[Interview] Zach Schonfeld: "I Visit Presidential Birthplaces"
While in college, Zach Schonfeld had a quarter-life crisis. So, the 22-year-old decided to roadtrip across the country and see where U.S. presidents were born.
In the summer of 2011, he set off to blog about the local stories behind the national myths, from Jimmy Carter to Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan. The result: I Visit Presidential Birthplaces, a project funded by The History Channel and Wesleyan University, where Schonfeld studied English.
This past spring Schonfeld finished the project as his undergraduate thesis. Now, he’s here to share with us some of his presidential adventures.
I’m going to start with the obvious -- why visit presidential birthplaces?
The project was initially inspired by an unplanned visit to a presidential birthplace in the dead of winter: Calvin Coolidge’s in Vermont. The original idea, which was my friend’s, was entirely a joke: what if we traveled to every president’s birthplace with my dog, Max, and took a photo of him in front of each one? It was my dad who encouraged me to turn it into a serious project (and ditch the dog).
I envisioned it as an academic inquiry into how these mostly small and remote communities represented presidential history and forged a connection to some national narrative, merging historical field work with creative nonfiction and travel writing. I never in a million years expected Wesleyan to actually fund such a ridiculous idea. But they did. I subsequently scored funding from The History Channel.
As for why presidential birthplaces, there are two answers. The first is that every single president has a birthplace. The second is that visiting birthplaces seemed like the best way to investigate the American myth that anyone can be president and to complicate the presidents’ own origin narratives. I also visited and studied tons of presidential homes, hometowns, and resting sites.
What was it like on the road? Tell us about your route and some of the places you visited.
The original, fantastical idea was to visit every single presidential birthplace in the span of a single, cross-continental roadtrip. This isn’t what happened. Since I had limited time and funds, I ultimately visited 38 presidents’ birthplaces -- 39 if you count Jefferson Davis. And I split it up into a series of smaller roadtrips -- one through New England, one through the Midwest and Kentucky, one through Virginia, one through the eastern South, and so on. Since presidential sites are so scattered and off the beaten path, it made for some fascinatingly random, zigzagging travel routes.
It was like some bizarre, history-themed scavenger hunt across the entire U.S. in search of these often remote, forgotten sites. There was no typical day on the road, since the sites were all different from each other. But I would typically research a historical site the previous week and contact staff members or preservationists explaining my project and requesting interviews. After visiting the site, I would wander around the neighborhood or town finding townspeople or store clerks to interview on the spot. This led to some of my best interviews.
I visited every presidential birthplace in my parents’ Volvo, except for Nixon’s in California which I flew to, and Teddy Roosevelt’s in New York City which I took [the] Metro North [train] to get to. I was really lucky to have travel companions on the various trips, including my mom, my girlfriend, my brother, and my friend Rachel.
What was your favorite presidential destination? Why?
I traveled through central Kentucky and visited the birthplaces of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis over the course of one very surreal day. Davis's birthplace is a 351-foot concrete obelisk in rural Kentucky that is annually the site of a Confederate-themed beauty pageant. Abraham Lincoln's birthplace is sort of a shrine of its own. I did become very attached to the life and hometown of Calvin Coolidge, since that's where the entire idea started. Coolidge was the only president born on the 4th of July.
Some of most fascinating travel experiences were exploring the backwoods of Virginia on my own and accidentally ending up at an Arcade Fire concert. That was the week I spent a night on a slave plantation.
Did you get to talk to a lot of folks? Anyone with a particularly interesting story?
Yes, hundreds. I was constantly amazed by how personal history can be for people and how many individuals have devoted their lives to preserving and defending the legacies of forgotten or maligned presidents. One story that I'm especially fond of is Loretta, a woman who has been guarding Ulysses S. Grant's birthplace alone for nearly 50 years.
How are some of these sites currently being preserved?
It has been several years since I visited most of these sites so I haven't kept up with all of them. But curiously, the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Texas has come to fruition since I carried out this project. This interested me since I did manage to visit Bush's birthplace. It's in Connecticut at the Yale-New Haven Hospital.
No one that I spoke to there, save for one parking valet attendant, had any idea that a president had been born there. Nor do most Connecticut residents seem to know that Bush was born in their state. I think this captures some of the thorny partisan loyalties and geographic lays to claim that can both motivate and complicate preservationist efforts.
What is the strangest thing you learned over the course of your trip?
Grover Cleveland's sister is widely considered the first and only lesbian First Lady.
So where are you going next? Do you have another project in mind?
I don't know. I have a full-time fellowship with The Atlantic Wire for the next year, so I won't be doing many more visits or research during that time. I am interested in seeking publication for more of it. Throughout this project, I've been really surprised by how much fascination it stirs in people, even people who don't really care for history at all.