By: John Ferrell
In Coolidge’s day, it was common for America’s elected leaders to leave the summer heat of Washington D.C. for milder climates. Wherever the president deigned to stay became the “Summer White House,” a vacation home from which the commander-in-chief would continue his work. For President Coolidge, these summer trips were just as much about a change of scenery as they were an escape from the mugginess of Washington, as he relayed in a press conference during mid-June of 1926 just before setting out on one such sojourn:
“I don’t go away from Washington for the purpose of avoiding the Washington climate so much as I do for the purpose of getting a change. If the White House were located in the Adirondacks, why I should go away just the same and undoubtedly should pick a time for the vacation period when the Government business is not quite so urgent and Congress is not in session.”
Throughout his presidency Coolidge took up residence in five different Summer White Houses: his birthplace of Plymouth Notch, Vermont; along the Atlantic coast in Swampscott, Massachusetts; in the forests of upstate New York; in the mountainous Black Hills of South Dakota; and along the riverfront of Brule, Wisconsin.
Summer of 1924: Plymouth Notch, Vermont
Coolidge’s first Summer White House, used during the summer of 1924, is perhaps the most well-known: the dance hall atop the general store his father managed in Plymouth Notch. Built in the 1850s, the general store was the center of social activity for the village of Plymouth and its second-story storage space doubled as the community dance hall.
The humble, but familiar space was a fitting venue for President Coolidge to carry on his work. After all, the Coolidges sought solace following the death of their son, Calvin, Jr. As many know, Calvin, Jr. had been playing tennis at the White House when he developed a blister that became infected. The resulting blood poisoning claimed his life and he was buried in the family cemetery plot in Plymouth Notch in July. In an August 8, 1924 press conference in Washington, D.C., held shortly before leaving to return to Plymouth Notch, President Coolidge stated: “I may go up to Plymouth. My boy lies there, and naturally my wife and I would like to go up there.”
And go up there they did. August marked the anniversary of Coolidge’s unexpected “Homestead Inauguration” that took place in Plymouth Notch the year prior. With the First Family in town, a buzz of excitement permeated the small Vermont village. News crews recorded Coolidge at work behind a simple wooden desk in the dance hall, as well as in the fields.
The small village was further bestowed with famous company when, on August 19, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone all arrived in Plymouth at the invitation of President Coolidge. The three titans of industry had been camping in nearby Ludlow, Vermont, and came up to Plymouth to visit the President. As detailed in this article, conversation included much discussion about politics with Ford, Edison, and Firestone praising Coolidge and predicting a Coolidge victory in November’s election. The visit concluded with an exchange of gifts. Sitting near the porch of the Coolidge homestead, they all signed a sap bucket that had been in the family for generations. On August 25, Charles Dawes, Coolidge’s running mate, also stopped by, ostensibly to discuss the upcoming election.
This was part of the surging 1924 election campaign that was in full swing during Coolidge’s stay in Plymouth Notch. In fact, the “Hometown Coolidge Club” had formed in the village to campaign for the town’s native son. The “Club” conceived the Coolidge-Dawes Lincoln Tour, which started out from Plymouth Notch and ended in Tacoma, Washington. The Tour utilized the new Lincoln Highway to visit three hundred communities across the country from September 9 to November 4, promoting the down-to-earth Coolidge with whom the residents of Plymouth were so familiar.
Summer of 1925: White Court, Swampscott, Massachusetts
In the summer of 1925, country simplicity was replaced by the opulence of the “White Court” mansion in Swampscott, Massachusetts, where the Coolidges stayed from June to early September. Built in 1895 on six acres of oceanfront property, the classical revival style mansion initially served as the residence of wealthy Ohioan Frederick E. Smith. Frank Stearns, an Amherst graduate and close friend of President Coolidge arranged for the Coolidges to use the estate during their summer vacation. The president accepted, and on June 24 the Coolidges, along with their collie Rob Roy, departed Washington by train.
While at White Court, the President kept mostly indoors, working from his office in the nearby town of Lynn. He did fancy, however, joining Mrs. Coolidge on strolls along the White Court property with their dog, and would occasionally go out on the presidential yacht Mayflower, which was docked in Marblehead. The Coolidges attended church on Sundays, making a short trip to the Tabernacle Congregational Church in Salem.
It was rumored that the President had the Navy stationed not far off shore to intercept any rum-runner vessels that reportedly operated in the area. The president, in a press conference held July 7, 1925 during his stay, said that so far as he knew, reports concerning the rum fleet were “without any foundation whatever.”
Summer of 1926: White Pine Camp, Upstate New York
The following summer the Coolidges settled on White Pine Camp in the woods of upstate New York as the site of the Summer White House. Overlooking Osgood Pond, White Pine Camp is an Adirondack Great Camp, a term for luxurious summer cabin compounds in the lakes region built in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The compound that hosted Coolidge sat on 35 acres of pristine wooded lakefront property and featured a bowling alley, a pier, tennis courts, and a rock garden. White Pine Camp was built originally for lumber magnate Paul Smith in 1907, but had been acquired in 1920 by Irwin and Laura Kirkwood, the latter of whom were good friends of Grace Coolidge. After Mrs. Kirkwood’s death that year, her husband offered the Coolidges use of the property for the summer. The Coolidges accepted, and news cameras were ready when the Presidential motorcade pulled in to White Pine Camp on the morning of June 7, 1926.
It was during this stay that Coolidge reportedly developed his interest in fishing, reacting to his first catch with uncharacteristic joviality. He had ready access to his newfound hobby via a nearby dock and boathouse, from which he regularly ventured out in his motorboat “Winkler.” Coolidge’s growing fondness for casting a fishing line would become a staple of his next two summer outings.
Summer of 1927: Custer State Park, South Dakota
Coolidge revealed to the press in early May 1927 that he was looking for a summer stint “somewhere in the Middle West.” Senator Peter Norbeck of South Dakota lobbied the President to choose the Coyote State, specifically Custer State Park. Upon reading Norbeck’s promotional, Coolidge is said to have remarked, “I can’t tell whether this is a chapter from Revelations or Mohammed’s idea of the seventh heaven.” Regardless, he opted to go, taking Grace and his son John.
They arrived in Rapid City to much fanfare on June 16, 1927. From Rapid City, it was a short ride to the game lodge in Custer State Park, Coolidge’s official residence for that summer. The recently-constructed structure of stone and wood housed Coolidge and his family for the next three months, with the press corps and visiting officials lodged in the nearby cabins. Seth Tupper, author of the recent book Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills, relates that President Coolidge was quite pleased with his accommodations. According to Tupper, the President said: “I have a very fine location out at the State Lodge . . . it is just exactly what I like.”
It would certainly be an eventful stay, and was extensively chronicled by the eager press. While there, Coolidge indulged in the fishing he had fallen in love with the previous year at White Pine Camp. One of the aspects of the sales pitch given by Senator Norbeck had been trout-filled streams. Shortly before Coolidge’s arrival, state officials realized that the novice presidential fisherman was ill-suited for the cautious Black Hills trout. As described in Amity Shlaes’s book Coolidge, the governor of South Dakota, William J. Bulow, called for the streams to be stocked with thousands of old, lethargic trout that were “so domesticated they could hardly be likened to the wild trout.”
One of Coolidge’s better-known acts during his stay in the Black Hills was his dedication of Mount Rushmore. The monument’s eccentric sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, got the vacationing President’s attention in dramatic fashion by air-dropping an invitation from a rented plane. Coolidge agreed, and on August 10, 1927, an amusingly-garbed Coolidge rode up the mountain on horseback to deliver a dedication speech.
Eight days prior, Coolidge had made one of his landmark announcements. At a press conference outside his Rapid City office, copies of a slip of paper were handed out to the press correspondents in attendance. The slips contained the single sentence that stunned the nation and formally announced the coming close of his long political career: “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.”
Summer of 1928: Cedar Island Lodge, Wisconsin
Coolidge’s last Summer White House was the most modest since the Plymouth Notch dance hall. Located in the northwest corner of Wisconsin, the Cedar Island Lodge seemed the ideal location for President Coolidge in the summer of 1928. Grace had fallen very ill with kidney issues earlier in the year and was only just recovering. As Shlaes relates in Coolidge, the President wished to put distance between himself and the upcoming Republican National Convention, lest he be tempted to run for reelection. After all, his imminent successor, Herbert Hoover seemed poised to, in the words of Shlaes, “subvert his legacy.” These things prompted the head of the Secret Service, Edmund Starling, to choose the out-of-the-way lodge along the Brule River in rural Wisconsin.
The wooden cabin was isolated and on the private grounds of late railroad and oil baron Henry Clay Pierce, who had died the year prior. Perhaps the most important aspect of this locale for Coolidge was that the nearby river was well-stocked with trout. The inhabitants of nearby Brule, all 680 of them, had in the weeks leading up to his June 15, 1928 arrival frantically set about dolling up the town, turning the local high school into his office and even constructing a new train depot along the tracks close to the Cedar Island Lodge so that Calvin and Grace could arrive at their summer retreat in the shortest amount of time possible. While Grace rejuvenated herself in the sun and the dry Wisconsin air, Calvin repeatedly set out in a canoe with Rob Roy and a guide to partake in fly-fishing, as was customary of the region.
On July 16, Coolidge received a visit from Hoover, his Commerce Secretary who had won the Republican nomination while Coolidge was on the train to Cedar Island Lodge. Hoover’s visit had a somewhat frosty air about it. Neither man spoke much to the other, and they fished in separate canoes.
Coolidge was adamant about regular church attendance, even during his vacation. For his Wisconsin sojourn, he opted for a small local church in Brule, which doubtless saw its attendance skyrocket as soon as the President first appeared for Sunday service. There was particular attention given to the service of June 18, 1928, when the blind lay minister John Taylor gave the sermon.
On September 10, 1928, the President and First Lady departed back for Washington, D.C. Six months later, President Coolidge would conclude his service as commander-in-chief, passing the torch to President Hoover. While his Summer White Houses were scattered across the country, his stays brought national attention to not just the sites themselves, but also the local communities. The visits were also a way for the leader of the nation to integrate himself, however temporarily, with the American public beyond the press and formality of Washington. For a season, Coolidge would partake in the local culture of a place few would have associated with the highest power in the land. Surely this was something a man from a small village in rural Vermont could appreciate.