McCallum: Green Mountains To White House

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(Host) With election day nearly upon us,
educator, writer and commentator Mary
McCallum is thinking about one of Vermont’s local boys who made it big –
very big – in Presidential politics.

(McCallum) Vermont is the
birthplace of two U.S. presidents, each thrust unexpectedly into the
seat of power while serving as vice president. Chester A. Arthur, born
in Fairfield, completed President James Garfield’s term when Garfield
was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1881. Eleven weeks later,
Garfield died from infections caused by botched medical care. At the
time, Calvin Coolidge was a nine year-old living in Plymouth Notch with
no dreams of leaving the life of a farm boy for the world of politics.

about all I know of Chester Arthur, but this summer I learned a great
deal about the boy from Plymouth Notch. As a summer tour guide at the
Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site, I gained a window onto Calvin’s
boyhood and his journey to the White House. On the night in 1923 that
Vice President Coolidge took the oath of office in his father’s sitting
room just before dawn, his tiny hamlet was home to just twenty-nine

Today, visitors stare at the dimly lit room,
preserved as it was when Calvin’s father swore him in as our thirtieth
president. The family bible and kerosene lamp sitting on a lace
tablecloth are icons of a simpler time when a Notary Public father could
actually administer the presidential oath of office to his son.

hear about the legendary housekeeper who worked for Calvin’s father for
fifty years and refused to allow the Coolidges to install indoor
plumbing or electricity because they were too new-fangled. They marvel
at the intricate bed quilt that Calvin stitched when he was ten, the
horse carriage built by his father and the wooden shoulder yoke that
young Calvin carved himself to carry two pails of milk.

too is the chair in which his mother used to rock Calvin and his sister
Abigail to sleep when they were infants. As a guide, I would tell
visitors about how Calvin lost his mother, sister, then later his
teenage son to ailments preventable today; losses that shed light on the
sadness carried within the unsmiling man in old photos.

1881, while President Garfield languished, Vice President Chester Arthur
refused to move into the White House for more than two months, leaving a
vacuum in the Executive Office. In contrast, in August of 1923, when
word arrived at Plymouth Notch that President Harding had died, Calvin
Coolidge took over in a matter of hours. A temperate man, he suggested
they celebrate with a drink – a glass of non-alcoholic Moxie. Today the
old general store that his father ran in Plymouth Notch still sells the
strong tasting soda popular in the twenties.

President Calvin
Coolidge was neither a political visionary nor a powerful policy maker,
but he followed life principles that bear a second look: work hard, live
simply, be persistent, spend only what you have, be true to your word
and cherish family and community. I’m no fan of Moxie, but I would raise
a glass of the dark brew to toast policy like that.

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