Saving the Coolidge Homstead

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(Host) Every year, one of Vermont’s best preserved historic places hosts a popular Fourth of July celebration. Commentator Cyndy Bittinger says that the site is surprisingly intact thanks in large part to the joint efforts of two women.

(Bittinger) This July 4th, the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation in Plymouth, Vermont will commemorate the birth of our 30th president, Calvin Coolidge, one hundred and thirty two years ago.

As we remember the president, we should also remember his wife, Grace Coolidge and Aurora Pierce, his father’s housekeeper. Because they cared, the buildings are there for us today. What an unlikely pair: the First Lady and the Farm Woman. But together, during very tough economic times, they saved the president’s Homestead.

After living in the White House during the roaring twenties, Grace Coolidge moved to a regal estate in Northampton, Massachusetts. With her husband’s death in 1933, she became the owner of the Coolidge homestead in rural Plymouth, Vermont.

Her stewardship lasted through the depression of the 30’s and the war years of the 1940’s. There was little money available and gas was rationed, so she relied on Aurora Pierce, the housekeeper who had cared for Calvin’s father for forty years, to manage the homestead.

Newly donated letters to the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, tell the surprising story that First Lady Grace Coolidge paid the bills and supervised the farmers and housekeeper at Plymouth by mail.

Aurora Pierce, a strong and independent farm woman, continued to run the Coolidge homestead with summer visits from Grace Coolidge and her son’s family of four. But Aurora was well into her eighties, and Grace’s letters to the Hoskisons, the family farming the land around the homestead, reflect her efforts to provide support for the housekeeper.

“Thank you for your letter which puts my mind at ease in regard to Aurora’s wood. I felt sure that Mr. Hoskison would not let her get out of wood and, yet, from her letter it seemed that such was the case. She said that she had to saw and chop wood in order to have any to burn.” In another letter, Grace wrote to Charles Hoskison, asking him to prepare a new, drier garden plot for the food Aurora grew and canned for the winter.

Grace also wrote to the family about providing pork for Aurora each year. And Grace thanks them in these letters for their kindness to Aurora on holidays such as Christmas. Grace wrote, “It must be a lonesome business, living there (in the homestead) by herself through a Vermont winter.”

During World War II, gas became so scarce that Grace could not drive to Vermont to check on things herself, and it might have been easier to sell the homestead, but she may have known that Calvin’s father, Col. John Coolidge, had hoped that the village of Plymouth would become a memorial to his son. In any case, Grace managed to preserve the Vermont legacy of her husband in Plymouth – with Aurora’s help.

Most of the village is now owned by the State of Vermont and the house furnishings are still there courtesy of the careful, thrifty housekeeper who did not throw anything away if it had any usefulness left. Calvin Coolidge’s boyhood boots still stand next to a stove.

This is Cyndy Bittinger, documenting the legacy of Calvin Coolidge in Plymouth.

Cyndy Bittinger is executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. She spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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