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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“Entwined in History”: An Interview with Alan at Pope’s Creek Plantation

This is the second and final post regarding my visit earlier this month to Pope’s Creek Plantation, where President Washington was born 280 years prior on land graced by chickens, Devon cattle, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (say what?) ever since. This one’s an unabridged interview with Alan, the gracious and well-spoken NPS employee I met in the visitor center just overlooking the swelling Pope’s Creek estuary. (Tangentially, I cannot for the life of me seem to determine whether or not “Pope[‘]s Creek” is spelled with the apostrophe. If you’d like to spend next summer researching topics in the grammatical history of Pope[‘]s Creek Plantation, kindly fill out your Olin application here.)

Below, Alan speaks in great depth about the history of the site, the value of knowing your history, and why the George Washington birthplace attracts far more senior citizens than students (“I’m not trying to be fatalistic or anything . . . “). Click past the jump.

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George Washington Slept Here First

“A lot of people have signs on their property that say ‘George Washington slept here,'” Carla tells me,  “but we’re the only ones that can say ‘George Washington slept here first.’ That’s one of our little mottos here.” Here, actually, quite literally: pictured above are the white oyster shell fragments marking the foundations of the plantation home of Augustine Washington and Mary Ball Washington. “Here,” the historic marker reads, “on February 22, 1732, George Washington—farmer, general of the Continental Army, and first president of the United States—was born.”

Funny thing is, the Memorial House, constructed on what historians thought marked the site of Washington’s birth house, actually falls 100 feet away. It was built in 1931, a year before the bicentennial celebration of Washington’s birth, when the Wakefield National Memorial Association scored funding from John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to secure land for the national park site. It was another six years before archeologists discovered the actual foundations above, “hidden under deepening soil and thickening underbrush for 150 years,” and realized they’d been mistaken. Oops. That house, a “U-shaped timber frame dwelling,” burned in a fire on Christmas Day, 1779. (This, I soon learn, is an ongoing theme in colonial presidential birthplaces. Jefferson’s birth house at Shadwell turned to ash in 1770. The third president greatly mourned the loss “of every paper I had in the world, and almost every book.” So years later, when he made his estate at Monticello, he demanded the kitchen be separate from the main house to prevent similar ruin. Live + learn.)

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“If it wasn’t for Bed & Breakfast people, I wouldn’t know much of anything.”

or, “Zachary’s Psychedelic Breakfast, Part 1”

As promised, an interview with Ridgely, the 74-year-old wife of George Forbes Copland II with whom I stayed at North Bend Plantation in Charles City, VA. “It’s just like the good lord sends all these people that we’d never have the opportunity to meet,” she tells me about her experience operating a Bed & Breakfast on the plantation once owned by her husband’s ancestors, family of founding father Benjamin Harrison and President William Henry Harrison. “We’ve met people from all over the world.”

Above, Ridgely speaks in great detail about the plantation’s history (“in 1864 there were 30,000 Union troops here,” nbd), her family connection to Edmund Ruffin (I guess we’re kin too, now that we’ve sorta shared a bed), her husband’s staggering English lineage (“George’s ancestors are in the Book of the Dead in England. . . . He’s kin to Charlemagne and the First Lord of Windsor in England”), and her own family history (“there were two people that were knighted, which is kinda fun”).

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Caldwell: “It Makes You Fit Your Corner of the World Into Something Larger”

Live from Caldwell, NJ: the modest 170-year-old site of Grover Cleveland’s 1837 birthplace. It’s not much—the house has been expanded significantly since Cleveland’s birth, but the site itself still blends seamlessly into the background of Caldwell’s quiet suburban sprawl. (Yes, I drove past it initially and had to circle back. Sorry, Grover. Just be thankful I didn’t steal your parking spot.)

But it is “the only house museum in the country dedicated to the interpretation of President Cleveland’s life.” (“Pretty much for Cleveland, this is it,” explained Janice, my tour guide, though there is a bit of information in Princeton, where he retired and was eventually buried.  “If you want to learn about Grover Cleveland, this is where you can learn more than any other place, with the possible exception of the Library of Congress.”)

Janice, a retired pharmaceutical worker, was my private guide, or “interpreter,” of Cleveland’s life and home. (There were no other visitors, at least until John Butters arrived. This did not seem out of the ordinary.) She told me about Grover’s birth to a minister father, his childhood among eight siblings, his eventual relocation to New York, admission to the bar, election as Governor and, eventually, president of the United States. She showed me a bowl belonging to Cleveland’s mother, a cradle in which Baby Grover was once rocked, a piece of fruit caked actually served at Cleveland’s 1886 marriage to Frances Folsom, a student less than half his age. She spoke proudly of his New Jersey roots (“he was the only president born and buried in New Jersey; this is his Mount Vernon”) and his firm honesty. She waffled like mad when I asked if she would have voted for Grover.

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Teddy Roosevelt’s Birthplace: “It’s Kind Of One Of Those Things”

Pictured above: East 20th Street, between Park and Broadway. Here are two important facts to know about this block:

  • President Theodore Roosevelt was born here on October 27, 1858.
  • Absolutely nothing has happened here since October 27, 1858.

Today, most passersby walk straight past the recreated brownstone, entirely oblivious to its historic value. But don’t take my word for it—watch this video I filmed from TR’s front stoop. Like everything about this block, it is unfathomably uneventful. (My working title was “Stoop Kid’s Afraid to Leave His Reconstructed Historic Brownstone.”)

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“What It Is Is History”: An Interview with Charlotte, FDR Historian

On Wednesday I visited the FDR National Historic Site (birthplace, family home, burial site, all-around stomping grounds) in Hyde Park, NY. There I met Charlotte, a generous and knowledgeable National Park ranger and FDR historian who has worked at the site for longer than I have been alive. (Disclaimer: a lot of people have worked at a lot of places for longer than I have been alive.) Charlotte assured me that the FDR historic site is “not an endorsement,” then pointed to the gift shop, where I could purchase New Deal slogan greeting cards and “I Want Roosevelt Again” pins.

More on this trip soon. Here’s my interview with Charlotte.

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