Silent Cal, Silent NotchPosted: July 1, 2011
“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.” —Calvin Coolidge, Address at Bennington
“There’s kind of a sense of calmness. Of self-being. I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s a different way of living.” —Nancy Yale, tour guide and restaurant owner, President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site
Just listen. (You have to. It’s silent.)
The Coolidge site is special.
Calvin was quiet. “Be brief,” cautioned he to the Massachusetts Senate; and “I have never been hurt by what I have not said,” goes the Coolidge epigraph of the first chapter (“Calvin the Silent”) of his 1923 First Biography by R. M. Washburn; and “You lose,” the classic punchline of one favorite White House anecdote.
But these 600 acres of land in tiny Plymouth Notch, Vermont—what is now the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site—need no words. They are stunning. They are where this project began—informally, six months ago today, in a scattershot flash of absurd inspiration atop a Coolidge picnic table peak—and, if I had any sense of poetic symmetry, they are where this project would end. Yesterday, I returned.
Coolidge was decent, honorable, honest, Plymouth folk report. Quiet, mostly.
His farm—a nineteenth-century village, perfectly preserved, operational and real—is breathtaking.
Like Roosevelt’s Hyde Park, it is stunning and wild to bask in the sheer fullness of the site.
Here, in the parlor in 1868, the president’s parents, John and Victoria, were wed; and here, Calvin was born, “an auburn-haired, smooth-faced babe with a proboscis somewhat attenuated” (Washburn), in the cabin behind the General Store owned for 50 years by Coolidge’s dad. That store still stands in operation today, its wood counters installed by Calvin and his dad in the winter of 1891; and across the street lies the delicious Plymouth Cheese Factory founded by John Calvin Coolidge, Sr. (I sampled the cheddar. It was phenomenal.)
And the church with the Coolidge pew, and the barn where young Cal worked (“he has always adorned a hayrake with as much facility as a reviewing stand,” Washburn reports) and where I watched a sheep-shearing demonstration by someone called Farmer Fred.
And here, next door, sits the Coolidge Homestead, into which young Cal’s family shortly moved; and in this room in 1923 the then-vice president”s father administered the presidential oath of office, at 2:47 am on August 3. Coolidge was vacationing at the Plymouth Notch homestead when news arrived of Harding’s death. (Coolidge parties had to phone Washington, D.C. from the general store to confirm that Calvin’s father was authorized to administer the oath.) “Grace, get another lamp,” added now-President Coolidge after swearing in by kerosene.
In his first act as President, he stood alone at his mother’s grave in Plymouth, for which he halted his progress to Washington.
And here, in the small cemetery across the street, Calvin Coolidge rests, six generations surrounding him, and on July 4, the president’s birthday, townspeople, site staff, and Coolidge descendants alike march through the green to place a wreath on the modest coffin. (It is June 29 when I visit, and all those I meet are aquiver with excitement. “I’ll be there,” I say, sincere and proud. “I’ll be there on July 4.”)
Politics don’t mean much here, and that’s okay, because maybe they didn’t mean much to Calvin (“he’s not like other politicians, doesn’t give away cigars, kiss other babies than his own or tell entertaining stories,” describes a friend in Washburn’s biography), and even so, he launched his political career 100 miles from here, in Northampton, MA.
There are, as in Woodrow Wilson’s hometown, the spirited attempts to reframe questionable politics in bold, complimentary terms, to correct misconceptions, curb conventional wisdom. “He was sort of lumped together with the three Republican administrations of the ‘20s,” Bill, the Regional Historic Site Administrator, explained, “but now there’s something to be said for a president who was running the government at a surplus, and he reduced the national debt by a third.”
And then, molding pre-depression laissez-faireism into Goldwater-style conservatism: “essentially, by the time he was done, about 98% of Americans were paying no federal income tax.” (He wasn’t so silent, either, Bill argues—it’s just that “he wasn’t into the dinner-party chit-chat scene,” and “many of the folks down in Washington just didn’t get” his dry sense of humor.)
But more than that, there’s a focus on character over policy, honor over everything. In the wake of Teapot Dome, Coolidge was honest, Bill affirmed. “He respected his mother and father,” added one general store clerk. “He was a responsible man. He was honest. Very frugal.” And, from Nancy: “He was a very family-oriented person. . . . He was one of the only presidents that wrote all his own speeches.” Modesty, above all, is of primary concern. “He could’ve had a presidential library, but he didn’t want one. … He didn’t think it was necessary.”
Appropriately, no other presidential site combines modest small-town humility with such magnificent natural splendor. “You can be a normal ordinary person,” Nancy tells me, and still ascend to the presidency.
It was here that I first saw the light of day;
Here I received my bride;
Here my dead lie,
pillowed on the loving breast of our everlasting hills.
So I return to the hilltop picnic table where this mad quest began, secluded and serene atop the Coolidge farm. It’s a ways up from the village green, and the trek gives the sense of having been done both a thousand times, and never, before.
There’s kind of a sense of calmness. Of self-being.
Vermont is so quiet from up here—in the dead of winter, in summer’s solstice. Not desolate or empty. Just quiet. Timeless.
I have never been hurt by what I have not said.
And I stay up there a few moments, flip through my 1923 first edition Coolidge biography, reflect on what the six months between visits to this picnic table have wrought. Where I’ve been. What I’ve seen. Where I’m going.
Vermont is a state I love.
And the sky begins to rain, and I walk back down the hill to drive the 35 miles or so back to Winhall.
* * * * *
I spoke with Bill, the Regional Historic Site Administrator:
And Nancy, a tour guide, restaurant owner, and Plymouth Notch resident:
Here are images from my second trip to the Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site, on 6/29/11. For scenes from the first trip in December, 2010, click here.