“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.
“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.
” . . . not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity . . . “
Above: 380 Mt. Vernon Avenue, just across from the friendly local “Vacation Bible Camp” in small Marion, OH. Here Warren G. Harding lived with his wife, Florence, from the time of their home marriage in 1891. And here, on the porch of the family’s quiet Victorian home, then-Senator Harding ran a successful 1920 campaign for the U.S. presidency.
By which I mean: he stayed there. On his front porch. Giving over 100 speeches, advocating something about some made-up word called “normalcy,” waiting for wide-eyed supporters and curious voters to arrive in droves. While he—you know, just stayed put.
And they did.