By Cyndy Bittinger
Special To The Standard
To get a picture of the years at the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation before 1990, I would need a ,crystal ball, since I was not there, but I can accurately report on what was in place when I arrived at Plymouth Notch. For of course, I wanted to build on the strong programs of the early years of 1960-1989.
Being hired by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation in 1990, I immediately immersed myself in all things Coolidge, presidential, and first families. I was most fortunate that both John and Florence Coolidge were both still active in their eighties on the board of trustees. (John was the surviving son of President Coolidge; his wife was the daughter of Governor Trumbull of Connecticut). Mr. Coolidge, as everyone called him, had donated many artifacts to the State of Vermont and the Coolidge Foundation. He also answered historical questions. Mrs. Coolidge, fairly blind at that point in her life, would go into the small garden outside of the Union Christian Church and cut flowers for each Sunday service, once a month, June to October. She and her husband would always attend church. Mr. Coolidge often passed the offering plate to assist me. Oh yes, I did not know when I was hired, but I was to run the church. The last executive director played the organ. I had no such skills, but I could type up the bulletin, find ministers and engage organists. You see this was not a real church with a congregation. This was a seasonal church drawing upon tourists and interested townspeople.
When the village opened for the season in May of 1990, I was struck by the Coolidge connections that each person in the various buildings had as a legacy. They, of course, knew John and Florence Coolidge and maybe their daughters and grandchildren, but also many had a connection to the president and first lady. Charles Hoskison, in his nineties, could tell me about his communications with Grace Coolidge (his daughter later donated letters from Grace to her family). Vivian Blanchard had run the church for many years and was a wealth of knowledge about the town. Building interpreters told stories about how their fathers fished with President Coolidge! Oh how I wish I had recorded more of their reminiscences.
The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation was the only membership organization to honor our 30th U.S. President, Calvin Coolidge. In the archives, there were membership forms from the first “Hometown Coolidge Club.” These were the Plymouth folks who decided to campaign for Coolidge when he ran for president in his own right after the death of Warren Harding. President Coolidge did not want to campaign very much since his son, Calvin, Jr., had just died at age 16 in July of 1924. President Coolidge wanted to do the nation’s work at the capitol and probably was depressed about the death of his son. The Hometown Coolidge Club had a goal of Calvin Coolidge winning the presidency in his own right. So they traveled the country playing country music while the Coolidge-Dawes Caravan crossed the country in their Model T’s and Model A’s with rallies at many towns along the way. Obviously this homespun campaign was very popular and President Coolidge was elected in 1924.
When the Coolidge Foundation was formed in 1960, membership was seen as a way to finance it since admission fees to the historic site went to the state. Membership was always an important goal. Visitors to the historic site were encouraged to join and membership forms were slipped into books sold in the stores. During the season, members dropped by the Coolidge Foundation offices to share stories, exchange memorabilia, and donate books on the president. John Coolidge, owner of the Plymouth Cheese Factory, would slip membership forms into the cheese gift baskets he sold!
Publications, commemorative postal covers, and books were important for the Coolidge Foundation and another source of income. Larry Wikander, a retired Williams College librarian and Coolidge archives expert at the Northampton, Massachusetts public library with the Coolidge Room, was the head of academic research for the Coolidge Foundation. Larry was the organizer and editor for a series of academic booklets with identical covers called “The Real Calvin Coolidge.” His partner for this publishing effort was Robert H. Ferrell, Professor Emeritus in History from Indiana University. They wanted to republish important magazine articles about the Coolidges and review new books about them. They thought these materials would show a new side of Calvin Coolidge, hence the real person, not the stereotype in the history books. They also wanted scholars to write new articles and books; with more research, a more balanced view of the president would emerge. Both Larry and Bob were responsible for book projects as well as these booklets. Bob wrote The Presidency of Calvin Coolidge and a book on Grace Coolidge; Larry edited Grace’s articles to create a short autobiography for the first lady. Robert Sharp of Rutland and Frank Teagle of Woodstock kept The Autobiography of Calvin Coolidge in print. After reading many books on Calvin Coolidge, I must say that his own autobiography is the easiest of all the books on the president to read and is very moving. Larry also found academic speakers for Annual Meetings held on the first Sunday of August.
John Lutz, a True Basic executive, had befriended the Coolidges with a mutual interest in stamp collecting. Lutz had come up with a great idea. Why not create educational covers with cancels of milestones in the life of Calvin Coolidge and his family? Sol Levenson, a mural artist, would draw the artwork and Lutz would print them up. Then they would be cancelled by the Plymouth Post Office each July 4th and sold for a small sum. This was an idea endorsed by the Coolidge family and continued for many years.
Other ideas to add events or marketing to the July 4th Commemoration of the Birthday of Calvin Coolidge, the only president born on Independence Day, were rejected by the family. After all, it was a day to remember the real President Coolidge, not to re-enact him or promote products. A simple march to the cemetery led by the Vermont National Color Guard, Coolidge descendents, and the church minister was the proper way to remember this president. The echoing bugle music at the cemetery was music for the hills to hear. Of course a barbeque by the local fire department was acceptable. Afterall a wreath was sent from the White House requested by the Coolidge Foundation, the group that ran the event in coordination with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation which ran the site. The day was to be dignified and to show proper respect.
My predecessors, Executive Director Kathy Donald and Secretary of the organization, Sally Thompson, gave their hearts and souls to the Coolidge Foundation when they were in positions of leadership. Each sought out new research and new avenues of funding. Each got along very well with the Coolidge family. As Sally Thompson once said to me, she tried to find trustees with different talents so that the organization had a breadth of knowledge. Sheldon Stern, retired historian for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, once named the academic leaders in the organization the Coolidge underground. I think he meant that this group of volunteers was plotting to get the real story out about Calvin and Grace Coolidge. They were in the know.
Dr. Clifford Pease had created a slide show on First Lady Grace Coolidge. His free time was devoted to gathering up materials about her and he even convinced Champlain College to buy one of her houses in Burlington as a preservation effort. He urged the University of Vermont to name their faculty dining room the Grace Coolidge Room. He knew that this first lady was special and her story was very unknown, even to her alma mater. He started annual Grace Coolidge luncheons at the University of Vermont with a speaker who would highlight new research and in this way the Coolidge Foundation could keep the connection going with her school. He donated his collection of materials on the first lady to the Coolidge Foundation and encouraged me to give talks on her history since he was ill and could no longer do this.
Franklin D. Roosevelt created the presidential library system, mainly to preserve Hyde Park, his birthplace and family home. He also honored Herbert Hoover with a presidential library in West Branch, Iowa. So presidential libraries were to be the legacy of each president and run by the federal government. What about presidents before F.D.R.? Most gave their papers to the Library of Congress. However, sometimes groups wanted to save important buildings related to the presidents and formed associations to do that. For example, the Mount Vernon Ladies saved Mount Vernon to remember George Washington; Monticello is saved to remember Thomas Jefferson. In Calvin Coolidge’s case, he gave his presidential papers to the Library of Congress and his state papers to Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts. His father, Col. John Coolidge, had often said that the village of Plymouth Notch should be saved in memory of his son. Grace Coolidge wanted to give the homestead to the State of Vermont if they would acquire the birthplace. This was done and slowly the Coolidge family, led by son John, and the state of Vermont acquired buildings and land to create the historic site as we know it today. When the townspeople could no longer manage the church, they deeded it to the Coolidge Foundation. When I arrived in 1990, the basement of the church had just been renovated so that offices and the archives could have a permanent home. Before that, the Coolidge Foundation functioned out of a winter home in the Norman Williams Library in Woodstock and a summer home at the top of the Cilley Store over the post office.
The Coolidge Foundation had wanted to collect as many artifacts, photographs, or letters as possible concerning Calvin and Grace Coolidge. If you have access to this material, you can provide it to scholars for further study. Most were to be donated. The largest artifact was the Coolidge Dawes banner which was on display at the Visitors’ Center built with real impetus from the Coolidge Foundation in 1973. Collecting materials can be an awesome job and the new center being opened this year will be just the right place.
Each Executive Director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation has the distinct privilege of working with a wonderful presidential family, the Coolidges, Sayles, Harvilles, and Jeters. They also benefit from a host of volunteers who want to preserve this history and legacy and a willing partner in the State of Vermont.
Cyndy Bittinger served as Executive Director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation from 1990 to 2008. She is presently a faculty member for the Community College of Vermont teaching Vermont history and creating commentaries for Vermont Public Radio on Vermont history.