Meet John Butters, Historic Site Traveler Extraordinaire

Dumb luck.

That seems the clearest summation of my trip to Grover Cleveland’s birthplace in Caldwell, NJ. Why else would I absentmindedly wander into the very frame shop whose owner’s husband simply happens to be president of the Grover Cleveland Birthplace Memorial Association? How else did I come across an email address for Grover Cleveland’s only living grandchild?

And how else could I characterize my chance encounter with John Butters (above, mugging for the camera), a charmingly excitable Wisconsin man who has spent his retirement visiting at least one historic site for every president, excluding Bush and Obama? Mr. Butters has also traveled to over 100 countries and all seven continents. “I was in the travel industry for many years,” he tells me, avoiding additional clarification. To paraphrase High Fidelity, Butters is the sort of fast-talking history nut I’ve wanted to meet ever since I’d been old enough to want to meet fast-talking history nuts. I can’t wait to speak to him further.

I ran into Butters at President Cleveland’s modest Caldwell, NJ, birthplace. I was on my way out; he had just walked in with some relatives, bragging boisterously about his accomplishment: Cleveland was to be the final check mark on his presidential scavenger hunt. Of course I overheard. Of course I demanded to speak with him. And of course I filmed it—astoundingly poorly.

Excuse my terribly shoddy video footage, and excuse my stammering, unprepared questioning: I had intended simply to transcribe this interview, but decided halfway through that only video is sufficient. Perhaps it’s because I have just recently rewatched Errol Morris’s Gates of Heaven, one of my favorite documentaries, and was struck by the raw interviews of the film, by how its subjects “express themselves in an American idiom that approaches poetry, and even their mistakes are eloquent” (Ebert, 1997).  There is something to be said for talking.

Anyway. Here’s Johnny:

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