Lamplight Inauguration

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In Vermont, the night of August 2, 1923, was definitely unusual. It was the hottest night of the summer and one of the sultriest ever recorded in Plymouth Notch, normally one of the breezier areas at the eastern fringe of the Green Mountain range. Fully as peculiar was the fact that the kerosene vapor lamp hanging from the ceiling in Cilley’s Store—an easy stone’s throw from the Coolidge homestead, where the Vice President of the United States was in summer residence—was blazing at 2 A.M. Miss Florence Cilley, the proprietor, was the only telephone subscriber in the village. On that hot August night this fact would gain a degree of historic importance.

For at around 5 P.M. Pacific time, presidential secretary George Christian, then in San Francisco, had dispatched a terse message to the Vice President: President Warren Gamaliel Harding, struck down by a mysterious illness while on a cross-country tour, was dead. No details were given. There was no need to add that Plymouth Notch’s most famous native son, listed in the family Bible as John Calvin Coolidge, Junior, was lawfully designated as the thirtieth President of the United States. As the telegram was taking to the wires, the fifty-one-year-old Calvin Coolidge- at fifteen he had arbitrarily dropped both the John and the Junior—was lounging in a rocking chair pondering with his father the advisability of “sitting out” the heat or sweating it off in bed. He shortly chose the latter course; evidence stands that he slept quite well.

The telegram reached the only Western Union office still open in the area—at White River Junction, Vermont—at 10:30 P.M. Eastern standard time, then still known in Vermont as God’s Time. Apparently the White River operator did not know about the lone telephone in Plymouth Notch, for he phoned the message to the telephone exchange at Bridgewater, ten miles from the Coolidges’ village.

There W. A. Perkins dutifully wrote it down, hurriedly cranked his Model T Ford, and took to the bouncy and dusty River Road to deliver Secretary Christian’s wire by hand. He could have saved time by telephoning the message directly to Cilley’s Store, but chose instead to drive to Plymouth Notch; while he was there he could measure off some possible extension lines for the deluge of calls he knew would follow this first one. With typical Vermont astuteness Perkins recognized that he would have to wake Miss Florence in any case and could impose on her neighborliness by asking her help or counsel about rousing the sleeping President-to-be. After all, it wasn’t every night that one could wake up a fellow Vermonter and notify, or in local argot “warn,” him that he is President both of Vermont and of less significant portions of the U.S.A.

By pulling on his shirt and denims directly over his nightshirt Perkins did save some time, but lost that and considerably more when his auto developed a flat tire. Arrived at the Plymouth crossroads, Perkins first headed for the store, but before he could pick his way up the front steps a light went on in the upstairs living room. Within minutes, Miss Florence came downstairs, lit the vapor lamp, greeted the telephone man without surprise, and walked with him across the whitish gravelled road to the Coolidge homestead.

Miss Cilley knocked. Perkins knocked louder and began shouting, “Hallo!” Colonel John Coolidge, the President-designate’s father, was first to wake. He presently lighted an oil lamp, came to the door in his nightshirt, and greeted the callers by name. He listened to their tidings, then without comment reached for the written message, thanked Perkins and Miss Cilley, and headed for the stairs to the guest bedroom occupied by his only son and daughter-in-law.

The couple was fast asleep. Though an early riser, Calvin Coolidge had always been a hard waker. Finally aroused, he read the message by lamplight and without a word began pulling on his white socks, his blue serge trousers, and his black button shoes. That done, he struck a torch match and stepped into the upper hallway to locate an extra lamp. He collided with the somewhat squat form of Joseph McInerney, a civil servant who had been assigned to chauffeur the Vice President’s Fierce-Arrow sedan. Next morning McInerney would drive Grace and Calvin Coolidge to the railroad station at Rutland for the trip to Washington, and thereafter be relieved from all associations with the new First Family. But at least for the night of August 2, McInerney was apparently the most omnipresent of on-the-scene witnesses. “Mister Coolidge always expected a lot of the help,” Joe recalls. “With me he was all business. He always wanted to know where I was and where I was driving to. The question he asked most was, ‘Have we got enough gasoline?’”