Unique in American history, Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th President of the United States by his father, here in his boyhood home on August 3, 1923.
While vacationing at his old family home in Plymouth Notch, Vice President Calvin Coolidge received an urgent message from Washington, D.C.: the President, Warren G. Harding, had died. At 2:47 a.m., by the light of a kerosene lamp, Coolidge took the oath of office from his father, the local notary public.
Years later, Coolidge wrote, "It seemed a simple and natural thing to do at the time, but I can now realize something of the dramatic force of the event."
Today, Plymouth Notch is regarded as one of the best-preserved presidential sites in the nation. The small Vermont hill town is virtually unchanged since the “Homestead Inaugural” in 1923.
The homes of Coolidge’s family and neighbors are carefully preserved, as is the village church, general store, cheese factory (still making cheese using the original 1890 recipe), and community dance hall that served as the 1924 Summer White House office. Among the site’s amenities are a modern Museum & Education Center, two museum stores, two walking trails, an on-site restaurant (serving breakfast & lunch), and a sheltered picnic area. A special part of any visit to “The Notch” is the steep hillside cemetery where Calvin Coolidge rests together with seven generations of his family.
July 4, 1872 was a double birthday in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. The small village celebrated the nation’s birth, as well as that of its newest resident – John Calvin Coolidge. No one could have predicted that the son of John and Victoria Coolidge was destined to become the President of the United States. Born in the modest house attached to his father’s general store, Calvin (the John was soon dropped) spent his youth in the shadow of Plymouth’s East Mountain. Even when school and politics took him away from the Green Mountain State, Vermont remained a great influence. Coolidge returned to Plymouth throughout his life to help out on the family farm and refresh body and spirit. After he had left the White House, Calvin Coolidge wrote in his autobiography:
“It was all a fine atmosphere in which to raise a boy. As I look back on it I constantly think how clean it was. There was little about it that was artificial. It was all close to nature and in accordance with the ways of nature. The streams ran clear. The roads, the woods, the fields, the people all were clean. Even when I try to divest it of the halo which I know always surrounds the past, I am unable to create any other impression than that it was fresh and clean.”
Calvin's parents, John Calvin Coolidge and Victoria Josephine Moor, grew up in Plymouth Notch and were married in 1868. Both were from families that had helped settle the town shortly after the Revolutionary War. Calvin's father served the community in many ways as a selectman, school superintendent, state legislator, constable, and Justice of the Peace. He was given the honorary title of "Colonel" when he was a member of Governor William Stickney's staff. Although Calvin's mother was very ill during much of his childhood, she taught Calvin how to read and helped him sew a quilt when he was 10 years old. (You can see this quilt when you visit the Coolidge Site.) Calvin had one sister, Abbie, who was born in 1875.
The next year, the family moved across the road to a larger house, now known as the Coolidge Homestead. Calvin and Abbie were expected help around the house. One of young Calvin's chores was to make sure the woodbox was full and that there was plenty of kindling. This was a big responsibility because wood was needed to heat the house, cook food and heat water. Calvin also worked on his Grandfather Coolidge's farm. Calvin helped with haying in the summer and harvesting in the fall. Of all the farm activities, Calvin loved maple sugaring the most. His father once said that Calvin could get more sap from trees than anyone else he knew.
Calvin enjoyed practical jokes, but people often didn't suspect him because he was so quiet. One story says that he and a few of his friends once locked a mule in their classroom! Calvin was also very shy and found it difficult to meet new people. When he was much older he told a friend, "I would go into a panic if I heard strange voices in the kitchen. I felt I just couldn't meet the people and shake hands with them. Most of the visitors would sit with Father and Mother in the kitchen, and the hardest thing in the world was to have to go through the kitchen door and give them a greeting." Calvin said he felt fine with old friends, "but every time I meet a stranger, I've got to go through the old kitchen door, back home, and it's not easy."
Calvin went to the one-room schoolhouse in Plymouth Notch with about 25 other children from the neighborhood. In the 1880s it was common for all the grades to be in one room. The older children helped the younger ones with their lessons. Some boys went to school only during the winter because their hands were needed on the farm at other times. Calvin was not the best student in his class, but he worked hard. When he was 12 years old, he went away to school at the Black River Academy in nearby Ludlow. There, Calvin learned advanced subjects like French, algebra and Latin. After he graduated from Black River Academy, Calvin went to Amherst College in Massachusetts.
After Calvin graduated from Amherst, he decided to “read the law” at a law firm in Northampton, Massachusetts. (This was a less-expensive way to become a lawyer than going to law school.) After two years with the firm, he passed his exams and was admitted to the bar. Calvin soon discovered that he enjoyed politics, and he became a member of the Republican City Committee in 1897. He was elected to the city council in 1898 and elected Northampton’s city solicitor (lawyer) in 1900.
It was about that time that he met his future wife, Grace Anna Goodhue, who was from Burlington, Vermont. Grace had graduated from the University of Vermont and obtained a position teaching hearing-impaired children at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton. Despite very different personalities (she was as outgoing and charming as he was shy and quiet), the two fell in love and were married in 1905. They had two sons named John and Calvin, Jr.
Calvin Coolidge’s political career flourished. He served in the Massachusetts state legislature in 1906 and 1907, returned home to Northampton and became mayor in 1909. In 1911 he was elected to the Massachusetts state senate, and two years later selected by his fellow senators to be President of the Senate. And, it didn’t stop there! In 1915, Coolidge was elected Lieutenant Governor, and in 1918 he was elected Governor of Massachusetts. It was while he was governor that he became nationally famous.
In 1919, the Boston police went on strike. Following some looting and rioting, Governor Coolidge decided to take a firm stand, stating: "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime." People all over the country thought this remark made good sense and praised his action. In fact, Calvin Coolidge was known for his common sense and ability to work with his political opposition.
For these and other qualities, Calvin Coolidge was nominated to become Vice President of the United States in 1920; Warren G. Harding was the presidential candidate. Harding and Coolidge were elected in a landslide that November.
In the summer of 1923, Calvin and Grace Coolidge were visiting his family in Plymouth Notch. Late in the night on August 2, they received the unexpected and sad news that President Harding had died. It was Colonel John who woke Calvin to tell him that he was now President of the United States. Everyone got dressed, prayed, and went downstairs to decide what to do. They called Washington, D.C. and learned that Colonel John could administer the presidential oath of office because he was a notary public. By the light of a kerosene lamp (the house had no electricity), Calvin Coolidge became the 30th President of the United States.
Calvin Coolidge was a popular President. He was known throughout Washington as a quiet, industrious man whose nickname was "Silent Cal." He easily won the election in 1924 with his Vice Presidential running mate Charles Dawes. While he was President, Calvin Coolidge met many famous people like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Charles Lindbergh. This was an exciting time in American history known as "The Roaring Twenties".
Calvin Coolidge did not run for another term as President in 1928. He and Grace returned to Massachusetts with many memories and gifts that people had given them when they were in the White House. (Some of these “Presidential Gifts of State” can be seen in the Coolidge Museum & Education Center at the Coolidge Site.) They visited Plymouth Notch whenever they could. Calvin Coolidge died in 1933 and was buried in the Plymouth Notch Cemetery near his family and boyhood friends.
Many of the myths surrounding Calvin Coolidge focus on his famous nickname, “Silent Cal.” It was true that he was very shy and did not like idle conversation. One story (which may be true) concerns a dinner party companion who told Vice President Coolidge she had a bet with a friend that she could get him to say more than two words. His reply: “You lose.” (This story inspired the title of the new permanent exhibition: “More Than Two Words”: The Life and Legacy of Calvin Coolidge.)
Calvin Coolidge, known for his keen sense of humor, undoubtedly encouraged this nickname. However, scholars point out that President Coolidge gave more speeches than any of his 29 predecessors. He was also the last president to compose almost all of his own speeches, and during his five years in office he held 520 press conferences an average of eight per month.
Calvin Coolidge’s spoken and written words reveal an articulate and even poetic nature, quite at odds with the “Silent Cal” image.
At 2:47 a.m. on August 3, 1923, a small solemn group gathered in the Coolidge family homestead in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. The unexpected death of President Warren G. Harding a few hours earlier had set in motion an event unique in American history. In the soft glow of a kerosene lamp, notary public Colonel John Coolidge administered the presidential oath of office to his son, Calvin. Never before (or since) had a father sworn in his son as President. Plymouth Notch, with its population of 29 inhabitants, was immediately thrown into the world's limelight.
The press quickly focused on the new president's modest background and made comparisons to his famous Republican predecessor, Abraham Lincoln. Most Americans thought Coolidge's boyhood home was quaint, and thousands of curious visitors soon descended upon "The Notch." The savvy Vermonters were aware of this special appeal and kept the village exactly as it was. They meticulously maintained the buildings, as well as household furnishings. Plymouth was reveled in its traditions as exemplified by such novelties as the "Plymouth Old-Time Dance Orchestra" and brisk sales of copies of the "inaugural lamp."
The story of the "Homestead Inaugural" has been told numerous times, but Coolidge's own version, recorded in his autobiography, may be the most accurate. In typical understated fashion he wrote: "It seemed a simple and natural thing to do at the time, but I can now realize something of the dramatic force of the event." His words still ring true. The homespun ceremony and, indeed, the entire village were in stark contrast to what was happening in the rest of America.
The Roaring Twenties
Calvin Coolidge's Homestead Inaugural was set during one of the most prosperous periods in U.S. history a time we now call "The Roaring Twenties." The first World War was over, most Americans had money, and arts and literature were flourishing. F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Gershwin, and Charles Lindbergh were household names. Jazz music and the Charleston were all the rage. Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, and Gene Tunney thrilled the nation with their athletic feats. Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin starred on the silver screen. The 18th or "Prohibition" Amendment, instituted in 1920 to enforce alcoholic temperance, instead fostered bootlegging, speakeasies, and organized crime.
The Coolidge Presidency
Coolidge was President of the United States from August 1923 – March 1929. It was the so-called “Coolidge Luck” to be the nation’s chief executive during the heady days of the Roaring Twenties. More than 90 years have passed since then, but the 1920s are often viewed as the beginning of the modern era.
The country experienced tremendous financial growth and social change during this time. Some of the issues still sound familiar in 2013 immigration, U.S.-Mexico relations, political scandals, and a massive flood in Louisiana.
Increasing attention was given to the President whose fiscal policies reduced the national debt by one-third, while a large majority of Americans were paying no federal income tax. Scholars have praised Calvin Coolidge for his honesty; he is credited with cleaning up the scandals of the previous administration and restoring dignity to the presidency.
Other accomplishments during his administration set the stage for what the United States is today: Coolidge signed legislation making Native Americans U.S. citizens, proposed construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, dedicated Mount Rushmore, signed the Federal Radio Act (that created the Federal Radio Commission), authorized construction of the Hoover Dam, and designated $250 million to construct public buildings in Washington, D.C.
Calvin Coolidge’s so-called “Homestead Inaugural” brought Plymouth Notch to world attention in 1923. Without electricity or plumbing, old-fashioned Plymouth fascinated most Americans of the sophisticated “Roaring Twenties.” Thousands of visitors descended upon Plymouth Notch, including one memorable day in 1924 when 4,500 cars were counted in the village, which normally numbered 29 residents.
Plymouth Notch continued to be a major attraction through the 1930s, until gas rationing sharply curtailed Vermont tourism during World War II. Nevertheless, there was continued interest in the presidential site.
The Vermont Division for Historic Preservation (VDHP) was originally established by the Vermont Legislature in 1947 as the Historic Sites Commission. One of the primary charges to this Commission was that “special attention be given to the suitable development of President Coolidge’s birthplace.”
At that time, thousands of people were visiting Plymouth Notch. Although all the structures in the village were privately owned, none were restored and open to the public. In 1947 the State purchased the Wilder House and began renovations to open it as an information center and lunch room. Soon afterwards, the Wilder Barn was restored and a major agricultural collection was assembled to exhibit in the large structure. The State also made significant repairs to the Plymouth Notch Cemetery, which improved public accessibility at the presidential gravesite.
Impressed by the State’s efforts at Plymouth Notch, and following the wishes of Grace Coolidge, John and Florence Coolidge donated the Coolidge Homestead and its contents to the State in 1956. Over the next 30 years, the State of Vermont purchased major parcels of land and significant buildings in Plymouth Notch, and, in 1972, for the centennial of President Coolidge’s birth, constructed a Visitor Center.
With the exception of the Union Christian Church (owned by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation), VDHP now owns and maintains nearly the entire historic village more than two dozen buildings and 580 acres. This complex, called the “President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site,” encompasses most of the Plymouth Notch Historic District, which is a National Historic Landmark. The state historic site includes the Coolidge Birthplace, Coolidge Homestead, Wilder House, Wilder Barns, Aldrich House, Plymouth Cheese Factory, general store, dance hall, one-room schoolhouse, three early tourist cabins, and two prominent farmhouses with associated outbuildings. The President Calvin Coolidge Museum and Education Center, dedicated in 2010, more than doubled the size of the old Visitor Center with additional exhibition galleries, reception rooms, a museum store, and a classroom.
VDHP maintains a year-round regional office and exhibits in the Aldrich House, and a restaurant and two museum stores during the summer season. The historic tour now includes much of the village; two walking trails allow visitors to explore the surrounding fields and forest.
The President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site owns and curates the principal collection of three dimensional artifacts associated with President Coolidge and his family, and many of these objects are on permanent display. Artifacts include the President’s medal collection, presidential gifts of state, family portraits, decorative arts, household furnishings, clothing and other personal accessories, and one of the region’s finest collections of late 19th/early 20th century agricultural equipment. Remarkably, several of the buildings have their original early 20th century furnishings (e.g. the Coolidge Homestead, Birthplace, and 1924 Summer White House office). VDHP works closely with the other “Coolidge collections” Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum at the Forbes Library (Northampton, MA), Vermont Historical Society (Montpelier and Barre, VT), Library of Congress, and Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation (Plymouth, VT) and regularly loans objects for exhibitions at other presidential museums and libraries.
With each passing year, President Calvin Coolidge and his era are within the living memory of fewer Americans. One of Plymouth’s greatest assets, however, is that it is far more than a presidential birthplace. Although visitor surveys indicate that the presidential association still draws many of the 25,000 annual visitors to Plymouth Notch, an increasing number come to experience what Vermont and the rest of the country “used to be like.” The village is a pristine example of an early Vermont hill town.
One can almost imagine Cal Coolidge walking down the village street. All of the buildings are in their original locations and modern utility lines are buried underground. When the evening mist settles into the meadow below East Mountain, some are even inspired to call the village “Vermont’s Brigadoon” – referring to the mythical Scottish town that appeared for only one day every 100 years!
Although school and career took Calvin Coolidge to Massachusetts and ultimately to Washington, D.C., he returned to Plymouth Notch throughout his life to rejuvenate body and spirit. He is buried with seven generations of Coolidge’s in the steep hillside cemetery that is just a short walk from the village green. Undoubtedly, the President was thinking of his boyhood home when he delivered one of his most eloquent speeches:
“Vermont is a state I love.
I could not look upon the peaks of Ascutney,
Killington, Mansfield and Equinox
Without being moved in a way that no other scene could move me.
It was here that I first saw the light of day;
Here I receive my bride;
Here my dead lie,
pillowed on the loving breast of our everlasting hills.
I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys,
Her scenery and invigorating climate,
but most of all because of her indomitable people.
They are a race of pioneers who have almost beggared themselves to serve others.
If the spirit of liberty should vanish in other parts of the union
and support of our institutions should languish,
It could all be replenished from the generous store held by the people
Of this brave little state of Vermont.” (Calvin Coolidge, September 21, 1928 in Bennington, Vermont)