“He just calls himself a Texan. But he’s happy, that’s all I can say.”
President Bush spent only the first year of his life at his birthplace in Milton, at the Victorian house on Adams Street where I stopped by last Friday and met Dean, the current resident of 46 years. In 1925 the family moved to even ritzier Greenwich, CT, and then George graduated from nearby Yale and headed 2,000 miles south, where he found oil success in West Texas.
The Milton house lies a few miles up the road from the Adams birthplaces in Quincy (then Braintree), practically across the street from the Lincoln replica at the Forbes mansion, and a few towns over from JFK’s birthplace in Brookline. (Full posts on these sites are coming soon.) You could say Norfolk County has presidential history to spare; Bruce Manin of Milton’s Diamonds & Fine Jewelry shop certainly thinks so. I spoke with Bruce about Bush, the Suffolk Resolves, and the so-called “reddest town in the bluest state.” Skip below for the interview in full.
In which I stumble upon my first presidential site by accident, and don’t know how to feel about it.
It’s been a month—a few days more, if you’re keeping track—and this project has officially become a parody of this project.
Let me explain. I made the drive yesterday from Middletown to Vermont, where I expect to see birthplaces of Presidents Arthur, Coolidge (where it all started, and where I plan to attend this birthday parade), and Pierce (in Hillsborough, New Hampshire). I’m blogging from Winhall, population 702.
But even on the road, I can’t get away. Presidential history is tailing me, relentless and wild, through the scenic trails of southern Vermont.
I expected to find only four presidential birthplaces on my trip to the Boston area this past weekend. Especially considering, you know, only four U.S. presidents were born in Massachusetts (Adams, Adams, Kennedy, and Bush—strangely, all from notable presidential families). Conveniently, two of those four birthplaces (the Adams) are next door to each other at the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, MA, and a third (the house where George Herbert Walker Franklin Milhous Danforth “Dan” Bush was born in 1924) is literally a few miles up Adams Street, in Milton. And that’s where we found the fifth (fourth-and-a-half?) presidential birthplace in historic Norfolk County.
Surprise: Straight outta Hodgenville, it’s the one-room log cabin where Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809.
This is the second and final post regarding my visit earlier this month to Pope’s Creek Plantation, where President Washington was born 280 years prior on land graced by chickens, Devon cattle, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (say what?) ever since. This one’s an unabridged interview with Alan, the gracious and well-spoken NPS employee I met in the visitor center just overlooking the swelling Pope’s Creek estuary. (Tangentially, I cannot for the life of me seem to determine whether or not “Pope[‘]s Creek” is spelled with the apostrophe. If you’d like to spend next summer researching topics in the grammatical history of Pope[‘]s Creek Plantation, kindly fill out your Olin application here.)
Below, Alan speaks in great depth about the history of the site, the value of knowing your history, and why the George Washington birthplace attracts far more senior citizens than students (“I’m not trying to be fatalistic or anything . . . “). Click past the jump.
“A lot of people have signs on their property that say ‘George Washington slept here,'” Carla tells me, “but we’re the only ones that can say ‘George Washington slept here first.’ That’s one of our little mottos here.” Here, actually, quite literally: pictured above are the white oyster shell fragments marking the foundations of the plantation home of Augustine Washington and Mary Ball Washington. “Here,” the historic marker reads, “on February 22, 1732, George Washington—farmer, general of the Continental Army, and first president of the United States—was born.”
Funny thing is, the Memorial House, constructed on what historians thought marked the site of Washington’s birth house, actually falls 100 feet away. It was built in 1931, a year before the bicentennial celebration of Washington’s birth, when the Wakefield National Memorial Association scored funding from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to secure land for the national park site. It was another six years before archeologists discovered the actual foundations above, “hidden under deepening soil and thickening underbrush for 150 years,” and realized they’d been mistaken. Oops. That house, a “U-shaped timber frame dwelling,” burned in a fire on Christmas Day, 1779. (This, I soon learn, is an ongoing theme in colonial presidential birthplaces. Jefferson’s birth house at Shadwell turned to ash in 1770. The third president greatly mourned the loss “of every paper I had in the world, and almost every book.” So years later, when he made his estate at Monticello, he demanded the kitchen be separate from the main house to prevent similar ruin. Live + learn.)
Here are some observations on Staunton, VA—birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, where I spent my Thursday afternoon and, somewhat inadvertently, my Thursday night:
Staunton people know what Wesleyan is.
I spoke with so many people during my five days in Virginia. I spent time all over the state—in Charles City, Colonial Beach, Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Staunton. But only two people I met in Virginia had heard of Wesleyan, where I go to school.
Spoiler alert: they both work at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum, two doors down from Woodrow Wilson’s austere birth home in Staunton, VA.
Wilson taught at Wesleyan for two years during his academic career, from 1888-1890. Most notably, he founded our debate team, still called the T. Woodrow Wilson debate team, and supposedly lived in 159 High Street, what is now Earth House. (He oversaw the formation of the National Park Service as president, so I guess that’s earthy enough.)
Happy birthday, Stan!
Rest assured: despite car trouble in Staunton, navigation trouble by the Lincoln Tunnel, and State Identity Crisis in Delaware, I have made it safely home from Virginia—just in time for my grandpa Stanley’s swinging 85th birthday bash (not pictured: Stan, swinging birthday bash). What a relief to spend time with living relatives rather than dead presidents! (Shockingly, they all want to hear about dead presidents.)
Stan was never president, but hell if he hasn’t lived enough history for two terms and more. He was born in the summer of 1926, during the second administration of my main man “Silent Cal,” whose post-apocalyptic Plymouth, VT, farm more or less spawned this unfathomable series of exploits whose genesis I still strive to understand. That places Stan just two years behind Carter and Bush I, if you’re keeping score. Speaking of birthday parties, here’s some prime info on Calvin Coolidge’s, which I certainly hope to attend next month, because what the hell else would I be celebrating on July 4?