Monday, April 18, 2011

Aloha and fruitcake from Cleveland's birthplace

Who is the only U.S. president to have been both born and buried in New Jersey?

Who was the only man to have served as president twice, in non-consecutive terms?

Who's the only president to be married in the White House?

Who is Cleveland, Ohio named after?

The answer to the first three questions: Grover Cleveland. And the answer to the last question: not Grover Cleveland.* Before Saturday's torrential rains began to fall, Ivan and I made a visit to the birthplace of our 22nd and 24th president, on Bloomfield Avenue in Caldwell. Now a state park, it's one of those sites that's long been on my 'to visit' list. We learned far more than we expected and saw things we never anticipated.

The house itself was formerly the manse (minister's home) for Caldwell's First Presbyterian Church. Cleveland's father, Richard Falley Cleveland, served as the congregation's pastor from 1834 to 1840 before moving to a new church in Fayetteville, New York. The future president lived in the manse to the age of three and spent his formative years in upstate New York. At the age of 16, Grover lost his father, prompting his departure from school and the start of his work career. Eventually moving to Buffalo, he studied for and passed the bar exam without having attended college or law school, and then entered public life. Gaining a reputation for honesty and integrity, he was elected to positions of increasing importance, first as sheriff of Erie County, then mayor of Buffalo and next the governor of New York. Later, of course, he was elected president of the United States as a Democrat, which was remarkable for the time.

A house tour will bring you through the first floor, which is largely where the Cleveland family lived during their stay in Caldwell. While most of the artifacts weren't the family's belongings, they're of the same vintage, giving you a good idea of what it was like to live in the small house. The parents' bedroom, Cleveland's actual birth place, is marked by a decorative plaque, and it draws the inevitable question of where Grover and his seven brothers and sisters (at the time) slept. According to our very informative guide, they all shared a common bedroom on the second floor, no doubt huddling together to conserve the limited heat. While the presbytery no doubt provided comfortable accommodations for their clergy, we can pretty safely assume that in the 1830s, central heat wasn't part of the deal.

Looking into the parents' bedroom, I noticed an orange plastic lei draped atop the future president's small cradle. What connection could the house possibly have to Hawaii? As it turns out, Cleveland's second term occurred during a pivotal time in the history of the island chain, and his actions made him a hero to monarchist Hawaiians. American businessmen had already overthrown Queen Liliuokalani and were seeking annexation to the United States. President Benjamin Harrison's administration had already sent the necessary legislation to the Senate, but Cleveland blocked it, effectively stalling the annexation until after the conclusion of his term. While the inevitable happened in 1898, several Hawaiians make an annual pilgrimage to Caldwell to honor Cleveland for his stalling move. If you'd like to meet them and learn more about their devotion, they're expected to visit again on April 30.

The last room of the house is a treasure trove of artifacts from Cleveland's political career, including campaign posters, buttons and other paraphernalia. There's lots of great stuff there, but I was most taken by the wedding cake. No, it wasn't a recreation: they have two pieces of the actual cake from the reception after he and the considerably-younger Frances Folsom tied the knot in 1886.

A piece of Cleveland's traveling wedding cake,
in its mailing carton.
Seeing shades of Miss Havisham, I asked the guide how and why someone would save a 125-year-old piece of cake. I mean, I get its significance as an artifact of the only presidential wedding at the White House, but come on. She explained that the custom was to have two wedding cakes: one for the attending guests to enjoy on the day of the ceremony, and another to divide and send to invitees who were unable to attend. The second cake was usually a firmer, fruitcake-like confection, so it would hold up during shipping. One wonders if this is where the traveling fruitcake tradition started. The piece we saw didn't look all that much different from what my Aunt Edna used to send us every year at Christmas time, so perhaps we have Grover Cleveland to thank for popularizing the concept. No doubt, there's still a piece of his cake being regifted every year during Yule season.

As we've experienced during many of our other Hidden NJ jaunts, we left the Cleveland home with our curiosity piqued about yet another Garden State notable. For one, we knew we had to make it down to visit his gravesite in Princeton.

* Rather, the city in Ohio was named for the president's distant relative Moses Cleaveland, a late 18th century surveyor and politician.

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