December 1963 | Volume 15, Issue 1
In San Francisco Warren G. Harding lay dead, and the nation was without a Chief Executive. In the early morning hours, by the light of a flickering oil lamp, an elderly Vermonter swore in his son as the thirtieth President of the United States
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?’”
On colliding with his chauffeur in the dimly lighted hallway, Coolidge seemed pleased to find McInerney also looking for a lamp, and at least that once went so far as to pat the driver’s shoulder. Having located the extra lamp, the Vice President struck another torch match to light it, walked down the stairs, and took a pail of cold water from the buttery shelf in the lower hallway. He carried the water upstairs to the bedroom, partly filled a porcelain basin, and splashed water on his face. He then took a straight razor from the top dresser drawer and began giving himself a dry shave, wholly without benefit of soap. That done, Coolidge again splashed his face with cold water, combed his rather silky, carrot-red hair, slipped on a white shirt, and attached a hard-starched, medium-high, detachable collar, size 15. Having carefully donned a narrow knitted blue tie, he slipped into his double-breasted blue serge jacket and roused his wife. Then he went clopping downstairs into the airy little parlor, walking (as his temporary chauffeur recalls) “like a tomcat stepping through wet grass.”
Joe McInerney took a guarding position just outside the front screen door. Meanwhile E. C. Geiser, the Vice President’s young assistant secretary, was standing by in the parlor. He answered a knock at the side door, to find Florence Cilley waiting with a longdistance telephone message which she had written in longhand on a piece of brown wrapping paper. She hurriedly returned to the store and the wall-box telephone, which was on the verge of becoming very busy. The telephone man had returned to his home, leaving an equipment case and promising to be back very early the next morning.
At this point, the press began to assemble. Several reporters covering the Vice President for the major news services and the Hearst papers were established at the Okemo Tavern in Ludlow, twelve miles away. (The Coolidge homestead had no accommodations for newspapermen, and neither Plymouth Notch nor any village nearby had rooms with telephones, liquid refreshments, or other necessities of the working reporter.)
As the news-service men gathered outside the house after the trip from Ludlow, Coolidge announced that he would make a statement; he retired with Geiser, who took it down directly on a typewriter. The message read: Reports have reached me, which I fear are correct, that President Harding is gone. The world has lost a great and good man. I mourn his loss. He was my Chief and friend.
It will be my purpose to carry out the policies which he has begun for the service of the American people and for meeting their responsibilities wherever they may arise.
For this purpose I shall seek the co-operation of all those who have been associated with the President during his term of office. Those who have given their efforts to assist him I wish to remain in office that they may assist me. I have faith that God will direct the destinies of our nation.
It is my intention to remain here until I can obtain the correct form for the oath of office, which will be administered to me by my father, who is a notary public, if that will meet the necessary requirement. I expect to leave for Washington during the day.
Copies of the statement were handed to the reporters, and they left to file their stories, thinking that Coolidge would not take the oath until the next morning.
But another reporter was making his way to Plymouth Notch that night. Late in the evening, G. B. Littlefield, Associated Press bureau chief at Boston, had telephoned one of his most dependable Vermont correspondents, or stringers, Joseph H. Fountain, then the twenty-two-year-old editor of the weekly Reporter in Springfield and now public relations director for the Canadian National Railways. Fountain was to go to Plymouth Notch to backstop the reporters already on the scene.
Soon afterward, young Fountain headed for the Coolidge homestead with three companions: Herbert P. Thompson, commander of the Springfield American Legion Post; Porter Dale, a loquacious Vermont congressman whose sights were already set on the U.S. Senate; and L. L. Lane, a union official.
A lamp was burning brightly in the prim white house when they arrived, and moving shapes were clearly visible through the bay window of the front room. Congressman Dale headed for the doorway, with the slender young newsman keeping pace. Lane and Thompson waited discreetly on the rather narrow porch as the Congressman closed in on Calvin Coolidge, clutched his hand, and began speaking: “The country is without a President, Mister Coolidge: The United States has no President … No President … The country should never be without a President …”
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.
The Vice President reached for the first glass and raised it to his lips. He took a cautious taste, then a lusty swallow. The Congressman and the newsman followed suit. None of the three appeared in a rush to deposit the required fifteen cents on the counter. Coolidge viewed his fellow celebrants with a slight but distinctly impish grin. Fountain describes himself as having been frozen with fascination at the prospect of being treated to a Moxie by the man who would soon be President of the United States.
Slowly but surely, and in the classic Vermont manner, the freeze thawed. Coolidge’s left hand was slipping into the depths of his left hip pocket. Even more slowly, the freckled and sunburned hand emerged, clutching a child’s-size coin purse of black leather. Carefully Coolidge fingered some coins and presently took out just one. With extreme care he deposited a shiny new nickel on the counter beside the three empty glasses; he was paying only for his own Moxie. Stumblingly Joe Fountain deposited a dime beside the lone nickel, then sidestepped the retreating hulk of Congressman Dale.
Coolidge said curtly, “Figure we’d best get back to Father.” Miss Cilley volunteered to bring over any telephone messages that might arrive. Colonel John was in the kitchen, shaving. Geiser was checking the prescribed inaugural oath as he had copied it in longhand from a manual in his possession, rereading his own handwriting with extreme care. Never before had the oath been given in a lamplighted farm homestead with a built-in privy. Coolidge took the paper from his secretary, read it carefully, handed it back to Geiser, and told him to type it up in triplicate. As a practicing lawyer and onetime Amherst dissertationist, Coolidge was professionally famed, even notorious, for meticulous attention to legal technicalities. Evidence seems to suggest that he himself considered the unusual oathtaking entirely legal. Nevertheless, he would wait for specific confirmation from the Chief Justice.
Geiser returned with the three typewritten copies of the oath. Coolidge read the ribbon copy with care, then handed one carbon to Geiser with the admonition, “Be sure to get the signatures of the witnesses.”
The time was approximately 2:35 A.M. There was a light tap at the front door, and Calvin Coolidge answered it in person. Florence Cilley did not enter; she smiled and handed in a message: “Procedure legal. Best wishes. Taft.”
Joe Fountain recalls that Coolidge slipped the paper into his pocket and without a word approached the center table, behind which his father stood. The parlor lamp with its elaborately molded glass base cast a bright light on the leather cover and gilded spine of the family Bible. According to Joseph McInerney, the other surviving witness, Grace Coolidge stepped to her husband’s side, while Congressman Dale and Fountain moved to his left. Edwin Geiser looked on from a corner.
Colonel John, freshly shaved and dressed but still without collar or tie, stood surprisingly straight for a man of seventy-eight. He moved the ornate oil lamp nearer the Bible and the center of the table, then faced his only son.
Calvin placed his left hand on the closed Bible, and like his father, raised his right hand. In leisurely Vermont accents the father read the oath in its entirety: “I, Calvin Coolidge, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States …” Speaking with a less pronounced but still recognizable Vermont accent, the son repeated the entire oath without stumbling or hesitating, including the “So help me God,” and so became the thirtieth President of the United States.
Grace Coolidge was trembling. Colonel John gulped slightly, and his eyes were noticeably moist. The new President was grimly silent. Congressman Dale pulled a biscuit-sized gold watch from his vest pocket and glanced at it, then boomed, “It is exactly two fortyseven!”
The President glanced at his wife without speaking, or without any move to embrace her. Instead he turned briefly toward Geiser. The pompadoured young man then stepped forward to hand the President a fountain pen. Coolidge took it hurriedly, bent over the table, and scrawled his signature directly beneath the typed text. He handed the pen to his father, who carefully wrote, “John C. Coolidge.” Still trembling, the new First Lady stepped to the table and signed “Grace G. Coolidge.” Congressman Dale signed next, then Geiser, then Fountain.
No one spoke. The elder Coolidge strolled to his highboy desk, briefly fumbled through a clutter of books and catalogues, then pulled open the top drawer, lifted out his notary public’s seal impresser, and applied it to the duly signed oath. Colonel John held the precious paper as the President walked toward the stairway, his wife following. At the foot of the stairs he paused to let her walk ahead. Then he turned, smiled slightly, and said, “Good night.”
Joe Fountain approached Colonel John, who stood by the table gazing fixedly into space, and said, “Thank you, Sir!” The elderly man nodded and said, “Good night, Sir!”Joe hurried through the door and out to the big auto, where two of his three companions waited. Congressman Dale had elected to spend the night at the Coolidge house, sharing the spare room with Geiser and McInerney. With the scoop of his lifetime well in mind, Joe Fountain was anxious to get back to his newspaper shop at Springfield without tarrying in any of the sleeping villages en route. He didn’t dare take a chance of spreading the news by using the party-line telephones or any of the exchange “centrals.” Once at his desk in Springfield he began sending out his story over the long-distance wires.
It was none too early. Within four hours Plymouth Notch was swarming with reporters and several hundred other citizens. By seven thirty entire open fields were being converted into impromptu parking lots, and local dairy herds, on their way to dewy pastures, crossed the roads at their peril.
The President left to his wife the task of breaking the news to their two sons, John, seventeen, and Calvin, Junior, fifteen. Both were “working the summer” on a tobacco farm down in Connecticut. A companion was shortly to remark to John, “If my father was President of the United States I wouldn’t be here thumbing these damn tobacco worms.”
“If your father were my father,” young Coolidge answered, “you’d be doing just what we’re doing.”
The President and his wife breakfasted in the homestead kitchen at about 7 A.M. Miss Pierce, the housekeeper, was a mite disappointed because the couple didn’t do any particular justice to the rather special breakfast she had cooked. Also she was less than happily surprised when “Mister Calvin” overlooked the huge pot of hot water she had purposefully readied for his morning shave. He had again washed his face in cold water and apparently shaved without soap, even though a fresh cake waited on the washstand in the back hall. But a good neighbor, Mrs. Amy Stout, pointed out the obvious fact that “Mister Calvin” was having a mighty busy morning of it, the more so because he and “Miz Grace” were obliged to take the 9:15 train out of Rutland for Washington.
And anybody could see that people were swarming around like bees in a hail storm. Not all were foreigners: politicians and notables were arriving from all over Vermont. There were enough newspapermen to fill the Union Church twice over. Calvin Coolidge had left the breakfast table to shake hands and trade small talk with local people, who were waiting in line like sheep at the gate of the alfalfa field. He was giving all his time to chatting and visiting with his neighbors, leaving Congressman Dale to shoo off his fellow politicians and Secretary Geiser to handle the reporters.
Furthermore, even though Bill Perkins, the telephone man, had returned and was already at work, Miss Cilley’s phone was ringing like crazy and pouring out messages like cider from summer apples. The inflow required the full-time services of a messenger boy. The “boy” turned out to be a girl—slender, dark-eyed, pretty Violet Hickory, Miss Cilley’s adopted daughter, then passing thirteen. Grace and Calvin Coolidge liked Violet. In earlier summer vacations the shy little girl had been a good playmate of young John and Calvin, Junior. Each time she reappeared at the doorway the new President would call out, “Come right in, Violet!” and smile. The smiles were instantly returned and long cherished. Actually the girl who shared the four-poster bed with her foster mother, or “auntie,” over the store had been awake practically all night. She would continue to serve as special messenger until the President and his wife were on their way across the mountains to Rutland.•
• The following year found Violet a devoted member of the Coolidge Caravan which toured the continent during his victorious 1924 campaign. The year after that she was one of the Plymouth Square Dancers and country musicians who toured the Loew’s State vaudeville circuit. The same Violet and her husband, Herman Pelkey, today own and keep Cilley’s Store. Other old-time Coolidge neighbors, including Moors and Hoskinsons, tend the old family farm, now owned by young John. John and his mother gave the Coolidge homestead to the state of Vermont as a “historic shrine,” and the old cheese factory, just back of the homestead which Colonel John helped found, has been restored to businesslike productivity by young John.
Before taking leave Mr. Coolidge discreetly intimated that he would soon be back. Quite probably he had already decided to use his birthplace, the top floor of the old store, as his summer White House. Certainly tables and desks were newly built and in place by August so, less than three weeks later.
Meanwhile Calvin Coolidge moved resolutely into his first day as President. By eight thirty the long, black Fierce-Arrow was rolling along the River Road toward Rutland at a steady thirtyfive miles an hour. En route, the President stopped at the Old Plymouth Notch Cemetery, where five generations of Vermont Coolidges lay at rest in the family plot. For at least ten minutes he stood at his mother’s grave in deep meditation. The beautiful Victoria Moor Coolidge had died, presumably of tuberculosis, when Calvin was turning twelve. The President made a briefer pause at the grave of Abbie, his only sister, a beautiful and brilliant girl who had qualified as a country schoolteacher at twelve, followed Calvin (to his great delight) to the Black River Academy at Ludlow, and then died of appendicitis the following year, when Calvin was eighteen. When they reached Rutland driver McInerney pulled up alongside the railroad depot, where a special train bearing very special redwhite-and-blue buntings and including the private car of the road’s former president (and former governor of Vermont), Percival Wood Clement, waited with steam up.
For the first and only time that day Calvin Coolidge was noticeably short-tempered. Noting that the regular 9:15 train was still on the tracks, he deliberately bypassed the reception committee and demanded, “Where’s the traffic manager?” When the latter identified himself, the President said curtly, “You’re not running any special train for me! If you want me to ride in your boss’s private car you can hitch it on the regular train. But no special! ”
He escorted his wife to a waiting-room bench, where he sat with her while the hook-on was effected. Several times Secretary Geiser started to speak, only to be impatiently waved aside; from Washington, Clark had dispatched two Secret Service men to join the new President at the Rutland station; they had not yet arrived, but Coolidge couldn’t have cared less. With enormous effort the two agents, temporarily stranded at Bellows Falls, across the state on the Connecticut River, had maneuvered passage on a Rutland freight caboose as far as a remote mountain stop, Mount Holly. There the 9:15 stopped to take on water and, incidentally, the weary Secret Service men.
Percival Clement expressed cautious disappointment that what he had intended to be the Presidential Special had not been used. He was quoted as saying he was “considerably let down.” That was not the case with young Violet Hickory, back at Cilley’s Store.
In a recent interview she told the writer the following story. Busy as he had been, she said, the new President had somehow found time to leave a small white envelope on the front counter. On it two words were scrawled in ink: “for Violet.” Inside was a new dollar bill, the first dollar Calvin Coolidge spent as President of the United States. On it he had primly written, “For Violet from Calvin Coolidge.”
Violet has carefully preserved the bill in her lockbox in a bank over in Woodstock, for as country neighbors and other knowing people continue to agree, it was truly a miracle in Vermont. Cal Coolidge had left a dollar tip.