Summer of ’27

The 30th President on Vacation

The story of the summer of 1927 in the Black Hills of South Dakota is one concerning the President of the United States, easy-to-catch trout, a high school stand-in for the executive office, an air-dropped invitation to a mountain, and a raccoon named Rebecca. It was a remarkable summer for several reasons, including the fact that it was the first time a president had spent the summer west of the Mississippi River, but most prominent were President Calvin Coolidge’s dedication of Mount Rushmore, and his announcement not to seek reelection in 1928. His time in South Dakota was not entirely political, though, and was even a vacation for him in some respects, for Coolidge dressed like a cowboy and rode a horse, fished with his peers, and engaged in noteworthy family drama. Coolidge’s stay in South Dakota reaffirmed that the President was indeed an ordinary citizen despite his immense responsibility to the country.

Establishing a summer White House has been routine for the man who holds the office of the Presidency. George Washington stayed at Mount Vernon; Thomas Jefferson at his plantation, Poplar Forest; Grover Cleveland stayed at Grey Gables in Massachusetts where he fished often, and recovered from his secret surgery at sea; Theodore Roosevelt stayed in his home, Sagamore Hill, on Long Island; Harry Truman had his winter home in Key West, Florida, called “Little White House,”; Richard Nixon also had a Florida White House besides his home in California; and George W. Bush had his ranch in Texas. Camp David, named for Dwight D. Eisenhower’s grandson, became a presidential retreat in 1942, first used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and is the preferred second-home of many of the presidents since.

June 13th, 1927: After receiving invitation from Governor William Bulow, Coolidge arrived in Rapid City, South Dakota with his wife, Grace, son, John, their pets (including Rebecca the Raccoon, Grace’s personal pet), and a whole entourage of reporters and staff. The plan was to stay out of Washington, D.C. for three weeks to avoid bugs and heat; the executive mansion was also undergoing renovations and the Coolidges would have to live outside of the White House anyway. At the time, Washington had the habit of shutting down in the summer, when the heat and humidity could not be controlled easily. The new home in which the Coolidges would stay for the summer was a Game Lodge in Custer County that had been leased by the South Dakota government. There was, however, no paved road between Hermosa—a small city, but one on the way that connected the Game Lodge to Rapid City, and also the town where the Coolidges would attend church[i]—and the lodge. A road had been laid out in advance of the President coming, but because of the rush job, it was fraught with difficulty, and was not properly surveyed. Bulow threatened to bring in an Irish friend to do the job if the state highway engineer could not get the job done. It was finally completed, and on time. Bulow later remarked that “The President drove over it every day for many weeks and never knew but what the road had been properly surveyed; he doubtless always supposed that it had been built according to plans and specifications.”[ii] When Coolidge’s train arrived in Pierre, the capital and some distance still from Rapid City, Bulow was surprised to find that the president was a small man with red hair, a stark contrast to the only other president that Bulow had seen—the Draculaesque William McKinley. In typical Coolidge fashion, he “inquired about the population of Pierre. Thirty-five hundred, Bulow estimated. Well, said Coolidge, they must be about all out.”[iii] Bulow explained that this was natural, as the people do not often see presidents.[iv] Nevertheless, Bulow felt that “Coolidge was one of the most interesting men [he had] ever met.”[v] Historian Amity Shlaes pointed out that Coolidge’s visit to South Dakota would be a boom for its tourism economy, and where the tourism economy improved “farming’s troubles would matter less.”[vi] For a state with a meager population and no real attractions like South Dakota, they could use all the tourism they could get.

A few days after Coolidge’s arrival Bulow was invited to dine with the President for dinner, but had other plans. He was promptly told that the polite request was actually an order, and so he went. The park superintendent gave brandy to Bulow to calm his nerves, thought that was a blatant disregard of Prohibition; it was his first time dining with a president.[vii] Trout was on the menu, which disconcerted Bulow. Of course, Bulow enjoyed trout, and was a fisher himself, but the trout were ones that Coolidge had caught earlier in the day. In preparation for Coolidge’s arrival, and because the South Dakota government did not want Coolidge to hunt large animals of theirs, hatchery trout—fed a diet of horse meat and liver—were released into the waters of Grace Coolidge Creek (so named in her honor). These trout were easy to catch, practically swimming up to the fisher.[viii] This was done because, though the knew that he liked to fish, they did not believe Coolidge was a competent fisher, and Bulow did not believe that he could wrangle a Black Hills trout. Bulow, disgusted, only ate a few bites of his dinner, while Coolidge, unknowing of the aquatic deception, “picked the bones clean.”[ix] The rest of that evening saw the two wives of the men “gossiping” in one room, while Coolidge and Bulow sat before a fire in another. Coolidge smoked several cigars, and Bulow chewed tobacco. Ronald Reagan, an admirer of the 30th president, once recounted a famous story about Coolidge:

 

“Cal Coolidge is good for laughs but not all of them are at his expense. There was the press conference where a persistent reporter asked the Pres. if he had anything to say about prohibition? Cal said ‘No.’—‘Any comments on the world court?’—‘No.’ ‘What about the farm situation? Again the ans. was ‘no.’ The reporter said, ‘You dont seem to have any comment about anything.’ Coolidge said, ‘No comment & dont quote me.’”[x]

 

This was not an uncommon experience for those who interacted with Coolidge. He was known as “Silent Cal” after all. Bulow, however, wrote that Coolidge was quite the talker that evening, speaking nearly the entire time after dinner, which started at six, until midnight.

It was not only Governor Bulow who recognized Coolidge’s arrival in South Dakota. The Lakota tribe, whose historic home was in the Black Hills, also wanted to bestow upon him their praise. In early August, Coolidge was named an honorary member of the Lakota tribe in recognition of Coolidge signing into law the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act. Though Coolidge was celebrated here, the Act was not universally praised by Native Americans. Some were quite ambivalent, even resentful.[xi] The event occurred on August 4th, during the “Days of ‘76” celebration in Deadwood. Coolidge was named “Leading Eagle” by Chauncey Yellow Robe amid a celebration of drumming and chanting. The ceremony was in Sioux, but Chauncey did speak some English: “We name you Leading Eagle, Wamblee-Tokaha. By this name you are to be known– King and the greatest chief, which is signified by the bonnet and the name you bear. I congratulate you in the name of the Sioux Nation, and express the hope that you will continue to guide the will of this Nation to its great destiny.”[xii] Marjorie Weinberg, in her 2004 book The Real Rosebud: The Triumph of a Lakota Woman, which mistakenly refers to Coolidge as “Calvin A. Coolidge” (among other historical mistakes), writes that Coolidge is the “first and only president of the United States” to whom this honor has occurred.[xiii] The “Good White Father,” Coolidge, later said, of Chauncey, “He was a born leader who realized that the destiny of the Indian is indissolubly bound up with the destiny of our country. His loyalty to his tribe and people made him a most patriotic American.”[xiv]

Patriotism played a more prominent role in Coolidge’s vacation when he was asked to dedicate Mount Rushmore for a project proposed by Gutzon Borglum, a sculptor from Idaho Territory. Borglum pictured the Black Hills with four presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, “chiseled from head to waist,” a monument “150 feet taller than the [Statue of Liberty].”[xv] The project needed money, which was eventually secured, though because Borglum died in 1941 and because of later financial troubles, Mount Rushmore was never completed; the sculptures today are only 60 feet tall. When an unexcited Coolidge finally agreed to dedicate the mountain to Borglum’s vision, “on the 10th of August, the last time a president traveled on horseback to deliver an address,”[xvi] Coolidge rode to the ceremony. Coolidge’s speech started:

 

“We have come here to dedicate a cornerstone that was laid by the hand of the Almighty. On this towering wall of Rushmore, in the heart of the Black Hills, is to be inscribed a memorial which will represent some of the outstanding features of four of our Presidents, laid on by the hand of a great artist in sculpture. This memorial will crown the height of land between the Rocky Mountains and the Atlantic Seaboard, where coming generations may view it for all time.”[xvii]

 

He went on to include a dramatic and historical description of each of the four presidents to be engraved in the side of the mountain. Coolidge paid particular attention to the traits of these men that made them truly American, as well as their contributions to the nation. While Coolidge’s descriptions of the earliest three presidents on Mount Rushmore are political in nature and relate to liberty, his assessment of Roosevelt is worth noting for its focus on economics and the accomplishment of destiny’s promise. He said:

 

“That the principles for which these three men stood might be still more firmly established destiny raised up Theodore Roosevelt. To political freedom he strove to add economic freedom. By building the Panama Canal he brought into closer relationship the east and the west and realized the vision that inspired Columbus in his search for a new passage to the Orient.”[xviii]

 

A miser, Coolidge accepted Mount Rushmore: “Money spent for such a purpose is certain of adequate returns in the nature of increased public welfare.”[xix] Coolidge called Mount Rushmore “a picture of hope fulfilled,” “decidedly American,” and a truth built for eternity.[xx] Coolidge said that Mount Rushmore represented the feeling that “the people of the future will see history and art combined to portray the spirit of patriotism.”[xxi] Coolidge’s speech went on and included the facts of American perseverance in the face of Civil War and the Great War, of independence from the world’s greatest power, and of excelling in all fields while other countries with similar opportunity did not. America was different. Coolidge knew that where America was, life was better. If ever there were a perfectly apt description of American Exceptionalism, this was it.

As an American through and through, Coolidge had his share of scandal. Though, unlike his predecessor, Warren G. Harding, they were fewer in number. Coolidge was not the most permissible of men in terms of his marriage to Grace. In fact, he may have been downright jealous. Certainly he was restrictive of her actions. The presidency strained their relationship so much that it was a great relief to both of them when his term was finished. Of all the good that Coolidge did while president, he lacked in his relationship to his family. During the summer of ’27, Coolidge and his wife, Grace, did have a small issue. In late June, Grace went for a hike in the Black Hills, accompanied by her body guard, Secret Service Agent James Haley. They did not return at the time that they were supposed to, and Coolidge “planted himself on the porch to wait, like a sentry.”[xxii] After a conversation with Grace, Coolidge removed Haley from her detail and sent him away. Shlaes described it as a demotion for Haley. Speculation of an affair rose in the minds of reporters, but no big issue was made of the situation, and it quickly disappeared.

Coolidge did not neglect his presidential duties during his time in South Dakota. The plan was to stay for three weeks, but it turned into three months because the Coolidges so enjoyed the country, and Coolidge’s promise to Borglum had to be fulfilled. During that time, the Nation still roared forward. During a press conference that summer, Coolidge wrote a statement on a slip of paper, had an aide copy it about a dozen times, and handed it out to all present.[xxiii] The slip of paper read: “I do not choose to run for president in 1928.” The meaning seemed ambiguous, but Coolidge was sure—he was not going to be the Republican nominee for the election of 1928. This meant that the likely frontrunner would be Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce, to whom Coolidge referred as “Wonderboy.” He did not like Hoover, but he also felt that as president he, as Shlaes said, had done enough. He entered the presidency with a national debt that was higher than when he left. To date, he is the only president to have left the office smaller than he found it. Grace was surprised to hear of Coolidge’s decision, showing just how little he might have discussed the decision with her. When informed of Coolidge not running in 1928 she said “Isn’t that just like the man! He never gave me the slightest intimation of his intention. I had no idea!” According to Claude M. Fuess in his book Calvin Coolidge- The Man From Vermont, Grace later wrote “I am rather proud of the fact that after nearly a quarter of a century of marriage, my husband feels free to make his decision without consulting me or giving me advance information concerning them.”[xxiv] It is hard to ignore the possibility that Coolidge may not have run because he wished to be with his family. Fuess suggests that possibility, as well.

It was a generally pleasant summer, except for the minor scandal and the death of one of the Coolidges’ dogs. The pressure was off of the first family since Coolidge became a lame-duck, and it immensely improved relations with Grace. They returned to Washington in September, leaving behind a more important South Dakota, and over a century worth of memories. A mountain in South Dakota was named after Calvin Coolidge, and the stream where Coolidge fished for trout still bears Grace’s name to this day.

 

Bibliography

 

Bruyneel, Kevin. “Ambivalent Americans: Indigenous People and U.S. Citizenship in the Early

20th Century.” Proceedings of American Political Science Association Annual Meeting,

Boston. 2002. Accessed May 20, 2016.

 

Bulow, William, Governor. “When Cal Coolidge Came to Visit Us.” The Saturday Evening Post,

January 4, 1947.

 

“Calvin Coolidge’s Speech at Mount Rushmore.” Coolidge Foundation. Accessed May 20, 2016.

https://coolidgefoundation.org/resources/speeches-as-president-1923-1929-19/.

 

“Coolidge and the Summer White House.” PBS. Accessed May 15, 2016.

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/biography/rushmore-coolidge/.

 

Darr, Deanna. “White House in the Black Hills: Coolidge Brought National Spotlight with Him

in 1927.” Rapid City Journal. July 13, 2014.

 

Fuess, Claude Moore. Calvin Coolidge, the Man from Vermont. Boston: Little, Brown and

Company, 1940.

 

“Jim Cooke Discusses One of the Longest Presidential Vacations Ever That Occurred 75 Years

Ago.” Interview by Steve Innskeep. Weekend Edition Saturday. NPR. August 10, 2002.

 

Kern, Ellyn R. “Calvin Coolidge and Summer White Houses.” Calvin Coolidge Presidential

Foundation. Accessed May 16, 2016. https://coolidgefoundation.org/resources/essays-

papers-addresses-20/.

 

Reagan, Ronald, Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Graebner. Anderson, and Martin Anderson.

Reagan’s Path to Victory: The Shaping of Ronald Reagan’s Vision: Selected Writings.

New York: Free, 2004. Print. 73.

 

Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge. New York: Harper, 2013.

 

Weinberg, Marjorie. The Real Rosebud: The Triumph of a Lakota Woman. Lincoln & London:

University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

 

END NOTES

[i] Kern, Ellyn R. “Calvin Coolidge and Summer White Houses.” Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation. Accessed May 16, 2016.

 

[ii] Bulow, William, Governor. “When Cal Coolidge Came to Visit Us.” The Saturday Evening Post, January 4, 1947.

 

[iii] Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge. New York: Harper, 2013. 372.

 

[iv] Bulow, William, Governor. “When Cal Coolidge Came to Visit Us.” The Saturday Evening Post, January 4, 1947.

 

[v] Bulow, William, Governor. “When Cal Coolidge Came to Visit Us.” The Saturday Evening Post, January 4, 1947.

 

[vi] Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge. New York: Harper, 2013. 372.

 

[vii] Bulow, William, Governor. “When Cal Coolidge Came to Visit Us.” The Saturday Evening Post, January 4, 1947.

 

[viii] Bulow, William, Governor. “When Cal Coolidge Came to Visit Us.” The Saturday Evening Post, January 4, 1947.

 

[ix] Bulow, William, Governor. “When Cal Coolidge Came to Visit Us.” The Saturday Evening Post, January 4, 1947.

 

[x] Reagan, Ronald, Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Graebner. Anderson, and Martin Anderson.

Reagan’s Path to Victory: The Shaping of Ronald Reagan’s Vision: Selected Writings. New York: Free, 2004. Print. 73.

 

[xi] Bruyneel, Kevin. “Ambivalent Americans: Indigenous People and U.S. Citizenship in the Early 20th Century.” Proceedings of American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Boston. 2002. Accessed May 20, 2016. 1.

 

[xii] Weinberg, Marjorie. The Real Rosebud: The Triumph of a Lakota Woman. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. 35.

 

[xiii] Weinberg, Marjorie. The Real Rosebud: The Triumph of a Lakota Woman. Lincoln & London:

University of Nebraska Press, 2004. 34.

 

[xiv] Weinberg, Marjorie. The Real Rosebud: The Triumph of a Lakota Woman. Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. 41.

 

[xv] Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge. New York: Harper, 2013. 370.

 

[xvi] “Jim Cooke Discusses One of the Longest Presidential Vacations Ever That Occurred 75 Years

Ago.” Interview by Steve Innskeep. Weekend Edition Saturday. NPR. August 10, 2002.

 

[xvii] “Calvin Coolidge’s Speech at Mount Rushmore.” Coolidge Foundation. Accessed May 20, 2016.

 

[xviii] “Calvin Coolidge’s Speech at Mount Rushmore.” Coolidge Foundation. Accessed May 20, 2016.

 

[xix] “Calvin Coolidge’s Speech at Mount Rushmore.” Coolidge Foundation. Accessed May 20, 2016.

[xx] “Calvin Coolidge’s Speech at Mount Rushmore.” Coolidge Foundation. Accessed May 20, 2016.

 

[xxi] “Calvin Coolidge’s Speech at Mount Rushmore.” Coolidge Foundation. Accessed May 20, 2016.

 

[xxii] Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge. New York: Harper, 2013. 376.

 

[xxiii] Shlaes, Amity. Coolidge. New York: Harper, 2013.

 

[xxiv] Fuess, Claude Moore. Calvin Coolidge, the Man from Vermont. Boston: Little, Brown and

Company, 1940.