Plymouth, Vermont Home of a president and cheese

There couldn't be another cheese factory on earth that has as much going for it as the one here in Plymouth Notch. After all, it was started by a Coolidge -- President Calvin Coolidge's father. It's owned by a Coolidge -- the President's son. It has to be the only cheese plant in the world with a White House Connection.

So far as anybody knows here in this snug hamlet on the eastern slope of the Green Mountains, this is also the only plant still churning out granular curd cheese made by hand in the original Vermont method.

"We make old-fashioned American rat-trap store cheese. And we are the only purists left in the business, I think," says John Coolidge, the President's only surviving son and the owner and operator of the Plymouth Cheese Corporation.

If you know who you're looking for, you can find Mr. Coolidge, here any morning during the warmer months. He has the Coolidge look -- erect, trim, clear complexion, fine hair neatly combed, a quiet, immaculate dresser.

If you don't, you'd never pick him out of the crowd of 50,000 visitors who every year pile into this postage-stamp- size hamlet that now is a National Historic District. What other cheese factory has a walk-in clientele like that?

Each morning, unless it's raining (in which case he rides), John Coolidge strolls the quarter-mile across the field from the house where he and Mrs. Coolidge spend the summer and fall to the cluster of buildings which forms this hamlet, one of several in the town of Plymouth. He bids good morning to the ladies who collect visitor tickets at the handful of historic houses, picks up his mail at the post office, and checks in to see how things are going at the four-story white frame building where the cheese is made.

"And sometimes I run into somebody I know." But not if he sees them first.

About 10 a.m., when tourist buses begin roaring in to disgorge their eager bands, Mr. Coolidge goes into hiding. "I try not to reveal my identity, because then everybody wants to take my picture or get an autograph or some darn thing. So sometimes I sneak around behind the homestead so I won't get involved. That's the price you pay, I guess."

It's a price he has been paying ever since he was a youngster. Still, one senses that quietly being a Coolidge is a game he enjoys playing. Sightseers swarm all around us, as we stand and talk in the brilliamt sunshine outside the factory in an interview last autumn. No one suspects for a moment that the tall , soft-spoken man leaning against the stone wall is the son of the 30th President of the United States and the last man of the Coolidge line. His studied anonymity is somehow reminiscent of his father's sly wit.

Of course it's because of the Coolidge legacy and not Vermont cheese that the world beats a path to this village. So interwoven are local facts and family lore that John Coolidge can't even chat about cheese without mentioning the Coolidge clan.

Take the gray farm house across the meadow from a knoll where his own house stands. His great-grandparents, the Calvin Galusha Coolidges, built that one. And John's grandfather, Colonel John Calvin Coolidge, married Victoria Josephine Moor, the girl next door, in her childhood home, the Wilder House, which stands across the lane from Plymouth Notch country store, which "Colonel John" was then operating and later owned.

Behind the store and attached to it is the tiny frame cottage where "Colonel John" lived with his bride and where the 30th President was born in 1872 -- still the only President born on the 4th of July.

And across the road from the birthplace, only yards from the cheese plant, is the most famous building of all -- the Coolidge Homestead. This is where the family moved when "little Cal" was four years old, and where Colonel John swore his son into office as President, the only father-son inauguration ceremony in American history.

The reason the cheese factory is so close to the farmhouses, store, church, and school which make up the Notch is that milk, without refrigeration in those days, was so perishable the plant had to be located nearby.

It's the incredible compactness of the whole Coolidge collage that is so striking. So much of this family's history is linked to this tiny community.

Though all their roots are here, the two Coolidge boys -- John and his younger brother, Calvin Jr., who passed on in 1924, were born in Northampton, Mass.

It was there that Calvin Coolidge read law after finishing at Amherst College , met and married Grace Goodhue of Burlington, Vt., and began his climb up the political ladder.

But the unlike three generations of Coolidges who preceeded him, John Coolidge was never bitten by the political bug. He liked business later.

"I never sought public office. I didn't have a taste for it," he says. "I've always facetiously said I saw enough of it in my family and my wife's family so that I was not intrigued." He was on the train to President Coolidge's inauguration in 1925 when he met his future wife, Florence Trumbull, daughter of then Governor John H. Trumbull of Connecticut.

Mr. Coolidge worked for many years for the New Haven Railroad before becoming president of the Connecticut Manifold Forms Company. He sold the company in 1958 but still has business ties in Connecticut.

It was perhaps only natural that he should want to reestablish the Plymouth Cheese Corporation that his grandfather had organized in 1890 with three other local farmers as a market for their milk.

The Depression hit the cheese plant hard, and in 1934 it ceased operating. In 1960, Mr. Coolidge bought out the heirs of the original incorporators, replaced the wooden tubs and troughs with new stainless steel equipment, found himself a crackerjack cheesemaker -- Arnold Butler (that's the secret of making good cheese, Mr. Coolidge contends) -- and reopened the plant.

Today the corporation sells about 70 tons a year. It's business is half walk-in sales, half mail order. Its shipments go all over the US, and some go abroad. "We are one of the smallest cheesemakers in the State of Vermont," Mr. Coolidge says. "We don't want to get too big. It's more fun this way."

Winter is the quiet season here. The historic district itself, operated by the state, is open only from Memorial Day to mid-October. But the cheese plant is open every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's.

If all the visitors to the notch could talk to the elusive Mr. Coolidge, they would probably not ask him about the fine points of cheesemaking. They'd want to know what he remembers about his father.

Mr. Coolidge says he has never written anything about the President nor does he intend to. "I don't have the time," he says. But his affection and admiration for his parents is obvious. He loves to reminisce about the family -- its tender, touching, sometimes tragic moments, as well as the dry Vermont humor associated with President Coolidge's renowned economy of words.

Will Rogers once said that Calvin Coolidge "has more subtle humor than almost any public man I ever met. I have often said I would like to have been hidden in his desk somewhere and just heard the little sly 'digs' that he pulled on various people that never got 'em at all. I bet he wasted more humor on folks than almost anybody."

John Coolidge says his father "was reticent by nature, like so many New Englanders are. So, you see, I have an out," Mr. Coolidge explains smiling. "If I don't feel like talking, I can say I take after my father. If I do, I say I take after my mother. Mother was garrulous, very outgoing, just the opposite of my father. They complemented one another very well."

John Coolidge has no personal recollection of that earth- shaking moment in 1923, when word reached Vice President Coolidge and his family, vacationing at the homestead in Plymouth, that President Warren G. Harding had passed on in San Francisco while returning from a trip to Alaska. Both Coolidge boys had left Plymouth a few days before, and so they missed all the excitement when W. A. Perkins, telephone central at Bridgewater, hurried to Plymouth at midnight to deliver the news.

In Calvin Coolidge's autobiography (Cosmopolitan Book Corporation, New York, 1929), the President gives his own account:

"On the night of Aug. 2, 1923, I was awakened by my father coming up the stairs calling my name. I noticed that his voice trembled. As the only times I had ever observed that before were when death had visited our family, I knew that something of the gravest nature had occurred.

"His emotion was partly due to the knowledge that a man whom he had met and liked was gone. . . .

"But he must have been move also by the thought of the many sacrifices he had made to place me where I was, the twenty-five-mile drives in storm and in zero weather over our mountain roads to carry me to the academy and all the tenderness and care he had lavished upon me in the thirty-eight years since the death of my mother in the hope that I might sometime rise to a position of importance, which he now saw realized."

What John Coolidge remembers is that "at that time there was a local woman who used to come up and help my grandfather's housekeeper get the meals and so forth when my folks were here. She was a typical Vermonter, good sense of humor.

"She was sleeping in the bedroom next to my grandfather's housekeeper. After my grandfather had sworn my father in, he realized that he hadn't waked up the housekeeper and this other lady so they could come downstairs and witness the ceremony. So he went up and knocked on their doors, told them what had happened , and apologized for not waking them up. This woman said to my grandfather: 'I'll forgive you this time, but don't ever let it happen again.'"

The inauguration could take place on the spot at 2:37 a.m. in the flickering light of a kerosene lamp because Calvin Coolidge's father was, in the President's words, "a remarkable example of the best type of versatile Vermonter." He had held every public job in town from school teacher, postmaster , road commissioner, and tax collector, on up to selectman, state representative , and senator. He had also served on the staff of Governor W. W. Stickney.It was as notary public that he could take his own son's oath to occupy the highest position in the land. When someone later asked him how he knew he could do it, his laconic reply was: "I didn't know I couldn't."

Calmness characterized the emergency. Cal showed his cool by doing what came naturally on his first morning as President: Rising at 6, he shaved himself with a straight- edge razor and a steady hand at the kitchen sink (the only source of running water in the house), while "a crowd of the curious gazed in awe through the many-paned kitchen window," to quote the Rutland Herald.

From Plymouth the new President began the trek back to Washington by making it to the Rutland train depot in an automobile that had had three blowouts the preceding day.

All the homespun touches of the Coolidge house are preserved for the public to see as they were on that memorable night: a family Bible on the table of the "oath of office" sitting room, the kitchen table set the night before for breakfast with the cups turned down, an ironing board balanced between the backs of two chairs in the laundry room, the indoor privy.

The anachronistic telephone in the kitchen is a replica of the one hastily strung up in the early hours of Aug. 3, 1923.It was placed on a chair because, as the President's father said, "it wouldn't be there very long anyway."

After the President decided not to run for reelection in 1928, he added a modern wing to the homestead but passed on shortly thereafter in 1933.

Following his mother's passing in 1957, John Coolidge and his wife made a separate house of the modern wing, moving it to the knoll nearby. They gave the homestead to the State of Vermont.

John's recollections of life in the White house are confined mainly to vacation periods, since he was in school and college virtually throughout his father's tenure.

To be near their parents, the boys attended Mercersberg Academy, in Mercersberg, Pennsylvania. They shared a northwest corner bedroom in the White House. It had a fireplace and was big enough to accommodate the grand piano their mother played. Given to the Coolidges by the Baldwin company, it was delivered by plane and is said to be the first flying piano known to man. Visitors to Plymouth Notch may see it in the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Center. There the President's life story is told in old photographs.

"of course, my parents had 'The Mayflower,' the presidential yacht," John Collidge recalls. "They used to go down the Potomac River on weekends sometimes to get away from the Washington heat. She was a comfortable old tug . . . , a gun boat in the Spanish American War, but she was fitted out nicely, of course."

It was on another family vacation -- in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1927 -- that President Coolidge rocked the country a full year before the '28 election by his famours flat statement, "I do not choose to run in 1928."

"It caused quite a furor," John remembers with delight, "because everybody was wondering what he meant by the word 'choose.' But when a New Englander says, 'I do not choose to do something or other,' what he means is that he ain't a-gonna do it."

John Coolidge confirms that many stories about his father are apocryphal, such as the tale of a woman who gushed: "I have a bet with a friend that I can get you to say more than two words," and got the reply: "You lose."

A true story he tells is that his fateher was riding through Rock Creek Park one fine day when he came upon Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, riding horseback. "He was kind of a renegade Republican . . . , somewhat of an offox. Father said, 'It must bother the Senator some to have to go in the same direction as the horse."

"Silent Cal" is the sobriquet that still clings to Coolidge. But the record doesn't support that reputation. Vermont Life magazine (Winter, 1978 issue) quotes Charles T. Morrissey as saying:

"The myth persits. Yet as president he delivered more speeches than any of his 29 predecessors. During the 67 months he was in the White House he made radio addresses about once each month. He held 520 press conferences, an average of 7.8 per month. Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is famous for his fireside chats, averaged 6.9 press conferences per month during his presidency."

Unlike recent presidents, Coolidge did his own writing. He turned out an average of 20 speeches a year, or some 75,000 words.

As for Coolidge's major achievements as President, John believes his father considered the Kellog-Briand Pact to outlaw war as perhaps the pinnacle, "though of course it didn't work," says John. "Plus the fact that he reduced the federal debt from $22 million down to $16 million and had four simultaenous tax cuts."

The owner of the Plymouth Cheese Corporation looked out over the fields and up to the beautiful Green Mountain foothills soaring above the notch. "My goodness!" he exclaimed with a noticeable sign, "we'd be in clover today, wouldn't we, if that was our federal debt!"

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