Laughing and Crying for Millard: An Interview with Bill Vernon

I apologize for the lack of updates on this blog as of late. I’ve been stranded since Saturday, without power or internet or any way to leave my parents’ driveway, thanks to Hurricane Irene—which has also put a damper on my plans to visit Millard Fillmore’s birthplace (upstate New York, near Ithaca) before heading back to Wes. Oh, well. Plus, my cousin had a wedding. It was grand.

Since I won’t be seeing Millard Fillmore’s birthplace this week, Bill Vernon’s recollections of the site (and much more) will have to do.

Bill Vernon is an attorney, a 1973 Wesleyan graduate, and a lifetime presidential home hobbyist. He contacted me in mid-July after reading about my project in the Boston Globe.

That was the week I “became famous”—by which I mean, that was the week the AP decided to pick up the story about my project that appeared in the Wesleyan Connection, which popped up on Wesleyan’s homepage for an awkwardly long time. It was all rather surreal, especially considering I was too busy traveling through Kentucky and Indiana to really notice. That was also the week I conducted an interview on air with the Leslie Marshall Show from the parking lot of the Dixie Pan Restaurant in Nortonville, KY.

I may not do much with my life, but I do hope to die the only person ever to conduct an interview with a nationally syndicated radio show from the parking lot of the Dixie Pan Restaurant in Nortonville, KY.

So I received an email from William, a 1991 Wesleyan graduate who wrote his thesis on the Material Culture of Presidential Campaigns (“and got high honors!” he added with an exclamation point to boot); and I received an email from Wesleyan’s community service director, wondering if I might like to speak about my project at a local Middletown elementary school; and I received a cordial note from Bill Vernon.

“I have had a lifetime hobby of visiting presidential homes,” Bill boasted. “It started as a family activity when I was young and then became a competition with my younger brother.” Bill is one of a handful of fanatic presidential hobbyists I have come across this summer—men (they are always men) who have devoted lifetimes of excursions and detours and family vacations to seeing Herbert Hoover’s tomb or James A. Garfield’s house. Lloyd is another, and don’t forget my friend John Butters—or George Cleveland himself. I could devote an entire blog to these men—their memories, their reasoning, their existence.

But wouldn’t that be silly? I am, after all, turning into one of them.

Anyway. Here is my conversation with Bill—tales of skipping weddings for Teddy Roosevelt and asking for directions at Calvin Coolidge’s farm. Is is part phone conversation and part email excerpts, and it is all you are getting from this blog until my internet comes back. (Or until I am back at Wesleyan. My birthplace travels are over, but the stories are not.)

"I have visited most of the places you have visited," Bill assured me, "but I certainly should get to Caldwell, NJ the next time I drive through or at least visit Cleveland’s grandson in North Conway, NH." Here's a view of the Grover Cleveland home, which makes me nostalgic already. Has it really been three months?

How did you get involved in visiting presidential homes?

I guess, my parents got us started doing it. [laughs] You know, I grew up in Mansfield, Massachusetts, and my mom owned her own business in the ‘50s and ‘60s. And if there was a day or something, we would go to historical places. At some point we went to Brookline, to Kennedy’s house, and we went to the Adams houses in Quincy, and it just started from there. They took me to the Coolidge house. And one time I think we went to the Pierce house—I know we did—in New Hampshire, and then it started to get crazy because now we were obviously going to some pretty obscure presidential homes. [laughs]

And you had a competition with your brother?

I don’t know if he still thinks it’s a competition, but he may be ahead of me because his jobs and homes have involved more travel.  At last count I was at 22 presidential homes, although a couple are sketchy (like Ulysses S. Grant’s home in Galena, Illinois, just over the Mississippi from Iowa), but I never spent a summer vacation at it or received foundation support. Being from New England, I have visited most of the places you have visited [as of early July], but I certainly should get to Caldwell, NJ the next time I drive through or at least visit Cleveland’s grandson in North Conway, NH.  I also really should take a trip to Ohio and knock off several homes in a week.

How did the competition with your brother begin?

Well, we were doing the presidential homes as kids, so he went his way and I went mine, and if we were on a trip, we would go to a presidential home. If I found myself in Nashville, then I’d be at Jackson’s and Polk’s, and I’d send him a postcard or something.

Were you interested in these historical sites as a kid when you’re parents took you? Some kids would be bored out of their minds . . .

I really was. I was a Government major at Wesleyan, but I liked history and politics, so that’s what we did. That was sort of the family thing. [laughs] Some people do other things; we went to historical places. I was one of those first generation college kids of the ‘60s, and so I told my parents afterwards that they brought me up correctly because I was told I was going to college because they didn’t have an opportunity to go to college.

Did this hobby continue while you were at Wesleyan?

Well, there was a funny one. My older brother got married—I was at Wesleyan then—he got married on Long Island, and my younger brother and my parents and I disappeared and went over to Teddy Roosevelt’s home. And everybody was looking for us, and they couldn’t find us, and it must have been the day before the wedding or something. Some event was going on, and we missed half of it because we were at the Sagamore site.

What exactly do you do now?

I’m a lawyer by professional, and I represent small business. I work for NFIB and INV, state director for Massachusetts and Rhode Island. I’m a lobbyist for small businesses in those states.

What are some of the most memorable sites that you have been to?

I think some of them are pretty funny. The Chester Arthur home is absolutely stunning. The view of Lake Champlain is just unbelievable from up there. You know what I really enjoyed—which I did recently—was Van Buren. I guess I enjoyed it because of the politics of it all. He was a real political operative, and he was the first one who put up all the machines, all the city Democratic machines together. That was kind of interesting, that he did that before he was president and then after he was president. But he was kind of a Democratic party operative. And I think I said that I find it interesting that even to this day, the two parties are different in that regard. Because Van Buren was prior to the Republican party even existing. The two parties are different in terms of how they operate. The Democratic party is more about putting coalitions together, machines or just organizations. And the Republican party is more built on the ideas—anti-slavery, or high tariffs now, that one has changed. But it’s much more ideological than the Democratic party. I find it interesting that Van Buren was involved in that.

The Chester Arthur home was one of my favorites as well. So was the Coolidge site—the two presidential birthplaces in Vermont were extremely memorable to me.

Coolidge’s house—when I took my son there, we were going out to say the Expos play baseball. And we were just taking a trip up to Montreal, and we stopped by the Coolidge house. So we asked the woman who had worked there forever what’s the best way to get to Montreal—do you drive back to Interstate 89 or drive back to Route 7 and up and hit 89 in Burlington?—and she looks at us and says in this Vermont accent, ‘I’ve never gone on the interstate. I’ve never driven on a highway before.’ So she didn’t know how to get to the interstate.

And then the Harrison house in Indianapolis was kind of nice. These tours—they take an hour and a half, two hours. Pretty in depth. They claim—I haven’t checked this out—but they claim that some law journal ranked Harrison as one of the five best lawyers ever to be president. There are very few great lawyers who became president. I could even say, if you’re an accomplished lawyer, you wouldn’t be involved in politics most of the time. I imagine Lincoln would be on that list, and John Quincy Adams would be on that list. Maybe John Adams. But he had some big cases, some international cases.

He lived all over. I actually went to his tomb in North Bend, OH last month, and that’s pretty phenomenal.

Oh yeah. I gotta do Ohio. Some vacation I’ll just take a week or just drive out there, I guess.

How about the Millard Fillmore site?

The oddest birthplace home I ever visited was the Millard Fillmore home site. There is a replica of the log cabin in a state park, but the actual site is several miles by paved and dirt road from the town in upstate New York. Perhaps even more remote than the alleged Chester Arthur home, it is a mowed part of a field with an American flag within a fence.  My son was laughing and crying when we finally got there.

I would have to look at a map to determine the exact Fillmore site I visited, but the replica log cabin was in a state park. I refused to pay the entrance fee since I did not want to swim or picnic. I explained that all I wanted to do was walk around the replica log cabin, which I could see from the entrance. They let me in for free! Then I drove several miles out to this field with a small mowed area. There was no building, but there was an American flag on a 20- to 30-foot flagpole in the mowed area with a fence around it like an old cemetery.

Any more notable presidential homes?

The Woodrow Wilson home in Washington, D.C. (his home after the presidency) was also an interesting tour. Wilson had lots of orange and black in his house due to his Princeton ties and I asked where the red and black was [Wesleyan school colors]. I was impressed by the guide’s knowledge of the Wesleyan connection. I must admit sometimes the tours are longer and more extensive than I truly need or want at this stage, but I continue to show up at homes when I can.

As a result of my summer job as a bus tour guide taking me to Penn Dutch country, I visited Buchanan’s home in Lancaster, PA several times but a long time ago. I always thought it odd that more of our presidents did not come from PA—the Keystone State after all. The Eisenhower home in Gettysburg with the putting green in the backyard and the guides dressed as Secret Service agents from the ’50s  was great. And Nixon’s birthplace and library in Yorba Linda, CA was fascinating for the quarter century longevity of his career on the national stage and, for me, his involvement in so many of the events of my lifetime.

Reviewing and remembering events was so easy at the library.

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