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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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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Somewhere Over the Reagan Rainbow, Part I: “There Goes Ronald Reagan’s Body”

“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.”

"The Reagan Rainbow" — November, 1980, Tampico, IL

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.”

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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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Seven Dead in Ohio (and one still living)

This week's midwestern odyssey.

It’s funny: you drive the entire length of Pennsylvania (that’s 283 mind-numbing miles of I-80), and finally you cross over into Ohio, and find yourself expecting some great gratifying shift in scenery, some grand “Mother of Presidents” welcome parade.

And it all still looks like Pennsylvania. And I-80 goes on and on.

Yes, I’ve made it to Ohio. Birthplace of seven U.S. presidents (three died in office; all, strangely, served between 1870 and 1923). Birthplace of aviation (GTFO, North Carolina). Birthplace of . . . my biological grandmother?

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“Beyond Americana”: An Interview with George Cleveland

George Cleveland is Executive Director of the Gibson Center for Senior Services in North Conway, New Hampshire. His grandfather, Grover, was president of the United States—and in Cleveland’s words, the family resemblance is “fricking scary.”

I got in touch with Cleveland after seeing his picture (above) at the Grover Cleveland birthplace over a month ago in Caldwell, New Jersey. What ensued is the longest (and strangest) interview I’ve yet conducted since beginning this project in May: a rambling, 40-minute phone dialogue about D. B. Cooper, Ella May Clampett, and whether or not Grover Cleveland was a “big rapist child-eating monster.” Mr. Cleveland is likely the only presidential descendant to describe a presidential birthplace as “funky” and then brag about being related to the “first lesbian First Lady.” And eventually he arrived at the topic especially on his mind: the Marshfield Cherry Blossom Festival in Missouri, or “the only place on earth where you’ll see a direct descendant of Jefferson Davis with his arm around a direct descendant of Dred Scott.”

I couldn’t make this up if I tried.

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