Remembering the Unremembered, Part One: The Trouble With ArthurPosted: July 5, 2011
or, “What Would Donald Trump Say?”
This is it. Fairfield, Vermont—a tiny Vermont farm town by the Canadian border, where cows seem to outnumber people four times over and Chester A. Arthur may have been born on October 5, 1829, or sometime in 1830, or perhaps not here at all. If you’re not yet confused, you’re not paying attention.
Drive about 35 miles north from Burlington, past Winooski; take Route 89 at the St. Albans exit and follow signs to the Chester A. Arthur State Historic Site. Eventually emerges the center of Fairfield: a general store, a “Chester’s Bakery,” a modest town hall with a “President Chester A. Arthur Meeting Room.”
And, across the street from this bustling metropolis, a small state historic marker beside an abandoned-seeming farmhouse:
And continue, five miles northwest, into the Vermont dairy abyss, past sloping farms and scowling Holstein cows. Journey further and further, into the Green Mountain tundra, and there you’ll find a small yellow cottage tucked into the thick New England woods. Beside it, a century-old rectangular stone monument, and out in front, what looks like a $20 realtor sign proclaiming the historic site of Chester A. Arthur, 21st President of the United States.
You’ve reached your destination.
There isn’t a whole lot going on at the one-room Chester A. Arthur State Historic site, shockingly enough. No shiny visitor center or presidential library, no Arthur artifacts, no tour guides. Just a single room, a few museum panels devoted to Arthur’s life and presidency. A dusty guestbook, even. These entries don’t describe sensations of heavenly peace and boundless melancholy. Mostly they’re terse, pleasant, complimentary (“cool,” “very interesting”). The most interesting entry is that of Arthur Rudnick, who lists his location as Elizabeth East, South Australia. “Originally from Boston,” Rudnick writes. “Came a long way to see a president who had a name like mine.” Mine was the first entry of 2011.
The stone monument was placed at the site in 1903, at a dedication ceremony reportedly attended by guest speaker Robert Todd Lincoln. The cottage was reconstructed 50 years later, thanks to a private donation. Today the site is staffed by a single caretaker, a Shirley Paradee, who lives a mile or so down the road and has held the fort since 2000. (Here she is, good-naturedly agreeing to pose in front of the cottage.) Some days Shirley sees up to six, seven, even ten visitors. “It’s really fun, meeting people from other states,” she tells me, some of whom “say they saw a sign and didn’t even know he was president.”
Other days, no one comes.
Is it lonely, I ask, working at such a remote site, way out here in the middle of—ahem—nowhere?
“Oh, not really.” She laughs. “I read a lot. Some days I knit.”
The conversation topic changes to Chester A. Arthur. “Although a lot of people think he didn’t do much when he was president, he really did,” Shirley insists. His best accomplishment, she seems to think (and most historians agree), was the passage in 1883 of the Pendleton Civil Service Act. “He tried to do the best he could for the time,” and that’s that.
But Arthur’s three-year administration pleased neither his corrupt machine-boss friends nor the reformers of the Republican party. He was haunted by claims that he plotted the Garfield assassination, perhaps in collaboration with Conklin. And by 1882, the presidency was characterized by frequent vacations and constant inactivity—perceived as a general disinterest in the demands and ambitions of the United States presidency.
Neither journalists nor political opponents knew Arthur was suffering from Bright’s disease, a fatal kidney inflammation that made him emaciated, exhausted, and frequently ill. Occasionally, Arthur had doctors issue false statements to hide his deteriorating health. His condition a secret, Arthur expressed little interest in seeking reelection in 1884, and the Republican nomination went to James G. Blaine. The 21st president confided to a friend that he had only a few months to live.
Blaine lost the election to Grover Cleveland. Arthur returned to his home in New York City and quietly died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 1886.
I did not ultimately manage to solve the mystery of Arthur’s birth. If the cows know, they’re not telling, and if Arthur knew—well, somehow I doubt Arthur knew a whole lot more about his life in Fairfield than we do now.
But the Fairfieldians I met (at least those without visible udders) seem more than glad to regard Arthur as their own, if for no other reason than why not?
“Yes, I do [think he was born in Fairfield],” Shirley responds proudly when I bring up the controversy. I ask why. She laughs. “Because I’m a Fairfieldian.”
And then there are the folks at Chester’s Bakery in the center of town (read: across from the General Store and next to the Chester A. Arthur Meeting Room). “I’ve heard several rumors,” admits Ron, an older employee who boasts that he attended the Chester A. Arthur schoolhouse (a one-room schoolhouse for grades 1-8) before it burned down. “Some say he wasn’t born here, some he was. I can’t help but believe that he was ’cause they got the monument up the road.”
I ask if many people come through looking for the site.
“Yeah, there’s a lotta people. A lotta people.” How many? “During foliage season, stuff like that, there’s several people coming through.”
His coworker, a slightly younger woman with a voice like nails, can’t stop herself from interjecting.
“Yes, he was born here!” she declares, certainty like a rock. “Want to know why?” Yes, I do. I do more than I’ve ever wanted anything in the world. “Because every year we bake a cake for his birthday! Every year. Everybody gets a piece of cake.”
Somehow, that seems as good a reason as any. I consider the case closed and make my way back towards Burlington.
- “Obama birthplace flap evokes Arthur debate” (MSNBC)
- “The Mystery of Chester Alan Arthur’s Birthplace” (Vermont History)
- “Afterbirthers demand to see Obama’s placenta” (The Onion)