by Henry Lane Hull
When the B.E.s were coming along, my Good Wife and I developed a plan to enhance their education in American history, the essence of which was to take them to visit the birthplaces and graves of the American presidents.
Having three of the birthplaces here in the Northern Neck got us off to a good start. We did not go chronologically, but in a random manner when we were traveling to different areas of the country.
We got through the other five Virginia presidents in good order, and on a trip to Ohio, the mother of seven presidents, Virginia’s runner up as a president producer, we were able to check more off of the list. With great difficulty we found Warren G. Harding’s birthplace, which is commemorated only by a small granite marker in a yard where his birth home once stood, but his later home and monumental tomb in Marion are quite impressive.
Our trip came shortly after the opening of the reconstructed birthplace of William McKinley in Niles, Ohio. In every respect that project is a disaster. The original structure was lost long ago and a bank was built on the site. The bank was removed and a modern house, which alleged to replicate the birthplace, was constructed. It and its exhibits were disappointing to say the least.
McKinley’s tomb in Canton, Ohio, was another matter, as its size was surpassed only by that of U.S. Grant in New York City.
To my generation Grant’s Tomb always will be associated with the comedian, Groucho Marx, who consistently asked contestants on his quiz show, ”Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” The tomb is the largest in America, overlooking the Hudson River from a commanding site near the Riverside Church. As Grant’s role in American history has undergone a more positive reevaluation in recent years, visiting the tomb has become more popular.
The most intact presidential birthplace is that of Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth, Vermont. His family had dominated the village, which included the store his father operated and the room where his father administered the oath of office upon learning of President Harding’s death in San Francisco. The Coolidge family operated a cheese factory, which still produced a sharp variety of cheddar during our visit, although the factory had been sold to the National Park Service. The entire village had not been altered, and walking around one could appreciate what the place had appeared like in Coolidge’s youth.
One of the docents informed us that as we toured the village we should be careful if we encountered an old yellow station wagon, as the driver, John Coolidge, was the President’s son, then 93, and not very adept behind the wheel. On our way to the cemetery we met the car and John Coolidge stopped to speak with us, then he whisked off, giving credence to the docent’s warning.
Vermont is also the birthplace of Chester A. Arthur. The structure there is a reconstruction, but done authentically. On our visit the building was open for visitation, but no guides or docents were in sight. On another trip we visited Arthur’s grave in Albany, New York, which surprisingly was equally untended.
The only presidential birthplace that is absolutely unavailable for historically minded tourists is that of Franklin Pierce, as it is somewhere under Lake Pierce, a manmade reservoir in New Hampshire. His grave in Concord is in the Minot Enclosure, a small plot that requires some difficulty to find.
The two presidential birthplaces in closest proximity to each other are those of John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, who were born in houses next to each other in Braintree, Massachusetts, and who are entombed next to each other in Quincy. The birthplaces are in excellent condition, but unfortunately in the middle of the last century, the neighboring 18th-century houses were razed.
All of these sites as well as many others give visitors a deeper understanding of the significance of those individuals who have led our country and are well worth the effort to visit.