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.

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“Lord Only Knows”: The Many Birthplaces of Andrew Jackson

Four birthplace markers. Two states. One president.

"The seventh president of the United States was born a few miles southwest of this spot," declares a roadside historical marker in the main center of Waxhaw, NC. Appropriately, "a few miles southwest of this spot" could fall in either state. The marker offers no further clues.

What we know is simple. Andrew Jackson was born somewhere in the Waxhaws region backcountry of North and South Carolina, straddling the nebulous border between the two states, on March 15, 1767. But on which side of the border he was born—or whether there even existed a clearly defined border line—remains in question today.

The family’s definitive residence during the president’s boyhood (and until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War) was Lancaster, South Carolina, at his uncle James Crawford’s plantation. But at the time of his birth, Jackson’s mother was returning from a trip to bury her husband, Andrew Hutchinson Jackson, in North Carolina. She may have made it back to Crawford’s plantation before giving birth. She may have gone into labor  at another sister’s residence, the McCamie Farm, barely a mile from the border line in North Carolina. Jackson himself claimed in letters that he was born in South Carolina, even approving an 1825 map that pinpointed his birthplace in the Palmetto State. But could he even have known? The land then was so remote that the borders hadn’t even been surveyed yet.

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Presidential Tombstone Blues

I've seen a fairly ridiculous number of William Henry Harrison-related sites, considering he was only president for 31 days. Pictured here is his tomb in the tiny Ohio village of North Bend. Photo by Rachel Pincus.

I’ve been engrossed in this project for well over two months now. Which, by extension, means I’ve been grudgingly excitedly telling others about this project for well over two months. The best reaction I’ve received came from an 83-year-old man last month, the father of my Cleveland host. “Tell him what you’re doing in Ohio!” Laura ordered. So I did. He stared at me over his coffee. Then he scowled.

“Why?”

I mumbled something vaguely coherent, presidential birthplaces interesting blah blah insight into presidents’ backgrounds blah roadtrip blah blah school history.

“You’re focusing on the footnotes.”

“Right.”

Still, there are some questions I can’t escape. If this blog had an FAQs page, it’d look something like this:

“Are you gonna go to Hawaii?” (No.) “So when are you going to Kenya?” (No.)  Have you read Assassination Vacation? You should!” (No.) “But Lincoln was born in Illinois, right?” (No.) “Are you gonna visit presidential tombs next?” (Hrmmmph.)

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Sweet Virginia & The Flipcam Archives

Zachary Taylor's birthplace in Barboursville, VA, and his boyhood home in Louisville, KY, are each private residences today. I have loitered nervously with a camera outside of both. When George W. Bush's presidential library opens, Zachary Taylor will become the only former US president who has no historic site presently open to the public.

This post has no insight to offer towards birthplaces, presidential history and historic sites, preservation, American heritage, U.S. geography, or any of the other topical concerns around which this project ostensibly revolves. It is simply a collection of inane video footage from my trip to Virginia (has it really been two months?), found while cleaning out my trusted Flipcam.

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3,500 Feet of Nixonian Despair

Driving hundreds of miles through cornfields with "Fiesta Size!" tortilla chips on my lap = my summer. Photo: Rachel Pincus.

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 evangelicalthemed 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.

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Point Pleasant, OH: Pop. 76

“Some folks say it’s haunted. If there are ghosts here, they’re friendly because they don’t hurt anyone.”

Twenty-five miles east of Cincinnati, in Point Pleasant, an unincorporated community of 76 at the mouth of the Big South Forth of the Cumberland River, lies a tiny, 194-year-old cottage that once toured the country, and Ohio State fairgrounds, on a railroad flatcar.

There’s something humbling about these abandoned surroundings that more closely resemble a movie set. There’s a bitterly vandalized general store demanding “CASH ONLY FOR FISHING LICENSE AND HUNTING LICENSE PERMITS.” A historical cannon and Grant Memorial Bridge. A small baptist church imploring us to “GOD BLESS AMERICA AND OUR MILITARY AMEN.” A strip of trailers whose inhabitants quietly eye me and Rachel like the intruders we are.

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On The Trail of the Assassined: From Garfield to McKinley

“My work is done.” —James Garfield’s last words, September 19, 1881

“Goodbye all, goodbye. It is God’s way; not ours. His will be done.” —William McKinley’s last words, September 14, 1901

Pat, our fast-talking tour guide at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, knows a good deal about the twentieth president. About his campaign, at least, which was managed from this front porch in 1880. That was the summer when 17,000 Americans stopped through Mentor to hear the Senator-elect from Ohio speak. (The railroads had to add a temporary stop just to accommodate the travelers injuring themselves hopping off the train to hear Garfield speak.)

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