Plymouth Notch

Monday, September 18th, 2006

Trivia question – who is the only President to be born on the 4th of July?

Second hint – who is the only President to be sworn in by his father?

A visit to lovely little Plymouth Notch, Vermont, provides the answer to both questions. The Calvin Coolidge State Historic Park preserves the entire village that our 30th president grew up in, and where he was sworn in as President in the middle of the night by his father, upon receiving word that Warren Harding had died.

His swearing in is a fascinating story – according to Coolidge, he reviewed the Constitution to find out the procedure for swearing in a vice president to president. Finding it rather ambiguous, his father, the local notary public, swore him in at a small table lit only by the light of a kerosene lamp. This humble setting, preserved today in the very house Coolidge grew up in, provides a contrast to the awesome responsibility Coolidge was inheriting. When his father was asked later why he thought he had the authority, as a notary public, to swear in the President of the United States, he replied in typical crusty Vermont fashion: “Nobody told me I couldn’t”.

I loved this story, and found myself fighting a rush of emotion while standing there. What a moment this must have been for John Coolidge – businessman, a local and state politician, and jack of all trades. To swear your son into the highest office in the land, and to secure your place in history by doing so…what a moment in one’s life. By all accounts, John Coolidge basked in the attention drawn by his actions until his death several years later.

You don’t hear much about Calvin Coolidge in American history books, being overshadowed by WWI on one end and the Great Depression/WWI on the other. However, a recent book I was browsing that 'rated' all of our presidents had Coolidge rated in the top 15. Coolidge had a highly successful administration, coming in that golden period between the end of WWI and before the Great Depression. He served 6 years, electing not to run for a 3rd term even though he was highly popular and there was no constitutional restriction against a 3rd term at the time. A Republican, Coolidge by today’s standards would be considered a progressive while at the same time a fiscal conservative, a combination that just doesn’t seem to exist with today’s politicians. Coolidge cut taxes, but also cut the federal debt by 1/3 during his term by also holding the line on expenditures, something that also seems to elude our current leaders.

However, this would all just be something between the pages of a history book without somewhere like Plymouth Notch to bring it to life. The little village is quintessential Vermont – General Store, Church, a few houses and barns, a cheese factory. The setting is beautiful and peaceful – sitting in the rocking chairs on the front porch of the General Store Coolidge’s father owned, you get the sense of never wanting to leave. Our own farm is this way – often, when we have visitors, we’ll work up a long list of places to see and things to do for our guests, only to discover that all they want to do is sit on our front porch and rock. So we let them.

Plymouth Notch is also just a couple of miles away from Tyson, Vermont, so we felt another small connection there (Tyson is our last name, for readers that don't know us personally). In any case, it’s hard to overstate just how pretty the area is, particularly with the fall color just starting to come in.

The Visitors Center has a couple of rooms devoted to Coolidge’s upbringing and presidency. Although simple, it was poignant in that it largely consisted of pictures, with accompanying text from Coolidge’s autobiography. Working thru his childhood, education, the rise of his political career (in Massachusetts, where he settled after college), his presidency, and life afterwards, the pictures and Coolidge’s own words paint a powerful image of the upbringing he had, and life in a small rural Vermont village.

One of the barns held an extensive collection of farm implements and machinery. Each exhibit was accompanied by a short quote from Coolidge on some experience of his that related to the usage of such equipment. Also included were fascinating excerpts from the diary of a neighbor of Coolidge’s, describing nothing more than the daily activities on a Vermont farm. The amount of work required to scratch out a living was staggering, and varied – fixing a hog pen one day, cutting a road thru the snow to the maple trees the next, welding some farm equipment later. This more than anything illustrated to me just how hard and varied life was in this area of Vermont, even as recent as the 1920’s. However, hard as it may have been, Coolidge was quoted as saying, "I could not imagine a better place for the upbringing of a boy". Even while President, Coolidge often returned to work in his father's and neighbor's fields, helping with a crop.

Coolidge was born in a bedroom behind the family’s general store – it never ceases to amaze me how humble the beginnings were for many of our Presidents, even in the 20th century. As the family fortunes grew, they moved into a large house across the street, with an attached barn (another interesting New England feature, attaching the barn directly to the house, to avoid going outside to reach the livestock during the brutal winters).

It was in this house that Coolidge, visiting his parents while vice president, received the news that he was now president, and where his father swore him in. Coolidge also used the large room above his father’s store for an office when he would take a summer vacation in Plymouth Notch during his presidency. As an idea of how busy the little village would become during these times, consider: the salary of the postmaster was based on the number of stamps she sold. Her normal salary was $50, but would swell to $1500 when the President set up his ‘Summer White House’.

Although Coolidge spent most of his political career in Massachusetts and Washington, he came home to be buried. His simple gravesite is situated in a long row of Coolidges going back to the early 1800’s, and is next to his wife and son Calvin Jr, who died at the age of 16 while Coolidge was President.

Last year Vance studied the presidents, using the excellent ‘What You Don’t Know About the Presidents’, one of the ‘What You Don’t Know’ books by Kenneth Davis. These books are colorful, and full of the interesting sort of trivia that will capture a child’s imagination (For example, Coolidge kept 14 dogs at the White House). I like the books because of the amount of information Vance retained after reading them (we also read ‘Don’t know much about the 50 States'). He knew immediately who Calvin Coolidge was, and was able to tell me and Denise that Coolidge was the 30th president, something that neither one of us could have answered. It’s been a great synergy to visit sites associated with our presidents (a previous visit was to the FDR Presidential Library, and we visited Mt. Vernon and the Lincoln Birthplace on previous trips).

Vance: Plymouth Notch was Calvin Coolidge’s home village. We began by checking out the museum. I took a picture of Coolidge and his wife with some of their dogs. Next we went over to a barn and saw some old fashion vehicles. Behind the general store was where the future president was born. When he was four they moved across the street. If the sheriff didn’t have enough time to take the prisoners to jail, they would put them in a bedroom in the barn! The fanciest room was where he was sworn into the presidency.

Next we went and saw their barn and cheese factory. Finally we went to the general store and bought a snack and ate it on their porch.

P.S The story of how a farm boy became president of the U.S!

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