July 3, 2011

Humble start noted in visit to former president's homestead

Homestead retains story of President Coolidge's simple Vermont lifestyle


---- — Only one American president was born on the Fourth of July, and it's one whose persona would likely be least in keeping with fireworks and tumultuous celebration.

Here's a clue: He's one of two chief executives born in Vermont. (You get extra credit if, after reading this article, you guess the second.)

Calvin Coolidge came into the world on July 4, 1872, in the bedroom of the family homestead in Plymouth Junction. Fifty-one years later, in the house across the street, he took the oath of office as president of the United States. The setting today hasn't changed very much from its appearance of those earlier times.


Vermont preserves the place as a State Historic Site. A new Visitor Center, opened just last year, welcomes one with an introductory exhibit. Items on display include the dinner jacket from his second inaugural in 1925, the Bible on which he swore the oath of office and the chair he used at cabinet meetings. In addition, a video presentation outlines the essentials of his biography.

Americans like to idealize their heroes, but Calvin's tale seems to require little adornment. His father, John, whose family first settled in the area in 1780, farmed, ran a store and served as a justice of the peace in this tiny hamlet. Calvin began his education in a one-room schoolhouse. When it came time for high school, he went to Black River Academy, walking 12 miles each Sunday to get there, and then coming back to the farm on Fridays. A degree from Amherst College followed.

His political career began with a loss in a school-board election. From that defeat, the trajectory climbed continually upward: mayor of Northampton, Mass.; state legislator; two terms as governor of the state; selection as the vice-presidential nominee on a ticket headed by Ohioan Warren G. Harding.

When Harding died suddenly in 1923, Calvin was vacationing back in Plymouth. News of the death reached him by telegram. His father took it upon himself to swear in his son to the highest post in the land. Later queried as to how he decided that he could perform such a rite, John replied merely, "I didn't know that I couldn't."

Aside from the White House and the State House in Boston, most of the landmarks in Calvin's life are right here within a stone's throw of each other.

The general store that John ran now offers a selection of souvenirs and penny candies. Examples of goods offered in earlier times fill shelves that line the walls. In a small addition to the store stands the room in which America's 30th president was born. Restored to its original appearance with family furnishings, it serves as a reminder of the humble circumstances from which a chief executive can emerge.

Rural reminders

By the time young Calvin turned 4 years old, the family had moved to a larger home down the block. Most of the furniture is still Coolidge-family in origin. In the small bedroom there's a "tumbling blocks" quilt that Calvin pieced at the age of 10. Handcuffs on a wall serve as a reminder that his father, as a deputy sheriff, occasionally had to keep prisoners overnight at the house prior to transporting them to the county seat for arraignment or trial. Attached sheds would have accommodated pigs or horses during inclement weather. The adjacent "two-holer" was used until 1932.

Not much has changed in the small parlor where Calvin was sworn in as president just after 2 a.m. on Aug. 3, 1923. There's a tall secretary, a rocking chair and a bed. The same kerosene lamp sits on the table, as does the family Bible on which Calvin swore his oath of office.

Two barns house exhibits relating to rural life in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A collection of horse-drawn vehicles includes a Concord coach and a variety of sleighs. Displays of farm equipment include threshers, grain cradles, hay rakes and a horse-powered treadmill. Even during his presidency, Calvin returned home during the summer to help with the haying.

Atop the general store is Coolidge Hall. Originally a storage attic, the space was remodeled in 1890 into a social center and grange hall. It's a spacious room with a vaulted ceiling. As a child, Calvin wasn't allowed to go to the Saturday night dances there, but in 1924 it became the Summer White House. The dances continued, accompanied by the Plymouth Old-Time Dance Orchestra. Piano, clarinet, violins and drums were all played by Calvin's friends and relatives. In 1926, the band actually made a national tour.

Newsreel footage from the era shows the president thoroughly at home amidst his Vermont roots. Clips show him drawing water from a well, lighting oil lamps and riding a hay wagon. "Likes pitchforks better than golf clubs," read one caption. Locals dropped by regularly during his residency. So did out-of-town friends like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

Operations continue

We continued to wander around the tiny village. There's a row of simple tourist cabins. One is furnished as in the days the neighboring Aldrich family welcomed travelers who wanted to stay a short time. During Calvin's tenure as president, those visitors often were Secret Service personnel assigned to guard him. Those not lucky enough to be assigned a cabin would sleep in tents outside the Coolidge home.

The cheese factory sports more stainless steel these days, but otherwise continues to operate as it has for generations. John Coolidge, the president's son, ran the factory from 1960 until 1998, when he sold it to the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. Photos and vintage tools depict the traditional process by which five quarts of milk became preserved as a pound of cheese.

For iced tea and sandwiches, we stopped at the Wilder House. Built as a tavern around 1830, this later became the childhood home of Calvin's mother, Victoria. It has served as a restaurant since the 1950s.

Elsewhere stands the farm shop, filled with tools used in woodworking, blacksmithing and carriage making. A plaque denotes the Coolidge pew in the gleaming white Union Christian Church, built in 1840 and still boasting an active congregation. The Carrie Brown Coolidge Garden preserves perennial beds begun by Calvin's stepmother. A short walking trail gives a chance to view adjacent pastureland.

Plain and dignified

Before leaving Plymouth, we drove to the local cemetery. The markers for Calvin and his wife, Grace, are near the base of a steep hill. These are simple engraved marble tablets. There's no more ornamentation than their names, the years of birth and death, and the American seal.

It's plain and dignified, much like the man himself.

Upon leaving Washington, Calvin said, "We draw our presidents from the people ... I came from them. I wish to be one of them again."

In an era when invective and innuendo so heavily marks politics, there's a pleasure in appreciating such a homespun philosophy and seeing such an unadorned memorial.

(The other president from Vermont, by the way, was Chester A. Arthur, born outside Fairfield in 1830.)

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