Jul. 25, 2011 by Olivia Drake
On June 7, Zach Schonfeld ’13 toured the modest 170-year-old site of President Grover Cleveland’s 1837 birthplace.
“Live from Caldwell, N.J.,” Schonfeld blogged on this day. “It’s not much—the house has been expanded significantly since Cleveland’s birth, but the siteitself 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.”
Cleveland’s childhood home is one of 20-some presidential birthplaces Schonfeld is exploring this summer as a Wesleyan Olin Fellow. His project, partially funded by the History Channel, allows the English and American studies major to travel the country, visit presidential historical sites, interview locals and experts on presidential preservation and blog about his experience. His blog, appropriately titled, “I Visit Presidential Birthplaces,” is updated multiple times each week.
Schonfeld initiated the project in December 2010, near an abandoned farm. Here, he explored the birthplace of Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth, Vt. and found it to me one of the most memorial visits of his adult life. He returned to the “breathtaking, perfectly preserved” 19th century farm on July 1 and participated in the town’s Fourth of July parade. “There I paid respects—and wished the late Vermonter a happy and healthy 139th,” Schonfeld writes.
Hoping to visit additional presidential homes, he applied for and was awarded the Olin Fellowship, created by Wesleyan Writing Programs to support independent research or creative writing.
“My project explores the notion that presidential birthplaces are more than mere passive markers of historical trivia—that they can, and do, provide rich insight into the ways in which small, otherwise ordinary towns and communities proudly insert themselves into the fabric of American political history,” Schonfeld explains.
After receiving the fellowship, which came with a travel stipend, Schonfeld officially started his quest on May 25, where he visited and blogged about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birthsite in Hyde Park, N.Y. From there, he traveled to Theodore Roosevelt’s birthplace in New York City; Glover Cleveland’s home in Caldwell, N.J.; James Madison’s birthplace in Port Conway, Va.; James Monroe’s site (now a monument) in Colonial Beach, Va.; George Washington in Westmoreland County, Va.; John Tyler’s birthplace at Greenway Plantation, Charles City, Va.; and William Henry Harrison’s site in Berkley, Va. He also visited Harrison’s family plantation in Charles City County, Va.
“I am presently live-blogging from … the North Bend Plantation, a 6,000 square foot estate built in 1801 for William Henry Harrison’s sister and presently run as a bed-and-breakfast inn by George Forbes Copland II, great nephew of William Henry Harrison,” Schonfeld writes in his June 8 blog. “I am alone, in other words, on a 200-year-old slave plantation in Charles City, Va., in a bed previously slept in by a confederate madman, in a room occupied by General Sheridan during the Civil War. I am a card-carrying Union traitor, if only on fellowship.”
His travels continued to the birthplace of Zachary Taylor in Orange County, Va.; Thomas Jefferson in Shadwell, Va.; Woodrow Wilson in Staunton, Va.; George Herbert Walker Bush in Milton, Mass.; John Adams and John Quincy Adams in Quincy, Mass.; and John F. Kennedy in Brookline, Mass.
On July 5, Schonfeld toured a tiny Vermont farm town on the Canadian border, and encountered a small yellow cottage nestled in the woods. A marker outside the home states: “Research indicates Chester Alan Arthur was born [here] in Fairfield, Vermont on October 5, 1829.”
“But is it even the birthplace? Hard to say,” Schonfeld blogged. “Vermont birth records were scarce before the 1850s, and Arthur’s birth remains a subject of debate. [While in Fairfield] we might solve the mystery of President Arthur’s birth, or we might end up Canada, or we might find the holy grail.”
In addition to the presidential birthplaces, Schonfeld visits several presidential historical sites including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and James Monroe’s Museum and Memorial Library. In Milton, Mass. he visited a one-room log cabin replica where Abraham Lincoln was born.
He’s also interviewed countless townspeople and people employed at these historic sites.
Schonfeld travels mostly by car and recruits friends and family members to accompany him on different legs of the project. To keep costs low, he tries to stay with friends and friends’ families whenever possible. He’s looking for host families in Ohio, Kentucky, Iowa, Illinois.
“I am very happy for Wesleyan alumni or families to contact me if they live in these places,” he says.
In August, he will write an essay about his experience, and submit material to historical publications or journals.
As for ultimately finding President Arthur’s birthplace? Schonfeld never did solve the mystery.
“If the cows know, they’re not telling, and if Arthur knew—well, somehow I doubt Arthur knew a whole lot more about his life in Fairfield than we do now.”