Silent Cal, vice president, is seated at a dinner party,
possibly one of those obligatory social engagements that he
disliked. A female guest next to him reports she had just bet
someone a few dollars she could coax more than two words from
Coolidge that evening.
"You lose," replies Coolidge.
The story is not apocryphal like some Coolidge tales, says
William Jenney, site administrator of the Calvin Coolidge State
Historic Site in Plymouth Notch. There's evidence this actually
Coolidge, the embodiment of Yankee thrift, was as prudent with
the words as he was with money, both his own and the public's. He
hated waste in any form, but that's not to say he didn't put words
to good use. He just was careful with them. And (occasionally) he
could flash wit.
"More Than Two Words: The Life and Legacy of Calvin Coolidge" is
the title of the permanent exhibit that opened last month at the
Coolidge Museum & Education Center, located in the only
non-historic building at the homestead.
It's a time warp of sorts, one that that takes visitors back to
the heady times of speakeasies, the Charleston, Babe Ruth and Lucky
Lindy, but also to a White House, where sobriety reigned literally
Go farther back in time with the exhibit and with a walk around
the homestead, and you can visualize late-19th-century and early
20th-century rural life in Vermont. "People come here not just to
see a presidential site but to see a well-preserved old Vermont
hill town," says Jenney.
Among the 25 buildings at the 580-acre homestead are the general
store that Coolidge's father owned, the home in which his mother
grew up, the barn where he did chores, the Plymouth Cheese Factory
that his father, with others, had opened, and the 1840
Congregational Church, where he worshipped. Coolidge rests at a
simple nearby gravesite.
The exhibit, which had its grand opening five weeks ago with a
speech of more than two words by Gov. Peter Shumlin, takes visitors
back to Coolidge's birth in 1872 in the living quarters behind the
store, to his boyhood years of riding horseback, mending fences and
driving oxen; to his years at Black River Academy in nearby Ludlow,
where he was both a scholar and a prankster; to his years at
Amherst College, where he received the education so favored by his
"It would be hard to imagine better surroundings for the
development of a boy than those which I had," Coolidge wrote of his
upbringing at Plymouth Notch. He appreciated the beauty of his
surroundings: "There was little about it that was artificial; it
was all close to nature and in accordance with the ways of
The exhibit's photographs, newsreels, and interactive displays
trace Coolidge's public life as a lawyer in Northampton, Mass.; as
a legislator in various capacities in Massachusetts; as that
state's governor; as vice president in 1920 under Harding, and
finally as president after Harding unexpected death in '23 after a
Despite the nickname, Silent Cal wasn't always silent. He
probably delivered as many or more addresses as any president up to
his time. He wrote his own speeches.
He got along famously with the press, averaging two press
conferences a week, which would be unheard of today. "I shall
always remember that at the conclusion of the first regular
conference I held with (reporters) at the White House office, they
broke into hearty applause," he wrote.
And he became one of America's oft-quoted presidents.
"The business of America is business," he is said to have once
declared. One problem, though. That was a misquote, and the words
are out of context, says Jenney.
"After all, the chief business of the American people is
business," were the actual words in a speech to the American
Society of Newspaper Editors. Coolidge followed with: "We make no
concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many
other things we want very much more. We want peace and honor and
that charity which is so strong an element of all
One of Coolidge's best-known statements, a sentence that propelled
him into the national limelight, was uttered in 1919 during the
Boston police strike, when Coolidge called out the National Guard
to ensure order. "There is no right to strike against the public
safety by anybody anywhere, anytime."
The law-and-order governor received tens of thousands of letters
and telegrams of support and a place on the Republican national
Check out the exhibit, and look closely for a smile from
Coolidge, even a trace. Despite his success, he seldom looked
happy. There he is standing awkwardly presenting the Congressional
Medal of Honor to Charles Lindbergh. There he is stiffly receiving
a headdress from Sioux Indians. He couldn't even lighten up during
a visit from Santa to promote Christmas seals.
Coolidge suffered emotionally from the death of his mother from
TB, when he was 12, and from the death of his sister from
appendicitis, when he was 18. The death of his own son,
Calvin, as a result of blood poisoning from a blister that
developed while playing tennis at the White House, probably figured
in the president's decision not to seek re-election in 1928, says
Coolidge was easily and unfairly targeted. "How could they tell?"
the acerbic writer Dorothy Parker is said to have quipped upon
hearing of the former president's death in 1933.
The exhibit is instructive, but one who really wants to learn
about Coolidge should register for one of Jenney's Tuesday
afternoon tours of the homestead grounds.
All kinds of information are available for the asking. For
instance, did you know that no members of the national press were
on hand when at 2:43 in the morning on Aug. 3, 1923, by kerosene
lamplight, Coolidge's father, a justice of the peace, administered
his son the oath office? A cub reporter from the Springfield, Vt.,
paper was there to witness the historic moment, but the big-city
reporters were in Woodstock still writing about Harding.
Or that we can thank the Coolidge family's housekeeper, Aurora
Pierce, for many of the family's belongings that can be viewed at
the homestead? She saved things out of a sense of history and a
natural reluctance to throw anything away, explains Jenney.
Or that Coolidge caught heat from trout-fishing snobs for using
worms instead of flies?
Or that Grace Coolidge was an inveterate baseball fan, who as a
student at the University of Vermont, kept stats on the school's
team? The Coolidges showed a bit of treachery when it came to
teams to support: They switched allegiance from the Red Sox to the
Senators when they moved to Washington, reports Jenney.
Where did Coolidge fall on the political scale? He was
conservative, a tax cutter. He insisted on balanced budgets. He was
a hero, then and now, to those who believed in smaller government.
(In fact, one of the early presidential acts of Ronald Reagan was
to hang Coolidge's portrait in the Cabinet Room of the White
Yet Coolidge held some moderate positions in his day: He
supported women's suffrage and anti-lynching measures; he gave
citizenship to Indians; he opposed the League of Nations but
signed the Kellogg-Briand Act that condemned war as a way of
settling international disputes.
So, here's a question for Jenney: If Coolidge were around today
to run for president, would he win his home state?
"We don't go beyond the politics of the 1920s," Jenney replies
quickly as though he had heard that question too many times.
Coolidge might only have said "no comment."
Dirk Van Susteren of Calais is a freelance writer and