By Jennifer Harville
Special To The Standard
The Coolidge family may be described as a small, private, and inconspicuous unit. Most would not suspect we come from a presidential lineage, while those who are aware of our relation to Calvin and Grace Coolidge know that our family tends to keep this fact close to our chests as we go about our daily lives. While we are proud of our heritage, we were raised to discuss it with modesty and humility. Visitors to the Presidential Coolidge historic site are often unaware when they come in contact with a member of the Coolidge family. During her teenage summers spent in Plymouth, my mother anonymously worked as a server in the Wilder House restaurant. My cousin Christopher used to punch people’s admission tickets at the Coolidge Homestead and people would remark about the friendly young greeter. I have to admit that to this day it is fun to walk around the site and “blend in” while overhearing some of the visitors’ comments about the exhibits and the Presidential family.
Two specific stories stand out in my mind relating to our identity as Coolidge descendants. One year, cousin Chris and our grandfather were cleaning up around the Coolidge gravestones the day before the July 4th ceremony. A passersby remarked that it must be such an honor for them to be tidying up the president’s gravestone. Both of them simply nodded and continued working, never disclosing their true identities. When my mother, Lydia, was young, a visitor to the site asked to take her picture and she agreed for a small “fee.” Her father found out about this later and made it clear that the “fee” was inappropriate.
Our family tree is not very complex and even today the branches are just beginning to spread. Calvin and Grace Coolidge had two sons. My grandfather John was born in 1906 and his brother Calvin Jr. was born in 1908. Calvin Jr. died of blood poisoning from an infected blister he sustained while playing tennis at the White House during his father’s administration. My grandparents spoke infrequently about President Coolidge. Following Calvin Jr.’s death, my grandfather took on a tremendous amount of responsibility as expectations of him intensified. Consequently, I have the sense that Calvin and his son John did not have a very close relationship.
My grandfather met my grandmother, Florence Trumbull, the daughter of then-Gov. John H. Trumbull, while traveling by train to an event in Washington, D.C. They were married in Plainville, CT on Sept. 23,1929. Their wedding was one of the most popular events of the time and the largest local event of the century. Hundreds of guests attended the wedding at the Plainville Congregational Church, and thousands of area residents (a few even climbed up into nearby trees) tried to catch a glimpse of the bride
and groom and their famous families.
John and Florence had two daughters; Cynthia, born in 1934, and my mother Lydia, born in 1939. John worked for a printing company in Hartford while Florence cared for their daughters at home. Cynthia and Lydia never knew their grandfather Calvin because he died of a heart attack in 1933 before both were born. They were, however, very fond of Grace who was a part of their lives until her death in 1957. My mother described her grandmother as “vivacious, out-going, and funloving.” She lived to be 79 years of age and developed a wonderful relationship with John, Florence, Cynthia, and Lydia, whom Grace referred to as her “precious four” in weekly letters that she wrote to her son John. She loved spending time with her two granddaughters. When they visited her Florence would instruct Grandma Coolidge not to spoil them, although more often than not, she ignored these instructions.
Cynthia married S. Edward Jeter in 1965. They had one son, Christopher Coolidge Jeter, who was born in 1967. Christopher married Tammy Alessi in 1995. They live in West Hartford, CT with their two sons, Kyle and Chase.
Lydia married Jeremy Sayles in 1966. They had two children. I, Jennifer Coolidge Sayles, was born in 1970. My brother, John Whitman Sayles, was born in 1974. I married David Harville in 1998. We live with our two children, Jake and Sheridan in Westmoreland, NH. John married Sonya Theriault in 2006 and they live in Poland, ME with their daughter Lydia.
My brother and I have fond memories of my grandparents. We called them Grandpa and Bobby. Grandpa was a quiet, unassuming man, much like his father. He never spoke much unless you engaged him in conversation. He preferred to blend into the background and take everything in. Once in a while, when you’d least expect it, he would break his silence with his dry sense of humor. During my husband’s first visit to Vermont to meet my grandparents, we went out to dinner at a formal restaurant in the area. The dinner was served in a series of courses, each lasting 30 to 45 minutes. Finally, after finishing dinner and dessert, we were all chatting when a quiet Grandpa suddenly stood up slowly and announced, “We’d better get out of here before the sun comes up.” He had the last word and we knew that it was time to go home.
Grandpa liked to watch television, particularly after lunch and after dinner. His favorite television shows included the soap opera The Young and The Restless and The Lawrence Welk Show. One of his favorite pastimes was watching sports on television. He was a Red Sox fan just as his mother Grace had been. He also liked to watch basketball and enjoyed following the University of Connecticut’s women’s team. If the players weren’t performing up to par, he would use colorful language and “coach” the players through the television.
It was an annual tradition for Grandpa to measure the grandchildren’s heights by leveling a yardstick above our heads. Measurements were recorded on the inside wall of the coat closet. This tradition has been carried over into the fourth generation of Coolidges. Luckily, the closet has an ample amount of wall space!
Bobby was the antithesis of Grandpa. She was pleasant and talkative, and she had a strong voice that carried. She would jokingly tell people that they summered in Plymouth and went south for the winter to Connecticut. They had a large home for many years in Farmington, CT and later downsized to an apartment. In their later years, they lived at Avery Heights, an assisted living facility in West Hartford. Bobby’s eyesight was poor due to macular degeneration, so she didn’t do much reading. She liked to watch TV after dinner and especially enjoyed murder mystery shows like Murder She Wrote and Colombo. She also loved plants and flowers. She had taken botany classes as a student at Mt. Holyoke College. I recall watching as she passionately tended to her garden, down on her knees, wearing a sun hat and saddle shoes. She especially enjoyed picking flowers and creating floral arrangements for church services and special events. After her death, my mother’s coworkers gave Mom a plaque that is displayed in the garden. It reads, “Florence’s Friendship Garden.”
Bobby lamented that interest in the Coolidges would wane after they were gone. She wondered who would have the drive, ambition, or even time in their busy lives to keep the Coolidge history alive. I wish I had asked Grandpa what he envisioned for Plymouth and the presidential site after he was gone… but I know it would have been difficult to pose such questions to a private gentleman. Looking back now, I understand how both he and Bobby quietly did their parts to preserve the family history and the Historic Site.
The President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site in Plymouth Notch has always worked closely and shared a common vision with the Coolidge family. Grace Coolidge protected and cherished the Site after the death of her husband. She shared her vision with my grandparents. It was her desire that the entire village be preserved to interpret the life and times of Calvin Coolidge.
During the late 1940s, the Coolidge family worked closely with Vrest Orton, Chair of the Historic Sites Commission, State Forester Perry Merrill, and St. Johnsbury Representative Graham Newell on the vision for Plymouth Notch. In June 1956, my grandparents donated the Coolidge Homestead and the farm shop located across the road from the Homestead to the State of Vermont Included in the donation were all the first floor furnishings of the Homestead, which was to be developed as a fitting memorial to President Coolidge. A condition of the donation was that the addition constructed by Calvin Coolidge in 1932 was to be removed and moved across the pasture behind the Homestead to a knoll on the old Coolidge Farm. This was done at state expense.
In 1972 the State of Vermont dedicated and opened the long-awaited Visitors Center. The Center was constructed on land purchased from my grandparents and on additional land that had been donated by William Bryant. The Coolidges donated many valuable objects, including gifts of state, portraits, and personal items that had belonged to Grace and Calvin. They continued to donate material to the state over the years.
According to John Dumville, who was the Site Manager at the time, my grandfather called him one evening and told him that The Smithsonian Museum had been pestering him to donate the kerosene lamp and pen that had been used in the Homestead when Colonial John had administered the Oath of Office to Calvin. He said it didn’t belong in Washington and wanted it to go back into the Homestead. When the Homestead had been donated to the State the family had kept the lamp, pen, Bible, and table cover and put them in storage at Dartmouth under the the care of a closely trusted friend and colleague Ed Lathem. My grandparents decided to donate these items to the State of Vermont so that they could be returned to their original place in the Homestead.
Grandpa recalled that it was his mother’s desire for the State to take the lead in the preservation of the Notch and that she did not want Plymouth to become a political shrine with a political agenda. Instead it was to be a place where people could come and see that the leaders of our country could come from humble backgrounds. With Grace’s vision in mind, my grandfather would quietly purchase property in Plymouth Notch as it became available and hold title to it until the State of Vermont could appropriate money for its purchase. This began with the Cheese Factory when he purchased all the various shares in the defunct business and updated the factory to once again begin the production of the Plymouth Granular Curd Cheese he had enjoyed as a boy made when his grandfather and others owned the factory. The factory had closed in the late 1930s and been inactive until it was reopened by John. It was his goal not only to reopen it to provide jobs in the community but to expand the interpretation of the historic site with the eventual purchase of the property and business by the State of Vermont. The State of Vermont purchased the cheese factory in 1998 and after major system upgrades and renovation the factory is now leased to a private operator manufacturing the original Granular Curd Cheese.
Over the years the my grandparents continued to purchase and hold onto various parcels of real estate until the State of Vermont could receive funding to purchase them. These included East Mountain, a 386 acre parcel of land whose view forms an important backdrop for the historic district, and the Plymouth Notch Schoolhouse, which they bought from the Town School District in 1960. In 1991, the Division of Historic Preservation purchased four additional parcels of property from the Coolidges to protect the Historic Site from development that did not fit with the vision of preservation.
As my grandparents, then later my aunt and mother participated prominently as decision makers in the family, I thought I had ample time to observe and quietly become accustomed to the responsibility of being a Coolidge. But then fate intervened and our family faced a series of family illnesses and losses over a twelve-year span. This began in 1989 when my aunt Cynthia died of melanoma. Nine years later Bobby died in her sleep at age 93. Grandpa was also 93 when he passed away in May 2000. My mother died almost a year later, succumbing to breast cancer in 2001. With the passing of my grandparents and the premature deaths of my aunt and mother, Christopher, John, and I are now the oldest living generation of Coolidges. We are stewards of today’s Coolidge legacy.
Being a Coolidge descendant is one role of several, for I am also a wife, mother, and community volunteer. But it is special to be able to claim and embrace my unique heritage. I am thankful to have come from a generation of Coolidges who dedicated their lives to public service and to making our country a better place. As a Coolidge descendant, my purpose is simple: I want to work to keep the Coolidge history alive by sharing the Coolidges’ lives and by ensuring that our stories and information are passed on to future generations.