In the steps of Calvin Coolidge at Home


President Coolidge receiving his running mate, Charles G. Dawes, at the Homestead. Photo: Library of Congress.

Unequivocally, for President Coolidge, the strongest place for retreat on God’s earth was the Homestead at Plymouth Notch, Vermont. Here he was born, here he grew up, here he began a lifelong education, here he brought his bride, here his mother, sister, grandparents and great grandparents, and in time, his stepmother, father, and sons came to rest on the hills surrounded by the sound of a constant brook running beside its peaceful folds.

Here the dramatic developments of ninety-five years ago took place, when news of President Harding’s death earlier on the evening of August 2, 1923, could have reached the only phone in the small, quiet village had it only been heard. That phone, located in the General Store across the street from the Homestead, was never answered because Miss Florence V. Cilley was already asleep in the back rooms of the home attached at the rear.

Thus, with no direct line to notify Vice President Coolidge of events, Winfred Perkins (the “telephone man,” as Colonel Coolidge dubbed him) took down the message as it came to his wife, Nellie (the switchboard operator), from White River Junction to their home in Bridgewater, eight miles from the Notch. Mr. Perkins jumped in his vehicle and sped out to the Homestead. He reached there just around midnight, awakening the Vice President’s father asleep in the front room. Perkins then returned to his car and prepared to head home just as others began arriving. Seeing another car pull up, he paused to consider his options. He would eventually take a reporter back to Bridgewater and go home. The reporter would strategically tie up the switchboard in the Perkins home for the next four hours as correspondents struggled to break the unfolding story. The honor of covering the Homestead Inauguration, however, would go to 22-year old Joe Fountain, editor of the Springfield Reporter.

Just moments behind Perkins were Coolidge’s chauffeur (Joe McInerney), stenographer (Edwin Geisser), and William Crawford (working on a story about the Coolidges for Colliers magazine) – all rooming together in Bridgewater – bringing the Pierce Arrow (the Vice President’s car) out to Plymouth. They tumbled out of the automobile and into the house only to find word had already reached the Coolidges and the residence was waking up. The telephone at the Store became a vital tool for the next few hours. More arrived and by 2:47 in the morning, having checked the exact wording of the Oath in the Constitution, Calvin Coolidge was inaugurated by his own father, a notary public, in the sitting room at the front of the house.

Then, he and Grace went back upstairs to sleep a few more hours before heading to Washington later that morning. It is this simple and homespun event that is reenacted on the porch of the Homestead each year. I was honored with the role of Mr. Perkins in this year’s reenactment, the one who delivered the message of President Harding’s death.

6208537332_d62fe09c30_b Coolidges meeting Civil War vet 8-1924

President and Mrs. Coolidge welcoming visitors to the Homestead, including this veteran of the War of 1861-1865. Photo: Library of Congress.

Plymouth remains a hallowed place for me, and the opportunity to see it firsthand is unlike any other I have ever known. My wife and I often observe, after years of studying them, Calvin and Grace live in our house, they are part of our family. That is why this voyage meant so much. At Plymouth, I catch a glimpse of its restful and recuperative qualities, some of the clear reasons Coolidge returned whenever he could. I felt the refreshing debut of its morning air (cool at first but greeted gradually by the warming puffs of summer), the daily routine as nature awakes with the dawn, bird’s voices rising on cue accompanied by the stream beside the cemetery as the the hills begin emerging from the fog. All of this wonder unfolds without fanfare just as God endows it, not unlike Mr. Coolidge’s character itself. It becomes evident what filled this place with meaning for President and Mrs. Coolidge, made it so difficult for Colonel John to leave for Washington (choosing to stay at Plymouth instead), and what brought Cal and Grace back – away from it all, even their home in Northampton – to reconnect and restore what only this place could provide.

It was impossible not to be affected deeply by my visit here. In a real way, they felt very close, almost as if Mr. Coolidge might just walk around a corner in his familiar way in the midst of playing some prank or engaged in some errand on the property. I was glad, especially where the bodies of the family wait for eternity’s final reunion, for the time they seemed to generously set aside for me in their company. It was just like them.

Old Home Day, Coolidge Homestead

Keller Painting

This weekend, August 4 at Plymouth Notch in Vermont, will mark the ninety-fifth anniversary of Calvin Coolidge’s inauguration as the thirtieth President of the United States. It took place in the early hours of August 3, 1923 (2:47AM to be exact), as the oath of office (derived from the U.S. Constitution in Article II, section 1, clause 8) was administered by none other than the new President’s own father, John Coolidge, a notary public. Gathered around the sitting room table illuminated by kerosene lamp, father and son with Cal’s Grace, were joined – according to the Coolidges themselves – by Erwin C. Geisser (Coolidge’s stenographer), Joe McInerney (Coolidge chauffeur), William H. Crawford (there on assignment to write an article about Coolidge for Colliers), and Porter H. Dale (U.S. Representative and soon-to-be U.S. Senator by special election). Geisser, McInerney, and Crawford had all been staying together at accommodations in Bridgewater, hurrying to the Homestead as soon as they heard the news of President Harding’s death, which had taken place around 7:30pm on August 2. It seems they heard it from the Perkins’ neighbor, Clarence Blanchard, awakened by the loud ringing of the phone next door at 11:30pm. So close he could overhear the message taken down by Nellie Perkins, the operator of the Bridgewater switchboard, Mr. Blanchard rushed to Furman’s Boarding House where Geisser, McInerney, and Crawford were staying to give them the news. Waking her husband Winfred, the “telephone man” (as Colonel Coolidge dubbed him), he was the first to arrive and deliver the message to the Colonel around midnight. With no telephone hooked up at the Homestead (and Florence V. Cilley asleep in the house behind her store), Mr. Perkins had to rush the eight miles from Bridgewater to Plymouth to hand-deliver the news.

On hand but, it seems, not directly present in that room were: Aurora Pierce, the housekeeper; Bessie Pratt, her helper that summer; and, arriving with Mr. Dale, Herbert P. Thompson (American Legion commander at Springfield), Joe E. Fountain (22-year old editor of the Springfield Reporter), and Leonard Lane (presiding officer in the Railway Mail Association), who carried a pistol as part of his job and with it guarded the President and Mrs. Coolidge that night. Of course, others were near, including: Captain Dan Barney drove the taxi taken by Dale, Thompson, Lane, and Fountain; and Miss Cilley, the operator of the store across the street. The Coolidge boys – John and Calvin Jr. – were already gone back to their summer vocations (John at Camp Devens and Calvin Jr. in the fields northeast of Northampton, around Hatfield).


Sitting Room table where the Oath of Office was administered in the early morning of August 3, 1923. Photo courtesy of Jim Steinhart.

Artist Arthur Ignatius Keller, struck by the drama of that night’s events, later painted a depiction of that Inauguration which had unfolded around the kerosene lamp. While Mrs. Keller and Grace Coolidge sat for tea, the President posed for the artist. While the likenesses were imprecise, Coolidge would later confirm “everything in relation to the painting is correct.” The story of that simple inauguration swept across the country and contributed not only to Coolidge lore but gave a preview of the homespun style and manner the country could expect from their new President.

Old Home Day gatherings are a great New England tradition and were a familiar event in the lives of Calvin and his family growing up on the Homestead at the Notch. It was a time to return to the place of one’s upbringing for those who had moved on or to reconnect with those who had left. This Saturday, up at Plymouth, will be the 2018 Homestead Inauguration reenactment. I have been honored with a part in the day’s events. If you can make it, come out and join us. I hope to see you there!

6193352394_9b7fc91dcc_b in Plymouth

On Confusing Proximity with Causation


The Coolidges at Hot Springs, South Dakota, summer of 1927. Courtesy of South Dakota Digital Archives.

Mr. Lawrence W. Reed over at the Foundation for Economic Education has written a good reminder today about one of the most repeated myths regarding Calvin Coolidge and the Roaring Twenties: That all of it was responsible for the devastating economic plummet of the Thirties.

Mr. Reed’s analogy about washed cars and rain illustrates the very absence of a logical grasp of the issues when it comes to this attack on Cal. It is easier, though, to remake him into a caricature than to exert the effort to understand him and his ideas. It is easier to blame what came before the disaster than to reckon with those truly responsible: the decision-makers and policy experts of the Hoover and FDR administrations. It was widely noted at the time by numerous observers how dramatic a sea change truly did occur with the departure of the Coolidges from Washington in 1929. It began long before FDR came to town. Even before the 1932 campaign entered full swing, the steady vilification by New Deal advocates (before the term was even coined) of those corrupt, greedy, grasping Twenties remains a persistent impression today. It remains just as flawed and downright incorrect.

It was Coolidge’s substantial record of successes that were the envy of contemporary officeholders because he delivered while they could only posture and promise. None of his accomplishments rested on pandering guarantees or any of the typical electioneering litany of empty promises. He succeeded where others failed. That method and model had to go if business as usual was to prevail. Of first importance, though, was Coolidge’s reputation. Blame him for the depression and it accomplishes both goals: Destroy personal credibility and replace supposed failure of his governing approach.

Such is the handicapping result of this myth. Coolidge did help but not in the way his detractors claim: Consistently unassuming to the end, he was indifferent to any self-preservation or thoroughly explained defense of his record. His early passing only hastened this upheaval and denial of Coolidge’s successes.

Emotion will always be a part of politics. The fallout of guilt by proximity is as old as human experience. Coolidge distinguished the difference between proximity and actual guilt. He held doggedly to that principle in the days when the pressures of Teapot Dome could have implicated an entire company of innocent people on that basis of association alone. He held firm when the temptation was strongest to say nothing regarding race relations, delivering strong rebukes to Sergeant Gardner, to Congress on the crime of lynching, and before the crowds of Omaha (and those listening nationwide), where riots had torn the city. With Mr. Coolidge we are shown a better way, a way that deserves a fair and honest reappraisal. He deserves better than the myth and America has a duty to render at least this measure of appreciation for the service he bestowed not only in his time but for generations yet to be born.