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Valley Life

March 16, 2014

Author visits birthplace of Calvin Coolidge

Editor’s Note: Today, in this seventh and final installment of Mike Lunsford’s “New England Journal,” the writer visits a small town in south central Vermont, birthplace of the nation’s 30th President, Calvin Coolidge. Be sure to look for Mike’s regular column in Monday’s edition of the Tribune-Star.

PLYMOUTH NOTCH, VERMONT — It may very well be true that time stands still for no one, but on a visit to this quiet hamlet in the heart of Vermont’s Green Mountains last summer, my wife and I found it considerably slowed. Plymouth Notch is the birthplace of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States. He was born in a house attached to the general store, was sworn into the presidency by his notary public father in his parents’ sitting room, and is buried in a hillside graveyard just south of town surrounded by seven generations of his family. It is an apt place to have a man nicknamed “Silent Cal” as a favorite son.

Tucked away on Vermont State Highway 100A, about six miles south of U.S. Highway 4, Plymouth Notch sits in the dark green shadows of Salt Ash Mountain. It is said that the town has changed little since the 1930s, but it is more likely that it has remained much as it was when Coolidge was born 60 years before that.

Under the guidance of his father—“Colonel” John Coolidge — the young Calvin (originally named John Calvin) was raised in a home that valued the virtues of hard work, Biblical Scripture and nearly fanatical thrift. A favorite story about the latter quality is that during the presidential campaign of 1880 between James Garfield and Winfield Hancock, the young Calvin asked his father for a penny to buy candy. The Colonel told him no, saying that if Hancock, the Democrat, were to win, hard economic times would be on their way. Only after Garfield was declared the winner — and Calvin had reminded his father — was he given the coin.

We had stayed overnight in Rutland and awoke to a cool and breezy Father’s Day the morning we drove to Plymouth Notch. We had slept well after a day of chasing Robert Frost through the hills north of there, and had stopped for a while to stick our toes in the White River. It was a pleasant trip past idle ski resorts and deep forests to the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site, its visitor’s center a beautiful amalgam of green paint and native stone that houses many of Coolidge’s personal effects and acts as a gateway to the town. We were among only a handful of visitors that morning to pull into the graveled parking lot, and soon handed our interests and questions over to tour guide Patricia Davis, who had clearly done her homework.

There are really only two streets in Plymouth Notch. At their intersection sits the Florence Cilley Store, our first stop on the tour. John Coolidge became the storekeeper there in 1868, eventually purchased it, then sold his share to his enterprising brother; Cilley bought the store in 1917, and a post office remained there until 1976. Just behind and attached to the store is the modest house where the future president was born in a downstairs bedroom on July 4, 1872. Although Coolidge only lived in the house for four years before his father bought the “homestead” just across and up the shaded street, the future president used the vaulted “hall” above the store as a “summer White House” office when he returned to “The Notch” in 1924 for a long vacation away from the smells of the nation’s capital city.  

The homestead is a fascinatingly simple place. A perfect example of New England “continuous architecture” in white clapboard, it is attached to the barn where Coolidge undoubtedly spent many hours caring for animals amid the harnesses and tools of a working farm; behind the home, across the rich pastureland to the north, lay the spread of his father’s parents where young Calvin also spent considerable time. His mother’s family home, located just east of the homestead, is now a restaurant.

Coolidge wrote in his autobiography (the writing of which absorbed much of his too-short post-presidential life), “It would be hard to imagine better surroundings for the development of a boy than those which I had … Country life may not always have breadth, but it has depth. It is neither artificial nor superficial, but is kept close to the realities.”

Coolidge spent his formative years in Plymouth, mostly working on the farm, but also absorbing the political and financial sense of his father, who not only tended to his acreage, but taught school before winning seats in the Vermont House of Representatives and State Senate. Calvin left home in 1891 to attend Amherst College, graduated with honors, then moved on to Northampton to establish a law office. Like his father, the younger Coolidge was soon involved in local politics, became a city councilman, and eventually, mayor. From there he moved on to both houses of the Massachusetts legislature, and by 1919 he was in the national headlines as the state’s governor, putting down a policeman’s strike in Boston by declaring that there “was no right to strike against public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” His assertiveness in the crisis — he sent National Guard troops in to restore order — helped Coolidge catch the attention of the Republican National Committee, who selected him as running mate for Warren Harding in the presidential election of 1920. Harding, who had absolutely nothing in common with the self-effacing Vermonter, probably did himself a favor by dying less than three years into his term, the Teapot Dome Scandal and various other indiscretions simmering just out of the public eye.

At 2:47 in the morning on August 3, 1923, Calvin Coolidge took the oath of office, as administered by his father in the glare of the homestead’s kerosene lamplight. “How did you know that you could administer the oath to your son?” an interested visitor asked the Colonel before his death three years later. “I didn’t know that I couldn’t,” he replied.

The table, Bible, and lamp used that early morning remain in the same spot, as do a good many other Coolidge artifacts (housekeeper Aurora Piece maintained the home for another 30 years after John Coolidge’s death and kept many hundreds of items in tact), and we noted, for instance, the black walnut, horsehair-covered furniture the Colonel brought to the house. A bit of rain was spitting at us as we left the house, so we headed across the street where we stood for a few minutes near the small flower garden Coolidge’s stepmother, Carrie Brown Coolidge, started and maintained. It is framed by copper-topped rail posts, and a simple weather vane, a replica of one made by Coolidge’s youngest son, Calvin Jr., turned in the breezes that swept down from the surrounding hillsides.

We next went to the Union Christian Church, built in the Greek Revival Style of the 1840s; the Coolidges regularly attended there. A barn swallow had gotten into the church, swooping above us and breaking the reverence of the place, but even it couldn’t keep us from marveling at the gorgeous pine woodwork made from locally-cut lumber. The church’s interior was remodeled in 1890 in the Carpenter Gothic Style, and an American flag sat in window light near the pew that Coolidge, wife Grace, and their two sons, occupied on return visits.

William Jenney, administrator for the Coolidge site, says of Plymouth Notch, “The town and its people did much to shape the future president’s values, and he returned throughout his life to rejuvenate body and spirit. Site interpretation strives to give visitors a deep appreciation for this modest man who rose to the nation’s highest office, and his belief in hard work and perseverance, honesty, and trust in the American people and the democratic system.”

Coolidge’s presidency continues to be re-evaluated. Saying rather tersely that he had “never been hurt by anything I didn’t say,” he chose to say little in his years in the White House (he was elected on his own merit in 1924). Although he has his share of contemporary detractors who see him as a do-nothing whose laissez-faire business policies hastened the coming of the Great Depression, he was, in fact, a more active chief executive than most believe. He proposed little legislation, but supported lower taxes and smaller government, to such an extent that he exercised the veto against a number of bills that would have probably helped his own home districts. He appointed special prosecutors to investigate the Harding mess, re-established the dignity of the presidency, wrote his own speeches and touted the virtues of self-determination.

Yet, many remember Coolidge for his peculiarities, his good-natured willingness to be photographed in chaps and spurs and Native American head dress. He played the harmonica, trout fished in white shirt and tie, often stopped paperwork to take his own pulse, and announced to the world on August 2, 1927, in a Rapid City, South Dakota, classroom that he “did not choose to run for president in nineteen twenty-eight.” He had given the reporters gathered there the message on small strips of paper, and answered only with an emphatic “No,” when asked if he had any further comments. Coolidge had made up his mind to leave public life. “It costs a great deal to be president,” he later said.

His life was not without tragedy. Coolidge’s mother died when he was just 12, the former president mentioning years later in his autobiography that, “We laid her away in the blustering snows of March. The greatest grief that can come to a boy came to me.” A few years later, Coolidge’s younger sister, Abigail, died at 15. But above all else was the death of his youngest son, Calvin Jr. The Coolidges did not bring their two teen-aged sons to Washington when he became Vice-President; in fact, they were both expected to continue to work and attend school at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania. In the summer of 1924, Calvin Jr. developed a blister on his toe while playing a game of tennis on the White House courts. It became infected, and within a week he was dead. “When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him,” Coolidge later wrote.

There was much more to see in Plymouth Notch before we left, the Wilder Horse Barn, built in 1875, but rebuilt just a decade ago, for one. A post-and-beam “bank barn,” it was filled with everything from a pristine Model T to a horse-drawn hearse on sled runners, but we were to drive Highway 4 toward the beauty of Quechee Gorge, and then into New Hampshire and adventures beyond. So, we headed to hilly Plymouth Cemetery, where Coolidge lies next to his wife and mother, father and sons. We were alone there for a while when two fellow visitors arrived, they from the crags of Scotland, we from the farmlands of the Midwest.

Coolidge’s gravestone, save for the Presidential Seal carved above his name, is like many others in the cemetery, which dates back to the 18th century. It is a simple, quiet place without fences and traffic and formality, and our new friends commented, just as the rain began to fall in earnest, that the site hadn’t the fanfare they expected for a president. Coolidge, we thought, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, for he also wrote in his autobiography that, “Everything of value starts in the heart.”

Coolidge’s heart was always in Plymouth Notch, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, where all there is to hear are winds blowing through pine and water tumbling over granite.

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at hickory913@aol.com, or c/o the Tribune-Star at PO Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. To learn more about Calvin Coolidge, the writer recommends “Coolidge,” by Amity Shlaes (2013), “One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson (2013), and J.J. Perling’s “Presidents’ Sons” (1947).

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