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.
“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.
- Hello from Fredericksburg: I have made it safely to Virginia, birth state of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Tyler, Harrison, Taylor, Wilson, Madison, and Monroe. (Yes, that is a record.) Expect a glamorous week of presidential libraries and plantations and birth site markers, oh my.
- Tonight I am chillin’ at the Holidae Inn. Tomorrow’s likely digs: North Bend Plantation, originally built for William Henry Harrison’s sister, presently owned by William Henry Harrison’s descendant. Chingy, write a song about this one too, plz.
- Blog updates may be sporadic until I’m back in New York: god only knows how often I will be online, or how likely I am to survive Virginia weather.
- George Cleveland, Grover’s only surviving grandchild, has agreed to an interview, nbd.
- If you set your car’s navigation system destination as “The White House” while cruising through southern Maryland, you will arrive near—but not quite at—The White House. Try it sometime. Perhaps on impulse, while en route from New York to Fredericksburg.
That seems the clearest summation of my trip to Grover Cleveland’s birthplace in Caldwell, NJ. Why else would I absentmindedly wander into the very frame shop whose owner’s husband simply happens to be president of the Grover Cleveland Birthplace Memorial Association? How else did I come across an email address for Grover Cleveland’s only living grandchild?
And how else could I characterize my chance encounter with John Butters (above, mugging for the camera), a charmingly excitable Wisconsin man who has spent his retirement visiting at least one historic site for every president, excluding Bush and Obama? Mr. Butters has also traveled to over 100 countries and all seven continents. “I was in the travel industry for many years,” he tells me, avoiding additional clarification. To paraphrase High Fidelity, Butters is the sort of fast-talking history nut I’ve wanted to meet ever since I’d been old enough to want to meet fast-talking history nuts. I can’t wait to speak to him further.
Tomorrow I venture to Caldwell, NJ, to investigate Grover Cleveland’s 1837 birthplace, and perhaps even the Grover Cleveland Senior Center (though I certainly wouldn’t want to interfere with the center’s monthly blood pressure clinic). (We’ll see.)
Did you know that Grover Cleveland is the only president to have served two nonconsecutive terms? Of course you did. Because it’s the only thing anyone remembers about Cleveland, despite the fact that he
- aggressively intervened in the first national strike in U.S. history;
- presided over perhaps the severest financial crisis of the nineteenth century;
- stood firmly against Gilded-era corruption and bossism, before it was the cool thing to do (sup, Progressive movement?);
- and, quite inadvertently, paved the way for Populist hijacking of the Democratic party in 1896. Free
I know about Cleveland’s nonconsecutive terms because my eighth grade social studies teacher required us to memorize the presidents, in order—full names, years in office, and one significant event during each administration. Eight presidents at a time, one (cumulative) test per quarter, Washington through Bush (the second one). I think I aced them, though I may have misspelled “Millard Fillmore” once.
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.”)