The first entry in a series of stories detailing my experiences and encounters in Plains, GA, birthplace and current residence of one James Earl Carter, Jr. To be followed up when I have access to wifi, electrical outlets, and maybe even both at the same time—a rare occurrence since Hurricane Irate.
First things first, Plains (pop. 637) is not convenient. Not a convenient place to live, not a convenient place to visit, certainly not a convenient place from which to run your presidential campaign. Three hours south of Atlanta, two and a half east of Montgomery, Al, two and a half north of Talahassee, with peanut farms extending as far as you can see in every direction—
What I am saying is this: you are going to be traveling for a while.
“No, he was actually born here. This is where the story started.”
A second installment on Reagan’s birthplace in Tampico, IL. Below is a conversation with Joan Johnson, birthplace volunteer and president of the Tampico Historical Society.
Also, everything you ever wanted to know about the Reagan Rainbow but were too afraid to ask. Read on.
“They were in town interviewing people, and the whole week after he died, they had so much equipment in the birthplace that you had to walk around cords and big lights and everything. . . . And there were all kinds of people outside, inside, everywhere, because—and you had all kinds of radio stations, TVs, everything was here! It was very, very interesting, and it was kind of exciting to see so many people here, because usually we don’t have that many people in town.”
These words are spoken to me from inside the Dutch Diner, so named after the fortieth president who was born just over a century ago, and less than fifty yards away, in Tampico, IL. “He looks like a fat little Dutchman,” said the future president’s father when he was born (or so says Reagan). “But who knows, he might grow up to be president someday.”
Driving a thousand miles home from West Branch, Iowa, only to head to Newark International Airport and board a flight to Orange County would have once seemed to me some surreal joke. Today, it has been woven seamlessly into the fabric of My Summer Vacation.
Yes, the rumors are true: after ten days on the road—about 2,998 miles total, according to Mapquest—Rachel and I returned in one piece from July’s Great Midwestern Odyssey. We saw eleven presidential birthplaces total (twelve if you count Jefferson Davis’s), a handful of presidential tombs and other pertinent sites, and more evangelical–themed billboards than I could shake a stick at. (I was too busy driving.) We pilgrimaged to Ohio Wesleyan (well…), trolled Jefferson Davis’s supremely phallic birthplace (sort of?), and met a Kentucky preacher. We took a Reagan Coloring Book from Tampico, a cornstalk from Iowa. We made it as far west as West Branch, IA; as far south as Fairview, KY; as far north as the Chicago suburbs. We traveled alongside an Amish wanderer in Kentucky, a Hells Angels herd in Pennsylvania, a gargantuan inflatable dinosaur in Ohio. We spent a night in Niles, OH; in Beachwood, OH; in Beachwood again; in Cincinnati; in Louisville; in Evansville, IN; in Springfield, IL; in West Branch, IA; in Schaumburg, IL; in Beachwood again; and, finally, back home in Chappaqua.
“I’m the only person of distinction who has ever had a depression named for him.” —Herbert Hoover
During my visit to Iowa, I had the pleasure of speaking at length with my host, Kathy—from whom I learned about West Branch, Hooverfest, and, most of all, the startling number of things that go unmentioned about Hoover’s life and career. Kathy, a librarian, avid gardener, and proud mother of four, had more to say on the topic than just about anyone I spoke to at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site or Presidential Library and Museum. Plus, she’s living proof that not everyone you meet on the internet wants to chop off your limbs and store them in a basement freezer.
Never mind. Here’s that interview in full.
or, “Adventures and Great Undertakings in West Branch, IA”
We tumble through the Iowa border at half past two, Rachel and I, blasting Led Zeppelin IV out of tinny Macbook speakers in sweltering 99-degree heat. Oceans of cornfields swell up on either side. “Fields of Opportunities,” according to the goofy Iowa welcome sign. “The shorter crops are beans, actually,” my Iowan host Kathy later corrects. “When we have guests, we often point out the sites in West Branch: corn, corn, beans, corn, beans, beans, corn . . .”
To us, the Great Unknown. Iowa marks the westernmost reach of our Great Midwestern Odyssey, and that feels somehow momentous, like we’re the early settlers of the twenty-ninth state—before we circle back and start cruising east.
“To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.” —A. Lincoln upon leaving Springfield for the presidency, Feb. 11, 1861
Hello from the great state of Illinois. It’s beautiful here, but really quite hot, and why are all the cities named after Sufjan songs?
I’m writing from the President Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Springfield, IL. I’ve taken a 24-hour break from birthplaces to see the Land of Lincoln, where the sixteenth president spent the bulk of his adult life; where he uttered a brief, moving farewell upon departing for the presidency on February 11, 1861; and where, today, his remains rest in a concrete vault ten feet below the burial chamber of the Lincoln Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery.
The coffin traveled over 1,500 miles by railroad car from Washington D.C. Stop schedules for the train had been published in newspapers nationwide, so mourners all over could arrive and pay timely respects. A nationwide mourning campaign, the sort of nationwide outpouring of bottomless sorrow that, internet or no internet, the twenty-first century has never known.