student less than half his age. She spoke proudly of his New Jersey roots (“he was the only president born and buried in New Jersey; this is his Mount Vernon”) and his firm honesty. She waffled like mad when I asked if she would have voted for Grover.

Most of all, I learned of Caldwell’s warm relationship with presidential history. Arlene, owner of Somewhere in Time: Gifts and Collectibles, told me of the town’s annual ice cream social, at Cleveland’s house on the fourth of July, and its civil war encampment event. Marsha, town librarian, became aware of Caldwell’s history when she noticed a disproportionate number of Cleveland-related books in Caldwell Public Library. She told me of the town’s annual picnic for Hawaiian representatives (“Grover Cleveland had a strong connection to Hawaii,” she explained, referring to his decision to “recognize and maintain diplomatic relations with the new Republic of Hawaii” instead of favoring annexation). June, owner of The Frame Shop (whose husband heads the Grover Cleveland Birthplace Memorial Association), mentioned a Cleveland-related packet, or brochure, the townspeople are putting together for visitors.

Broadly, each of these residents spoke of a sense of pride regarding Caldwell’s link to a U.S. president. “It helps people who live here appreciate where they are,” Janice told me. “And it makes you fit your little corner of the world into something larger.”

Here’s the full interview with Janice. Below is a full photo gallery from Caldwell. (Some images appear more than once, strangely. Accept my apologies.)

How long have you worked at the Grover Cleveland Birthplace?

About eight years.

How did you become involved with historic preservation?

Well, I’ve always been interested in it. I have no formal background in it. I worked right down the road. I just wandered in here one day with the hopes of being offered a volunteer position, and I was.

What’s the value in preserving a historic site like a presidential birthplace?

You learn all kinds of things about the president from listening to the past. Not only do you learn things, you learn that people pretty much are people, always have been, same problems we have, same issues. It just gives you perspective and makes you see that you’re just a tiny little speck in the grand scheme of things.

Do you think Caldwell’s historic relevance has a positive impact on the town?

Yeah, I definitely think it does a service to the town. Aside from the practical aspect of trying to draw visitors to the place, it helps people who live here appreciate where they are; it helps them to see that they have a history, it gives them respect for the town. And it makes you fit your little corner of the world into something larger.

Are there any other Cleveland-related monuments in or around Caldwell?

No. For the town of Caldwell, this is it, and pretty much for Cleveland, this is it. You’ll find some stuff pertaining to him in Princeton because of the years he spent there in his retirement. Essentially there’s not a whole lot, though. In Buffalo, where he spent his youth, there’s not a whole lot of recognition of him, though I understand they’re working on a museum now. But if you want to learn about Grover Cleveland, this is where you can learn more than any other place with the possible exception of the Library of Congress, but that’s only his papers.

If students were to only remember one thing about Grover Cleveland, what should that one thing be?

Well, his reputation was based on his honesty. He was always known as an honest president—a very straightforward, do-the-right-thing kind of president. That’s something people should remember about him, but they should also understand exactly what that means. That’s the main one.

Do you have a favorable view of Grover Cleveland’s presidency?

In terms of a president, he was a competent president; he was a competent, capable man. I don’t know if he was the most flexible of people. That’s my personal opinion. I don’t think he was the most creative thinker ever born, but he was certainly capable.

Would you have voted for Cleveland?

That’s hard to say because the parties were not the same then as they are now. In our political vernacular he would probably be a conservative Democrat. That’s as close as you would probably come. I would have to see what his opponents was all about before I could tell you if I would vote for him.

What sort of visitors do you tend to get here on a daily basis?

Everything. We get a lot of student groups, we get a lot of people who are traveling the country specifically interested in history, specifically interested in presidents. We get a lot of people who visit a site for every president. We even get international visitors.

A lot of children?

Yes, we have a very children-friendly tour constructed where we take them out on the lawn and play 1830s games with them and let them try on the costumes. Yeah, we’re very child-friendly.

Can you recall any especially notable visitors?

I know that certain presidents have been here. We have a photo of Grover Cleveland standing on the front steps in the ‘20s. I know that Grover’s wife, Francis, made it here in the ‘20s after he had died and she had remarried. She visited the birthplace; we have her signature in one of the logs.

How many people work at this specific site?

Well, it’s only one full-time person, the caretaker, or curator. That’s Sharon Farrell. There’s a staff of volunteers, and people who are combination volunteers and seasonal employees. I’m one of those. I would say a staff of maybe ten, but very sporadically used.

Have you visited other presidential historic sites?

Oh yeah!

Is there anything else that should be noted about this birthplace, or historic preservation in general?

Just keep an open mind when you visit these places. Keep an open mind about the person and the place.

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