Museum celebrates Coolidge, ties to Vermont

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PLYMOUTH NOTCH — Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, first rose to prominence as the governor of Massachusetts, but he was a Vermont farm boy to the core.

Few things show this more than a brief speech he made as president in Bennington on Sept. 21, 1928 at the train station — a speech that a reenactor recited there last month, 80 years to the day he delivered it: "Vermont is a state I love."

The President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site is located in tiny, remote Plymouth Notch in Windsor County, east of Rutland. Coolidges first settled here in 1780. Calvin Coolidge, the only U.S. president to be born on Independence Day, was born here on July 4, 1872.

The section of this hill farm community where the future president was born and grew up — and later visited frequently while president — has been designated the Plymouth Notch Historic District and is owned and operated by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.

As the 12-minute introductory video at the Coolidge Museum and Education Center states, "The look of long ago is kept alive here, as is the still-mighty promise, the dream of America." Indeed, the village looks much as it did in the early 20th century.

"Thrift, honesty, hard work and self-reliance — he was shaped by values of his family and people of this small community," the video states.

"It would be hard to imagine better surroundings for the development of a boy than I had," Coolidge once said.

All within a short walk of each other are the general store once run by Calvin's father and mother. Attached to this is the small house in which Coolidge was born in a downstairs bedroom and where he lived the first four years of his life.

In 1876, the family moved across the street to the Coolidge Homestead, where Calvin and his sister, Abigail, grew up. This is also where Vice President Coolidge was vacationing when President Warren Harding died. Calvin's father, Col. John Coolidge, a notary, administered the oath of office to his son at 2:47 a.m. on Aug. 3, 1923.

"Nobody told me I couldn't," the elder Coolidge laconically said later on, when asked if as a notary he could swear in the new president of the United States.

Back across the street from the homestead and right next to the birthplace is the Union Christian Church.

This is where the Coolidges worshiped. It is still an active church. The Coolidge family pew is denoted by an American flag. Affixed on the wall in the vestibule is the text of "Vermont is a state I love" carved in stone.

The church was used as a meeting place, and young Cal probably attended school district meetings here and formed his first impressions of public life.

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The church is owned and operated by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. This is the only membership organization devoted to preserving Coolidge history and to promoting research into Coolidge's life.

Up the street from the homestead is the Plymouth Cheese Factory. This was started by Calvin's father and other local farmers in 1890, as a way to process the milk produced on local farms.

Down the hill from these buildings is the Museum and Education Center, opened in 2010. A modern building, it includes a museum featuring an interactive permanent exhibition, "More Than Two Words: The Life and Legacy of Calvin Coolidge."

There's also a gift shop, and a seating area for visitors to watch the introductory video.

This video gives visitors a helpful tour of Coolidge's life up to the point he became president. When a boy, Calvin attended the one-room schoolhouse up his street. For high school, he attended Black River Academy 11 miles away in Ludlow. After graduation in 1890, he attended Amherst College in Amherst, Mass.

Calvin, red-headed, shy, unathletic, and somewhat indecisive, was not popular at Amherst at first but eventually came into his own, writes Amity Shlaes in her 2013 biography, "Coolidge."

After graduating from Amherst in 1895, Coolidge read the law and found a position with a Northampton, Mass. law firm. He lost his first race for office, for the local school board, but then went on to an impressive string of victories.

He was first elected to the Northampton City Council in 1899 and was the mayor of Northampton in 1909 and 1910. He was elected to the Massachusetts legislature and then to the state Senate, eventually being elected Senate president. He went on to be elected lieutenant governor and governor of the Bay State for two terms.

"Coolidge was considered something of a progressive governor, and may have been content to stay in state politics, but fate intervened," the video states.

The Boston police went on strike in 1919 and there was looting and rioting. Coolidge called out the state guard to restore order and declared, "There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anytime, anywhere."

With this, Coolidge became a national figure and in 1920 Republicans chose him by surprise to be Harding's running mate. After serving out the remainder of Harding's term, Coolidge won election to a four-year term as president in 1924.

Beyond Vermont, Coolidge is not a particularly celebrated ex-president. Those over 50 may remember that "Silent Cal" was a favorite of President Ronald Reagan, who felt Coolidge was a better president than he was given credit for being. Both men famously broke up strikes — in Reagan's case it was of air traffic controllers during his first term as president.

In the 2018 Presidents & Executive Politics Greatness Survey, Calvin Coolidge ranked 28th best of the 44 individuals who have been president of the United States. This ranking is two notches below Jimmy Carter and two notches above George W. Bush.

Whatever one's opinion of Coolidge's political career, he was a man who knew and valued from whence he came. He chose to be buried in the Plymouth town cemetery, beneath a simple granite headstone. As the brochure for the state historic site notes, when Coolidge left the White House, he said, "We draw our presidents from the people. ...I came from them. I wish to be one of them again."


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