Back Story: Mo Rocca, Lover of American History Trivia
Journalist and TV personality Mo Rocca prizes unusual bits of American history trivia, especially those on the subject of United States presidents. As a CBS Sunday Morningcorrespondent, he regularly contributes history-related pieces, including a 2014 segment on Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, a National Treasure of the National Trust. He also hosts My Grandmother’s Ravioli on Cooking Channel and The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation on CBS. Preservation met with the unflappable Rocca to discuss his fascination with the past.
You’re known as an expert in U.S. presidential history. How did you initially become interested in this topic?
One day I was watching the Today show, and they were at a Thomas Edison site in New Jersey. And don’t ask me how, but I figured out that Grover Cleveland’s birthplace was just down the road from there. And I became curious about who would work at the Grover Cleveland birthplace, taking care of those pieces of history. Because if you go to Monticello or Hyde Park, you’re instantly in awe, but if you work at the Grover Cleveland birthplace or the Benjamin Harrison house in the Old Northside section of Indianapolis, you’ve really got to sell it. So I started visiting the sites of presidents who you can’t remember were actually president. And I found the people who worked there kind of quirky and inspiring.
So your interest in historic sites was just a hobby at first?
I guess it was, but it was really born of a need to feel connected to wherever I was living. When I [lived in] L.A., where it’s really easy to feel disconnected, I joined the L.A. Conservancy and would spend an entire Saturday doing, say, a terra cotta walking tour. So that became important to me. Then I realized there were good stories here: not just the stories that were being preserved, but the story of the actual preservation, the people who were working at these historic places.
And once I got onto The Daily Show, which I partly got onto because of this [presidential history] hobby, I started speaking at colleges. And I learned something that I think is true for any kind of performance: If you’re excited enough about your subject matter, your audience will also get excited. And I was kind of proud that kids at Ohio State or Drake University would say, “I had no idea I would ever be interested in what you’re talking about, but I am.”
What made you decide to do the Elkhorn Ranch story?
I’m a big Roosevelt fan. He’s just an exciting figure. That story to me has all the elements that you want for a good history story. I mean, losing his wife and his mother in the span of a few hours—on Valentine’s Day! And fleeing to this part of the country that’s at that time not even a state, just a territory, and having this epiphany about the environment and bringing that back with him. It’s amazing that story hasn’t been made into a movie.
You should write the screenplay!
If someone would let me stay at the Elkhorn Ranch, [I would]. I’m not going there in the winter, though. I’m a Rough Rider in the fall and spring. The strenuous life is strictly seasonal with me.