By HOWARD COFFIN
Special To The Standard
Four score and seven years ago, the father of Calvin Coolidge brought forth at Plymouth Notch one of American History’s most intriguing happenings when he saw his way clear to administer the Presidential Oath of Office to his son, and did so.
Calvin Coolidge becoming President at 2:47 a.m. on the third day of August in 1923 resulted in the complete discovery of one of the world’s most beautiful places. This summer those from all over the planet who seek it out will be better served than ever before by the opening of the Calvin Coolidge Museum and Education Center. The Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, in league with its long-time cohorts the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation and the Coolidge Family, has made this possible.
When Plymouth suddenly became a presidential hometown, no one more creatively, or gracefully, capitalized on the Notch’s fame as a lady neighbor of the Coolidge’s. Ruth Aldrich, about four feet six inches tall, and thus known as “Midge,” was the Plymouth cheese maker’s daughter. In the family home opposite the store, Midge opened a tearoom. She built a roadside stand on the front lawn, and three tourist cabins out back.
Thanks to Midge’s cousin Marjorie Pierce (whose cousin Aurora Pierce was the Coolidge’s housekeeper), I met Miss Aldrich at Plymouth Notch late her life. Midge lived past 90 and in her last years she only summered at the Notch. But reliably as the robins that graced her lawns, she arrived from Springfield in spring and departed with autumn. Marjorie drove me over from North Shrewsbury one July day for a visit. I knew Midge the rest of her life and we sometimes chatted as she tended her roses.
Thanks to my long-time association with Plymouth and friendship with Coolidge Site Supervisor Bill Jenney, I have spent many nights in one of Midge’s cabins. Amid the twitter and peep of the day’s birth I have many times seen the first light touch the village’s clapboards as the sun surmounts East Mountain. And by the cabin door in the soft silence of nightfall I have oft watched stars emerge above Saltash Mountain’s dark mass.
Several summers back my wife Sue and I made a somewhat self-serving donation to finance the repair of the outdoor fireplace Midge built for her cabins’ guests. Bill Jenney hired a stonemason and on an August night, in the company of friends, we prepared to put the rebuilt structure to use.
I handed Sue the matches, since her contribution had exceeded mine, and we all raised a glass as I said a quiet thank you to Midge. As match touched paper, from the corner of my eye I saw a familiar little figure hasten from the house to the roadside stand. It was Midge, and though I moved to where I had seen her, she had, of course, disappeared into the dusk.
Recalling that moment, childhood visits to Plymouth Notch with my family have often come to mind. Six decades later I recall many people walking about the Notch and gathered before the Coolidge Homestead. I noticed that they didn’t talk much, or spoke only in hushed tones.
We kids who grew up near the Notch had an awareness of its history that seemed always to have been within our minds. It seemed we were aware that a farm boy from that hamlet in the nearby hills grew up to become President of the United States of America. And that told us much what America was all about, what our parents’ generation had just fought for “oversees.”
At Plymouth, even as kids, we understood that the American Dream shone golden as the morning sunlight on a Coolidge hayfield. Indeed, a quiet Vermont farm boy who split kindling, fed the hens, attended a one room schoolhouse, and met strangers with embarrassed difficulty, had grown up to become President. And the mantel was bestowed in the family front room lit by kerosene flame.
We also grew up with an understanding of those people from whom Calvin Coolidge emerged. They were upcountry farm folk who had come to terms with life through long years in a place where there was no turning one’s back on reality. What needed to be done was done, what people who needed help usually got it, and it was all carried on without much fanfare. We knew this because Coolidge’s people were our people.
We also, of course, knew that when Coolidge took the Presidential Oath, he not only raised his right hand, but also placed his left on the family bible. We knew that right across the road from the Homestead was the church, where Plymouth people had gone for generations when they felt the need.
Coolidge wrote late in life of the Plymouth people:
“The break of day saw them stirring. Their industry continued until twilight. The kept up no church organization, and as there was little regular preaching the outward manifestation of religion through public profession had little opportunity, but they were without exception a people of faith and charity and good works. They cherished the teachings of the bible and sought to live in accordance with its precepts.”
The church is there, as was faith. But as we had been taught, that faith was not dependent on a building. Again Coolidge’s words about the Notch:
“As I look back on it I constantly think how clean it was. There was little about it that was artificial. It was as close to nature and in accordance with the ways of nature. The streams ran clear. The roads, the woods, the fields, the people – all were clean. Even when I try to divest it of the halo which I know always surrounds the past, I am unable to create any other impression than that it was fresh and clean.”
Calvin Coolidge looked homeward and pictured a halo. I shall never forget arriving one Christmas eve for services at the Notch and seeing the church windows. For a moment, I thought of seeing a lighted manger across a desert in winter.
Be that as it may, as I have observed since my first visits, Plymouth Notch is a place that touches people in a very profound way. Take seat on the store steps, or on the Homestead porch, and watch the people passing.
Well worth recalling is the fact that before Calvin Coolidge rose to prominence, the most famous person the Notch produced was Achsa Sprague. She lived just up the hill from the Coolidge Homestead, in a farmhouse that no longer stands, and she became nationally famous as a spiritualist. She believed that the dead survive and communicate with the living. Back around the Civil War era sÃ©ances were a rather common occurrence in Plymouth. There is spirituality to the place today that is unmistakable.
Webster’s Dictionary offers these definitions for the word “spiritual:”
–“Of the spirit or soul, often in a religious or moral aspect, as distinguished from the body.”
–“Of, from, or concerned with the intellect, or what is often thought of as the better or higher part of the mind.”
–“Consisting of spirit, not corporeal.”
They all fit the feel of Plymouth, where the veil between the present and those who have gone before seems uncommonly thin. There is something mainly gone from the earth, something of hill farm Vermont and its unique people, persists.
What abides at Plymouth Notch defies firm description, yet is as real as the morning mists and night shadows that touch its gentle fields once so hard won, and worked, by the calloused, gentle hands.
Plymouth Notch is a place of the spirit. Indeed, I saw one there on a midsummer night not so long ago.