Princeton, New Jersey is known for its prestigious university, alma mater to famous and prominent people, including presidents James Madison and Woodrow Wilson (JFK attended Princeton, but transferred to Harvard). However, when my family and I had the opportunity for a somewhat spontaneous stop in Princeton, I had another president in mind – Grover Cleveland.
We decided to push on to Princeton after road trip delays meant we would miss Sunnyside, home of writer Washington Irving (see the previous post on Sleepy Hollow Cemetery). For whatever reason (maybe because I read so many nerdy things), I recalled that Grover Cleveland was buried in Princeton Cemetery and jumped at the chance to pick off this presidential site.
After spending the night in a hotel (including a room with a Murphy bed!) we had just a couple of hours to explore Princeton and the cemetery before taking my brother to the airport. While doing some online research that night, we learned about the many other prominent people buried in Princeton Cemetery, including Aaron Burr. That’s right, the former United States vice president who may be best known for his duel with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. Of course, I always associated Burr with the famous “Got Milk” commercial where a duel aficionado with a mouthful of peanut butter loses a contest because he can’t say Burr’s name. My mom could not understand why my brother and I kept mumbling Burr’s name over and over again.
Burr , U.S. vice president, is buried in “President’s Corner,”also the burial place of Burr’s father (Aaron Burr, Sr) and Burr’s grandfather (Jonathan Edwards), both presidents of Princeton University – who knew! According to the cemetery guide, the grave of Aaron Burr Sr. is the cemetery’s oldest, which makes me think they had to move the grandfather’s grave from somewhere else. United States president Woodrow Wilson was also once president of Princeton Cemetery, but he’s buried at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Yet a U.S. president who was neither a Princeton president nor a college graduate is buried in Princeton Cemetery, although not in President’s Corner because that refers to university presidents.
The cemetery guide, which we picked up at the entrance, offered a numbered map with 67 persons of interest, who included George Gallup (as in Gallup poll) and William Hahn whose headstone reads “I told you I was sick.” According to the guide, Princeton Cemetery was established in 1757 and is owned and operated by the Nassau Presbyterian Church. It was once described as the “Westminster Abbey of the United States” because there were so many prominent people buried there. I wish we had more time to explore and see them all, but we had a plane to catch.
To keep things moving, we drove to a few key locations in the cemetery. My mom and brother sat in the car while I ran about on foot. This left me somewhat vulnerable when somewhat creepy man approached the car to ask my brother about the location of a particular grave. Always supportive, my brother pointed to me as the person to ask. Since we were only hitting the highlights, I don’t think I was too much help, and I probably should not be too judgmental of other nerdy folks who are dashing around a historic cemetery on a Sunday morning.
Our main get was, of course, the graves of Grover Cleveland and family. The man who was both our 22nd and 24th president (the only president to serve non-consecutive terms) has bands of beads draping his memorial. Soon after the trip, I emailed Princeton Cemetery to ask about this, but I did not hear back. I even tried Googling but could not figure it out. There are also beads on the memorials for Cleveland family members, including his daughter Ruth, the namesake for the Baby Ruth candy bar.
So why is a president who was governor of New York and never went to college buried in Princeton? Well, Grover Cleveland was born in New Jersey, and he retired to Princeton after his presidency, however his Princeton home is not open to the public, so you can’t visit. But Princeton Cemetery is definitely worth a visit. Princeton itself also seems like a nice college town that would be fun to explore. We took some time to walk and visit some shops, including an Albert Einstein “museum” in the back of a sweater shop (talk about a Bonus Nerd Trip!). There are lots of other nerdy sites to see in New Jersey, so I am sure we’ll be back.
P.S. Need more details about Princeton Cemetery? Click here for our “On the Map” page that has information about visiting this site, including the address and links to directions. You’ll also see our Nerd Trips “ABCs” – admissions, bathrooms, concessions, etc.