Lamplight Inauguration


Joe Fountain looked on as Calvin Coolidge listened in silence, at first warily, then with a sort of resigned thoughtfulness. Grace Coolidge, neatly coiffed and wearing a plain bluish house dress, entered the room and walked to the small table in the center, where she carefully centered a sparklingly polished oil lamp: Aurora Pierce, Colonel John’s housekeeper, was scrupulous in attending to her duties. Calvin nodded at his wife with a slight, quick smile, broke away from the Congressman, and strolled to the side of his father, who stood before his high desk, still in his nightshirt uppers with suspenders dangling from his trouser tops. Even in his stocking feet, Colonel John—the title was honorary, bestowed by Vermont’s governor—stood half a head taller than his son.

“Father, Mister Dale thinks I should take the oath of office immediately and here. You are still a notary, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Cal, I am.”

After another interval of thoughtful silence Calvin nodded curtly but pleasantly toward young Joe Fountain, then instructed Geiser to get in touch with Edward T. Clark, the Vice President’s principal secretary in Washington. “Have Clark check with the Chief Justice.” He added more specifically: “I want Chief Justice Taft to recheck the oath wording and advise on the legality of its administration by a notary public …”

Obediently Geiser left the room and made for Cilley’s Store.

Grace Coolidge approached her husband to ask if the oath-taking should not be delayed until the rest of the newsmen returned. Coolidge had adhered fairly consistently to a policy of sharing news with all major news services and/or principal newspapers of the area. But after a very long silence the Vice President blinked, glanced quickly at Fountain, and said dryly, “Expect our young friend here might be willing to make the event known through the Associated Press.”

Geiser reappeared, to report that he had reached Clark by telephone and that the Washington secretary was on his way to the Chief Justice’s home. Clark had promised to call back as soon as he had talked with Mr. Taft. There would be some more waiting. Calvin Coolidge reached for his black felt hat on the marbletop table. “Let’s go over to the store,” he said, “light’s on.” He appeared to be speaking to the piano; he did not wait for a companion. Fountain diffidently joined him and fell in step. Congressman Dale trailed behind, spouting small talk which Coolidge did not bother to answer. Arrived at the store, the Vice President traded “Good evenings” with Florence Cilley, who waited dutifully beside the head-high box telephone with its shiny little side crank.

To the right of the center aisle were—and still are—a big, plain, boarded counter and racks for merchandise ranging from bolts of cloth and straw hats to shortening and bagged sugar. Coolidge eyed these goods carefully. He had never ceased to regard the plain little store as a very special part of his life. It had once belonged to his father; he himself had been born in it. His first memories were centered in the neat old wooden building, from the big attic room through the two bedrooms and upstairs parlor and so down to the “trade shop,” with its neat little cage of a post office and the tiers of numbered lockboxes. Colonel John had kept the store for twenty-four years and had taken a good living from it—up to one hundred dollars per month net, postmastering included.

Somehow the little store had retained its air of selfsufficiency. After all, no railroad had ever come closer than twelve miles; even in Calvin Coolidge’s lifetime the store had been a stage stop and a wagon freight station. At six or thereabouts, little Cal had watched the freight wagons from Boston pull in with wellpacked cargoes of barrelled sugar, salt, meat cures, and shelf goods, including substantial and highly salable quantities of rum, mostly in pint bottles or gallon demijohns. He had watched the same wagons load up for the return trip with Vermont butter in fifty-pound drums, home-set cheese rounds, crated eggs, hardwood charcoal, plaster lime, even pigs of locally mined lead.

On this momentous night in 1923, as he waited for word from Washington, Calvin Coolidge could have told plenty of rousing stories about the old store. But all he said was, “It’s a real hot night.” Joe Fountain murmured, “Yessir.” Congressman Dale opened another sluice of conversation. Coolidge veered away to the back of the store and made a careful inspection of the cereal shelf just beyond the box telephone. Then he asked Florence Cilley if she had any cold soft drinks.

Miss Cilley, Fountain recalls, answered that she carried Moxie. She strolled to the back of the store, lifted three bottles from the icebox, and brought three tumblers from a back-room shelf. She used a can opener to lift off the caps and emptied each bottle into a glass.