Plymouth Notch, Vt., is a remote hamlet, population 641, located 100 miles north of Amherst. Getting there was not easy on Aug. 3, 2023, with the winding roads blocked off every few miles for repairs as the region recovered from severe flooding a few weeks earlier. The ground alongside the road was so visibly eroded that it felt like driving through a ravine. The occasional fallen tree didn’t help.
I was making this drive to honor an extraordinary event that had occurred in the town exactly 100 years ago that day, at 2:47 a.m. That’s the moment when Calvin Coolidge, class of 1895, was sworn in as the 30th president of the United States.
Sign at the President Calvin Coolidge Historic Site in Plymouth Notch, Vt. Photo credit: Doug Kerr
Here’s a short history lesson: At 7:20 p.m. on Aug. 2, 1923, President Warren G. Harding died of a heart attack. Coolidge, the vice president, was visiting family at his childhood home in Plymouth Notch. The town did not have electricity, so it took more than seven hours for Coolidge to learn he was president. With no qualified official in the state, Coolidge’s father, Col. John Coolidge, who was a notary public, administered the oath of office in the middle of the night, in the home’s parlor.
Today, the house is known as the President Calvin Coolidge Historic Site. On a gray, drizzly Aug. 3, 2023, several hundred visitors arrived there to mark the anniversary, from elderly locals and young families to high school students in the Coolidge Scholarship program. I met one woman whose mother had attended the same one-room schoolhouse as Coolidge, still in use by the town well into the 1950s.
Stuffed raccoons decorated the property—referencing Rebecca, the Coolidge White House’s pet raccoon. Sent with the intent of being served as Thanksgiving dinner, the raccoon was instead adopted by the Coolidge family. She is the historic site’s unofficial mascot and has had several children’s books written about her.
Apart from a display of 1920s cars, the site gives off the vibe of a recreated 19th-century village. In addition to the main house, it includes an artisan cheese factory started in 1890 by Coolidge’s father. In the early 20th century, Vermont was the largest cheese producer in the country, with the Coolidge cheese one of the most popular brands, boosted by the connection to the president. A century later, practically everyone there for the anniversary event was buying or sampling cheese.
Several attendees wore T-shirts emblazoned with Coolidge’s face, some advertising a tongue-in-cheek “Coolidge ’24” campaign slogan. Driving in, one of the cars ahead of mine even had a mock campaign poster in the back.
In the middle of the night, more than 200 people had come to watch a reenactment of Coolidge’s inauguration at exactly 2:47 a.m. Instead, I chose to attend the repeat performance that afternoon.
The birthplace and childhood home of Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth Notch, Vt.
The ceremony began with a series of speeches. Coolidge’s official biographer, Amity Shlaes, explained how the town’s isolation led to the extraordinary inauguration. Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) praised Coolidge’s free-enterprise-centric economic policy and celebration of American diversity, revealing that the traits he most admires in the former president are civility and bipartisanship. “America could certainly use Calvin Coolidge today,” Douglas said.
Among the other speakers were Coolidge’s great-grandchildren Christopher Coolidge Jeter and Jennifer Coolidge Harville. Jeter reminisced about the quiet, humble nature of his grandfather, John Calvin Coolidge, class of 1928, the elder son of the president. Harville spoke about First Lady Grace Coolidge, the first presidential spouse to complete college.
Although both Grace and Calvin were born and raised in Vermont, their relationship originated in Western Massachusetts, where Calvin, then a recent Amherst grad, was beginning his law practice and Grace was teaching at the Clarke School for Hearing and Speech in Northampton.
After the speeches came the reenactment. Jeter and Harville played the roles of their great-grandparents; Douglas stood in as the new president’s father. The reenactment itself was rather dry, which felt in keeping with the president’s personality. A man of few words, Coolidge had a demure nature that was ultimately his greatest strength as a leader. As he himself once said, “It takes a great man to be a good listener.”