Thursday, September 11, 2008

They Laughed When I Suggested We Visit Calvin Coolidge's Birthplace; and When We Got There They Were Still Laughing

In August some relatives of mine from Pennsylvania came up to Vermont for their vacation and they wanted me to show them some exciting places. While these visitors love the natural beauty of the area, they prefer to limit their enjoyment of it to gazing upon it and contemplating its sublimity rather than engaging in strenuous activities amid it. On a previous visit we had gone to the Von Trapp family's Austrian chalet complex near Stowe and that had been a hit, as had been the entire village of Stowe itself, which is quaint and has lots of shopping. An excursion to the Vermont Country Store had proven to be popular too, as had taking a tour of antique shops. Indeed, with the restrictions placed upon what we could do, I began to worry that I was running out of good options for new experiences. I considered Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which was where Norman Rockwell lived, and which has not neglected to cash in on the connection, but as James Taylor once noted, it is the very last town in that state before one gets to New York, and due to the configuration of the roads in that mountainous area it is actually about a three hour drive from Brattleboro, where we were all staying, too far for these guests of mine to go to and back in a day.

As I always do when I am in doubt, I went to my 1966 Illustrated World Encyclopedia to see their recommendations for visitors to do in Vermont; being a mid-century family-oriented publication, they love parks, monuments, and American history, and I am always reassured that a place is worth seeing in some way if they recommend it, even if for no other reason than it's been around for 40 years. The IWEs lineup of sights for Vermont include the Shelburne Museum near Burlington, which would have been good I think but it too was around 3 hours away; the Green Mountains National Forest including the Long Trail, a 250 mile hike, which would have been too ambitious; the granite quarries at Barre, which do not sound very exciting, but I see that they are still being touted in current travel books, so maybe I will make an effort to go see them sometime; Mount Mansfield State Forest, more rugged outdoors stuff (Sabrina has us do this on our own) and, of course, Calvin Coolidge's birthplace at Plymouth Notch, which is about 80 minutes from Brattleboro. I decided I would investigate it.

The farming village where the 30th President of the United States (term: 1923-29) was born and raised, which only had around 29 residents even when he lived there, has been preserved as it would have looked like in 1923 as much as possible. As such it is sometimes called the "Brigadoon of Vermont". There is a general store/post office with an upstairs social club, several barns, a restaurant (converted from one of the old houses), a cheese factory (which, along with the general store, now houses a gift shop), a Unitarian-looking church, a schoolhouse, the houses where Coolidge was born and the bigger one where the family moved when he was four years old, and his father's workshed where they keep the tools, sledges, ice saws, etc. The historic area is still surrounded by working farms and rolling hills, as the pictures will show.

Coolidge's presidency is viewed either as a disaster or as the last period in American history where any respect was shown by the government to the nation's founding principles, depending of course on one's political ideology. Coolidge seems to have been an incredibly hands-off, even at times disinterested executive compared to what anybody would find acceptable today. He must be the last president who actually did not want to spend any taxpaper money unless he absolutely had to. He also refused to forgive the Europeans their World War I debts on the grounds that the banks had to be paid one way or another, and why should that fall on the American taxpayer? (as you can imagine, the paleo-conservatives love this guy). The government ran a budget surplus every year of his administration which he applied to paying down the national debt, which was reduced from $24 billion in 1920 to $16 billion in 1930, a low point that I think it is safe to say will never be reached again. During his re-election campaign in 1924, the President spent most of the summer helping his aged father with the farm chores in Vermont, staying in the old family house which still lacked plumbing among other modern conveniences; the general store did have a functioning telephone so that Washington could reach the President in a case of national emergency, though the caller may have had to hold for a while the chief executive was fetched from the fields. I note this because this is only 80 years ago that we are talking about, when my grandparents, and many other people who are still alive now, were children, that the government was able to operate at this rather low-intensity level.
One ironic development is that when we were at the place I was thinking that no one from this type of background would have any chance of becoming President today. Why, Coolidge went from being a small town attorney in Northampton, Massachusetts, to the mayor of that municipality, to the lieutenant governor, to governor, to eccentric choice for Vice-President of the United States, and then to President upon the death of Warren G. Harding, in ten short years (four of which involved a war which just about levelled Western Civilization), without any obviously calculated plan for attaining that office. It is impossible he, or anybody else, could have dreamed it possible, and today, or so I thought, it would not be possible. And then about 2 weeks later we were introduced to the Governor of Alaska, whose possible ascent to the highest office is if anything more improbable than Coolidge's was. I haven't noticed that there is much, if any commentary on the similarity of this particular aspect of Sarah Palin's career to Calvin Coolidge's, though I think it is quite striking. Personality-wise, they don't appear to have much in common. Coolidge was the minimalist President, both in his conversation and style of governing. His biography, while typical in his era, was pretty undramatic. His family was of a modest size, especially for the time. He only had 2 sons, one of whom died as a teenager, I believe from an infected cut he got playing tennis or something, which now seems a rather stupid thing to die of. Similar to Sarah Palin, Coolidge was not considered much of a deep thinker, though this was probably even less of an issue in the 1920s than it is now. If common sense, rural wisdom, etc, weren't adequate qualifications for the Presidency, the thinking seemed to go, than America had lost its way and turned into something unrecognizable that we don't acknowledge. Evidently a lot of people still feel that way.

But I should get on to the tour. I will probably have to do more than 1 post on this.

Figure 1: An apple tree. They were all eating the apples too, though they weren't ripe yet. Figure 2: This is the house where Coolidge was born in 1872. I meant to put a picture of the birth-room up. All the furniture was the possession of the Coolidge family. It was interesting to us because they had a lot of the same furniture that is in the Brattleboro house I am always talking about, which they probably got from some common local manufacturer. This house has been in my wife's family for around 75 years and no one has lived in it full time for close to 30 so it has a kind of time capsule effect about it (though someone caved and put up a satellite TV dish about 5 years ago). It is in the woods and has a swimming pool and is used now as a kind of shared camp among various relatives who still live in the area.
Figure 3: This house is across the street from the modest birth-house, where the family moved when Coolidge was 4, and where he was actually sworn in as President by his father (who, as a notary public, had the privilege to do this) in the middle of the night on August 2 (I think), 1923, having of course been on vacation in Vermont when he found out that Harding had died. This is a pretty standard late-Victorian New England house. I have known lots of people who have lived in houses just like this and have lived in a few myself. They are lovely, well-built, atmospheric houses, which helps to mitigate the fact--and it really does mitigate it to a large extent--that they are freezing in winter and cost a fortune to keep even at 50-55 degrees.
Figure 4: This is sort of the edge of the preserved town. The ramp on the right leads to the 1880s era schoolhouse. The fallow-looking field in the background was part of a neighboring farm and the farmer came out on the tractor about five minutes after this picture was taken and mowed some of that hay.
Figure 5: Picnic lunch. This is almost how they drew it up in America 101, or at least on those homeschooling/wholesome childhood/Christian websites. Nobody is fearing that a riot is about to break out, that middle American values are about to be subverted in any way. But at least I am having some doubts about the desirability of that.

All right, this was kind of an overview. The next group of pictures will have, if not more edge, perhaps slightly more flair, or aesthetic value.

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