Saturday, January 5, 2019

Calvin Coolidge - (No. 30) – Plymouth Notch, VT - Oct 6, 2018

Calvin Coolidge (No. 30) – Plymouth Notch, VT
October 6, 2018

Silent Cal (source:  wikipedia)
We visited Plymouth Notch, the village where President Calvin Coolidge was raised, at the beginning of October.  The tiny Vermont village is nestled in hills near the Green Mountains,. Unfortunately, the weather felt more like November than the beginning of October. It was overcast and mid-50s with a blustery wind. The buildings weren’t heated beyond space heaters, and we didn’t bring enough clothing.  We never got warm.
However, the area was beautiful with the hills covered in autumn reds, yellows, browns and greens.  Another plus: It was the weekend of the Plymouth Notch Antique Apple Fest, which meant a day full of extra activities and tasty treats. We got to sample pies, apples and cheeses, and saw some demonstrations scheduled especially for the event.

We found it appropriate that we had no cell phone service anywhere in or around Plymouth Notch.  While cities all over the country had installed newfangled amenities such as indoor plumbing and electricity by the 1920s, the village had not. When Coolidge became vice president, the village had to string a temporary telephone wire from the general store to the Coolidge house so Coolidge could stay in touch with Washington, DC.
* * *
Coolidge was the polar opposite of his predecessor, Warren Harding.  While Harding was handsome and sonorous, a contemporary journalist, called Coolidge “an inconspicuous, sour-faced man with a reputation for saying as little as possible and never jeopardizing his political position by being betrayed into a false move .“  (Lewis, 1931).  Lewis also called Coolidge a “pale and diffident Vermonter with a hatchet face, sandy hair, tight lips.  And to top it off, Coolidge had a high-pitched, nasal voice.

Harding was gregarious, while Coolidge was introverted.  At a dinner party, a woman seated next to Coolidge made a bet that she could get him to say more than two words.  Coolidge replied, “You lose.”  And that was the end of that.  Coolidge was so silent, he earned the nickname, “Silent Cal.”  His stingy use of words  made people kind of crazy and they tended to avoid social situations with him.  Edward Lowry, a journalist, called Coolidge “a politician who does not, who will not, who seemingly cannot talk.” (Shales, 2013).

While Harding liked to drink (he had big stash of alcohol in the White House), Coolidge respected Prohibition and avoided alcohol. 

While Harding’s administration was astoundingly corrupt, Coolidge’s was honest—once he cleaned up the bad actors from the Teapot Dome and other scandals.  Coolidge believed that power corrupted and he never accepted inappropriate gifts.  In fact, money was of little interest to Coolidge.  He was “thrifty to the point of harshness.” (Shales, 2013).

And while Harding liked to live big, Coolidge believed in hard work and frugal living. Coolidge’s presidential staff was issued one pencil at a time and was expected to use it all the way to the nub.   According to Shales ( 2013  ), “Those who did not use their pencils to the end were expected to return the stub.” He also cut the number of federal workers by about 100,000. 

Coolidge got his frugality from his father, Col. John Coolidge. That meant that the family used a “two-hole
Two hole privy in the
Coolidge home.
privy” even though flush toilets were being used by then. (Even President Rutherford B. Hayes had indoor plumbing in his house by 1880!.)  The Colonel also did not believe in modern day contraptions. As we mentioned, Plymouth Notch had to string a temporary phone wire so that Coolidge could be in touch with Washington when he visited.  The new phone sat on a chair in the “Oath of Office” room at the Coolidge homestead, and the Colonel promptly removed it to the porch once his son headed south to the nation’s capital.
Plymouth Notch was one of 17 tiny communities surrounding the town of Plymouth. The population of the area, including those communities, totaled 1,200. Three still exist — Plymouth Notch, Plymouth Union and Tyson — with a total population of 600.  In the 1920s, Plymouth Notch consisted of five families. 

Plymouth Notch, VT
The entire village has been preserved as it existed in the 1920s as a National Historic Landmark known as the Calvin Coolidge Homestead District. It’s preserved by the state of Vermont, which the Coolidge family specifically asked for because of their love of Vermont and Coolidge’s belief in limited federal government.
The village consists basically of two small roads and fewer than two dozen buildings. In the 1920’s, Plymouth Notch was self-sufficient and was home to the five families, a church, one-room schoolhouse, barns, cheese factory, a tavern / stagecoach depot, and a general store, which doubled as a post office. 

The historic site’s visitors center is only about five years old. It is fairly big, with an open area full of seating — rocking chairs and comfy couches.  We watched a 14-minute video about Coolidge and the town. 
Besides the main open area, the visitor’s center houses two big rooms full of memorabilia. One room features information about Coolidge’s Summer White Houses, while the other is about his presidency. It also has
Cathy questions Coolidge at the
vistiors center.
several interactive exhibits, including one where visitors stand at a lectern and ask the president questions (from a list), with a video of Coolidge answering. Cathy asked him what his biggest accomplishments were. He said it was keeping the country at peace, prosperity, and lack of turmoil.

We learned that Coolidge was the first president to light the national Christmas tree and appropriately, the tree was a Vermont fir fitted with electric lights.

The Coolidge family. 
Calvin Jr. is on the left.
(no copyright infringement intended)
We also learned that the Coolidge’s lost their oldest son, Calvin Jr., in the summer of 1924.  Only 16 years old, Calvin, Jr. played in a tennis game wearing shoes without socks.  He developed a blister that quickly became infected with staph.  His temperature shot up to 102 degrees.  Within a week he was dead. 

And we learned about “Thunderbolt.”  Thunderbolt was Coolidge’s 475 pound mahogany electric horse that he kept in the White House bedroom and rode for exercise. (He didn’t talk about Thunderbolt much.)
Coolidge had once been a progressive.  In 1915, while he was lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, he cast the deciding vote against showing the racist film “Birth of a Nation” in Boston.  But he changed once he became governor of Vermont.

When faced with a police strike in Boston in 1919, he called the state guard  to replace them, effectively firing the police. “The action of the police in leaving their posts of duty is not a strike.  It is a desertion,” he said.  He sent a telegram to Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, that read, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.”  And the public supported Coolidge. 

Once in the White House, Coolidge was determined to follow Harding’s path of “normalcy,” a term denoting that the country should get back to business after the calamitous Great War.  This meant low taxes, tariffs and less government.  Regarding tariffs, Coolidge said, “My observation of protection is that it has been successful in practice.”

He also worked hard on reducing the nation’s lingering Great War debt; after the war the debt rose nine times to $27 billion.  Coolidge managed to cut the debt to $18 billion by the time he left office in 1929.  He had a surplus budget every year he was in office. “I regard a good budget as among the noblest monuments of virtue,” he said.

He also pushed for a smaller government and vetoed 50 bills while in office including the Bonus Bill that would have given money to veterans.   He also vetoed a farm subsidy bill that would have aided farmers hurt by tariffs.  “It is impossible to provide by law an assured success for those who engage in farming, he said.  (But Congress did end up providing a credit to the farmers.)

Coolidge continued Harding’s restrictions on immigration and signed a bill restricting immigration—including the exclusion of Japanese.  He did support immigration for those who would easily assimilate into the country.  Immigrants had to learn English and become familiar with American life. 

Coolidge was also able to achieve something that Woodrow Wilson had not.  He got Congress to ratify the Kellogg-Briand Treaty, a Great War-ending treaty that renounced “war as an instrument of national policy” (Lewis, 1931).  Congress ratified the treaty 85-1.

Coolidge was a progressive on race relations. “During the war 500,000 colored men and boys were called up under the draft, not one of whom sought to evade it,“ he noted.  He also wanted Congress to act against the lynchings that were rampant in the South (Shales, 2013).

And Coolidge was kind.  While staying at the Willard Hotel as vice president,  he once woke in the middle of the night to find a burglar in his room going through his belongings.  He gave the burglar a $32 loan and helped him escape the Willard and avoid the Secret Service agents guarding him.

It was Coolidge who appointed John Edgar Hoover (a.k.a. J Edgar Hoover) as chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Hoover would stay in office until he died in 1972.

Coolidge’s Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon—the third richest person in the United States—came up with the concept of “Scientific Taxation,” lowering tax rates to stimulate more economic activity and more revenue. “Taxes…force everyone to work for a certain part of his time for the government,” Coolidge said.  “I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves.”  He said that “the chief business of the American people is business.”  He worked with Congress to cut the top individual tax rate by 25 percent.

And it seemed to work.  The unemployment rate went down to 3.5%.  And the stock market eventually rose to the sky.  The Federal Reserve lowered the discount rate from 4 to 3.5 percent and added fuel to the fiery mania.  Mining output soared almost 250 percent.  Railway services also rose nearly 200 percent.  (It should be noted that both Mellon and Coolidge had some conflicts.  Mellon was said to still be very involved with Wall Street and Coolidge bought stocks while president.)

* * *

We were famished after our two-hour drive from the Albany airport, so we headed to the Wilder House.  This is an1830s era building that served as a tavern and stagecoach stop.  We ate modest but tasty turkey sandwiches and some hot tea in a room with a fireplace and about 16 wooden tables.

Coolidge family home.
Later, volunteer Cathy Jacob, a retired schoolteacher, greeted us at the barn of the family home.  She told us about the Coolidge family and some of the farming items displayed inside. 
She told us that Coolidge’s father, or Col. John, as he is known, wore many hats in town and was self-sufficient. He made his own tools, farmed his own land, and opened a cheese factory. If he needed a carriage, he built a carriage. When the family moved from the back of the General Store to a new house, he needed a barn. So he built one.

The Colonel taught young Calvin this self-sufficiency and hard work, traits that continued throughout the president’s life. As a boy, Calvin was up at 4 a.m. cutting wood for the fire. He needed a sap yoke for gathering maple sap, so he made one, Ms. Jacob explained. 

We explored the first floor of the house, where all the rooms were protected behind glass. The highlight of the tour is the Oath of Office room. 

Harding died on Aug. 2, 1923 at 7:30 p.m. in California, which was 10:30 p.m. on the East Coast.  A call was made to the Colonel’s home but nobody answered the phone.  It took until the dark hours of the morning for someone to drive from Bridgewater, six or seven miles away, to alert Coolidge that he was now the president. 

Oath of office room at the Coolidge
family home.
Since the Colonel was a notary, he figured he was the best person to swear in Coolidge, which he did by the light of a kerosene lamp.  The kerosene lamp and the pen Coolidge used to sign the oath rest on a small table.  When someone asked the Colonel how Calvin would do as president, he replied, “He’ll do fairly well.”

We later asked Ms. Jacob what she thought of Coolidge.  She called him a “very ethical man.” She pointed out that he was also frugal in life and balanced the federal budget.  She also noted that Coolidge cleaned up corruption in the Harding administration and fired the bad actors.

* * *

In 1924, Coolidge ran for his own term.  The Republicans Party came up with mottos such as “Brass tacks and common sense.”  They also printed up cards that showed an electric fan and read “Keep cool with Coolidge.” 

Coolidge ran against John Davis, the Democratic candidate as well as Independent Progressive Party candidate, Robert La Follette.  La Follette was legendary in Tom’s home state of Wisconsin, where he was known as “Fighting Bob La Follett.”  He ran on a platform of high taxes on the wealthy as well as public ownership of railroads.  But Coolidge beat them both.  He won 382 electoral votes while Davis won 136.  La Follette carried only Wisconsin.

Coolidge’s first full term was known for “Coolidge Prosperity” and the “Roaring 20s”.  Everyone wanted to be modern.  Car ownership grew from 6.7 million in 1919 to 23.1 million in 1929.  And there was a radio in every third home. 

Tests of endurance were common.  The most well-known was Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic in a single propeller plane, the Spirit of St. Louis.  He flew for 33 straight hours without sleep.  The dance marathon craze also began in the 20s, with couples dancing for days to win prize money. 

The modern look for women was thin.  “Flappers” would wear long-waisted dresses, with short or no sleeves.  She had short hair and some makeup.  She held a cigarette in one hand (cigarette consumption doubled between 1919 and 1930)  and a drink in the other (Lewis, 1931).

The bull market kept rising—and everyone wanted in.  By 1927, margin accounts had risen to $3.6 billion and securities had gotten complicated.  According to Lewis (1931),“supersalesmen of securities were selling…shares of investment trusts which held stock in holding companies which owned the stock of banks which had affiliates which in turn controlled holding companies…”

And, even though Prohibition was in full swing, the liquor continued to flow.  Essentially Prohibition meant that people could consume alcohol but they were prohibited from making it or selling it.  Eight-five percent of sitting Congressmen drank (Tagatz, 2018).

People drank in “speakeasies” most of which were not as interesting as in the movies. People would go in, buy a drink and get out fast (Tagatz, 2018).

Eighty-five percent of the liquor came across Canadian border, mostly in Detroit.  Smugglers used fast cars and speedboats to bring in the liquor.  As the Feds got wiser, so did the smugglers.  They put false gas tanks in cars and filled them with alcohol.  They even used hearses to bring liquor over in caskets—with and without bodies.  When the Feds started checking for bodies, the smugglers included bottles in the caskets along with the bodies.  Three funeral homes rented bodies. (Tagatz, 2018)

There were not nearly enough prohibition agents to control the liquor, with a little over 2,800 by 1930.   And these agents were not adequately trained and were susceptible to corruption.  The government estimated that they were only stopping five percent of the liquor. 

People branched out into other forms of alcohol.  They got doctors to prescribe medicines with alcohol.  Walgreen’s had 20 pharmacies in 1917 and by the end of Prohibition, it had 500.  And people created forms of alcohol that were not safe;  10,000 people died from alcohol poisoning (Tagatz, 2018).   

One reason for Prohibition was to reduce crime but instead it “exploded.”  Chicago had 91 gangs alone. Al Capone, the king of the gangsters, got most of his money from smuggling beer and liquor.  The weapons of choice were machine guns and bombs, with 157 bombs exploding in Chicago alone 1927 and 1929 (Tagatz, 2018).

* * *
The Union Christian Church.  The
Coolidges sat in the first pew on the left.

After the Coolidge homestead, we visited the Union Christian Church, where we discovered pies.  Back in the 20s, Coolidge and his family walked across the road to the wooden church.  They sat in the second row on the left side. (An American flag on the left marks the row.)   

The tasty pies.
Because it was the Apple Fest, we discovered Anne Collins, author of “Vintage Pies,” standing at a table in the church discussing some of the discoveries she made while researching old-time recipes. And we showed up just in time for her samples. She had three pies to choose from: The boiled cider pie — which is just what it says it is — you boil down cider for about a day to turn it into a jelly for the filling; the Marlboro Pie, which is from the 1700s and is basically an apple and egg custard, with some sherry thrown in; and the pork apple pie, which she said was Coolidge’s favorite. This is a basic apple pie, but bakers back then used pork fat instead of butter for the coagulant during tough times to save money. The boiled cider pie was very sweet, and the pork apple pie was tasty. Near the end of her sample, Cathy could taste the pork, though.

* * *

By the end of his last term, Coolidge was overwhelmed by events including the twin floods of  1927.  The first in the spring, was the largest Mississippi River flood in recorded history.  More than 200 people died, and hundreds of thousands of mostly African American citizens lost their homes. But Coolidge didn’t see a role for the Federal government.  He said that “The federal departments have no funds for relief” (Shales, 2013).  Coolidge didn’t even visit the devastated area.   Ironically, in November of that year, massive floods hit his home state and dozens of people perished.  Again, he resisted federal intervention.  But he was pressed to provide funding both by Vice President Herbert Hoover and by Congress.  He eventually did sign the Flood Control Act of 1928 giving the Corps of Engineers the authority and funds to try to tame the mighty Mississippi River.  It was the biggest expenditure since the Great War, and deficit cutting was over.

Constructing Mount Rushmore.
(no copyright infringement intended)
In South Dakota in1928 Coolidge set up his final Summer White House.  While there, he was  involved in the beginning of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial.  It was to be a monument to the presidents that would last until eternity.  Coolidge met with the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum.  Borglum wanted Coolidge to write the inscription for the tablet, but he never got around to it.  However, he did give the dedication speech. 

On August 2, 1928 he called reporters together in Rapid City, SD.  He handed slips of papers to reporters that stated:  “I do not choose to run for President in nineteen twenty eight.”  He made no speech and would not comment. 

The public was shocked.
* * *

We also visited some sheep, including one forlorn sheep on display that had just donated a coat full  of wool. Wow, they are furry creatures. You have no idea how much wool one sheep can produce until you see the pile
Cathy offers sympathy to
shorn sheep.
after a sheep shearing.  We wanted to put the wool back on the sheep to keep it warm.

The General Store also operates as the post office, and Coolidge’s Summer White House was created in the dance hall above it. It’s a big, open area, perfect for dancing, and includes four desks. It was serviceable, since it could hold many staffers, but isn’t exactly the Oval Office.

We can thank the town’s residents for the preservation of Plymouth Notch. They realized the need in the summer of 1924, when Coolidge visited for a 12-day vacation and established the Summer White House there. Swarming the town were thousands of reporters, 18 Secret Service agents and gawkers, all of who discussed the very small-town nature of the community.  (The village was so busy for those 12 days that the postmaster, who averaged $50 a summer, earned $1,500 during the period, since she was paid based on postage sold.)

Interestingly, the church was not originally preserved by the state with the rest of the village, because it was still operating as a church and state officials abided by the Constitution’s separation of church and state. Even now, the church is owned by the Coolidge Foundation, while the rest of the village is run by the state.
* * *

Coolidge left office in 1929 and retired to Plymouth Notch with his beloved wife, Grace  He spent his final days working on his property, walking the hills, and writing his autobiography and newspaper articles.

As he lived his life, he died his death.  A heart attack claimed him on January 5, 1933.   At his request, he had a short funeral with no eulogy and a service that lasted only 22 minutes. 

He rests in the cemetery of Plymouth Notch in his beloved state of Vermont.  He once said: “Vermont is the state I love. I could not look upon the peaks of Ascutney, Killington, Mansfield and Equinox without being moved. It was here that I saw the first light of day; here that I received my bride.  Here my dead lie buried, pillowed among the everlasting hills.  I love Vermont because of her hills and valleys, her scenery and invigorating climate.”

* * *

When we left for the day, Tom asked the woman manning the visitor’s desk what she thought of Coolidge.  She replied, “I’m so busy at this point that I don’t have time to think about  Calvin Coolidge.”  A terse, candid answer that he would have appreciated.


Plymouth Notch is located approximately two-hours from either Albany, NY or Manchester, VT.  Admission is $10 for adults and $2 for children.  The grounds are open from May until the end of October.


Allen, Frederick Lewis.  1931.  Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s.  Harper Perennial Modern Classics. 

Shales, Amity.  2013.  Coolidge.  Harper Perennial.  New York, NY.

Tagatz, Robert.  2018.  Resident historian lecture at Grand Hotel, Mackinaw Island, MI.  July 9, 2018


History Channel.  2005.  The Presidents:  The Lives and Legacies of the 43 Leaders of the United States.


Saturday, May 19, 2018

Warren G. Harding (No. 29) – Washington, DC - March 31, 2018

Warren G. Harding (No. 29) – Washington, DC
March 31, 2018

Bust of Harding at Heritage Hall, Marion, OH
Embracing the election motto of “America First,” voters overwhelmingly elected Warren Gamaliel Harding as the next president of the United States in 1920.  With 404 electoral votes and 60 percent of the popular vote, it was the largest margin of victory at the time.

How had a little known senator from Ohio won the election?

Warren Harding, a U.S. senator and owner of a newspaper (Marion Star), was hand-picked by oilmen and the Ohio political machine to be the next president.  Harding had no desire to be president—he actually liked being a senator.  But he looked presidential—wide brow, square chin, and sharp nose. (Cathy thinks he looks like an eagle.)  Best of all, he was seen as malleable. 

Two swaggering oil men, Harry Sinclair and Jake Hamon, made a pact that if they could get 40:1 shot Harding elected, they would grant themselves some favors.  Hamon would become the secretary of interior and would lease the naval oil reserves located in Wyoming to Sinclair.  In turn, Sinclair would give Hamon a third of the earnings.  

The Republican Convention of 1920 was held in Chicago.  For the first time in a presidential election, women had the right to vote and 27 of the 984 delegates were women.  Although Prohibition was the law of the land, liquor flowed at 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago more or less with the consent of the authorities. 

In a “smoke-filled room” at the Blackstone Hotel, Sinclair and Hamon conferred with Republican Party elders to convince them to back Harding.  Initially, General Leonard Wood of WWI fame was the front-runner.  But after nine ballots he still couldn’t get over the top.  Finally, on the 10th ballot, momentum shifted to Harding and he won the nomination.  His running mate would be Massachusetts Gov. Calvin Coolidge.

The Democrats, meanwhile, nominated another Ohio newspaper man, James M. Cox, who owned the Dayton Daily News.  His running mate was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.   

Because of weariness with Wilson’s international focus, Harding ran on a platform of America First.  This
Campaign poster
included higher tariffs and restrictions on immigration.  His campaign manager, Harry Daugherty, decided to limit Harding’s travel and continue the recent campaign tradition of front porch speeches.  Harding gave more than 100 speeches from the front porch of his large home on Mount Vernon Avenue in Marion, Ohio, to more than 600,000 people who came to hear him from all over the country.

Cox never had much of a chance.  Harding and Coolidge won 37 of 48 states and 404 electoral votes.  Cox received only 127 electoral votes. 

It was the largest margin of victory in a presidential race at the time.

Once elected, Warren was beholden to the Ohio Gang.  As Laton McCartney writes in The Teapot Dome Scandal (2008), “once Warren Harding assumed office, this collection of swindlers, sharpies, con men, and extortionists descend
ed on Washington like a pestilence, securing just about every job in the new administration that provided an opportunity for corruption.” 

But Hamon never got his coveted Cabinet position — because nineteen days after the election, he was fatally shot by his jilted mistress.   

But Sinclair would find another champion.

Enter Albert Fall, a senator from New Mexico. With Hamon dead, Harding appointed Fall as secretary of the interior.  Fall was an odd choice for this position, because he was anti-conservation and wanted to undo  the progress that had been made on protecting land from development. But more than anything, he wanted money.  He arranged for the naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome (the sandstone feature looked like a teapot) to be transferred from the Navy to the Department of the Interior.  Then he leased out the right to tap the reserves to Sinclair in a non-competitive bid.  In return, Sinclair laundered Liberty bonds to Fall and sent him animals for his failing farm including “six heifers, a yearling bull, two young boars, four sows, and an English Thoroughbred racehorse” (McCartney, 2008).

Long after Harding’s term ended, Sinclair was found guilty of trying to bribe jurors.  But he didn’t serve much time, less than a year.  Further, an appeals court ruled the Dome leases invalid.  Fall was shown to have illegally received $300k in Liberty bonds.  Fall was also jailed, but like Sinclair, he served less than a year.  But he lost his failing ranch and almost went bankrupt. 

And those were not the only criminals in Harding’s administration. 

As leader of the Ohio Gang, Harry Daugherty was appointed attorney general.  He was in a perfect position to steal.  One of his schemes was selling permits for alcohol to be used for medicinal purposes;  he made tens of thousands of dollars using this strategy.  He also sold pardons and paroles for convicts. 

Harding’s director of the Veterans Bureau, Charles Forbes, sold government supplies for personal gain.  He also made $1 million in kickbacks. When Harding learned this, he fired Forbes. 

Harding's wife, Florence, was
five years his senior.
Harding himself was no saint.  He was faithless in his marriage to Florence Kling, who was five years his senior.  He had multiple, sometimes overlapping affairs.  One of his lovers, Carrie Fulton Phillips, was paid hush money by both Harding and the Republican National Committee.  (Fulton was probably the love of Harding’s life — he wrote her 900 pages of letters over the course of their many year affair.  She was also married at the time.)  He brought another lover, Nan Britton, directly into the White House for “trysts.”  She later claimed that her daughter was fathered by Harding and wrote a book about it in 1927 called The President’s Daughter.  (In 2015, DNA testing of relatives of Harding and Britton’s daughter proved that her claim was true.)  When the 1922 book Illustrated Life of President Warren G. Harding revealed his affair with Carrie Phillips, Attorney General Daugherty ordered dozens of agents to find and burn copies.  They also destroyed the printing plates. (President Calvin Coolidge eventually fired Daugherty).

Harding wasn’t directly implicated in any of his administration’s scandals.  But he seemed to have a sense that things were not right.  He said, “I have no trouble with my enemies…but my darn friends, my God-damn friends…they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights.” (Riccards, 1995). 

We know that Harding asked Fall about the non-competitive lease sales to Sinclair but was assured by Fall that the bids were competitive.  We also know that an associate of Sinclair offered $500,000  (in Liberty bonds paying 4-3/4 percent interest)  for Harding’s paper,  the Marion Star.  This was much more than its value.  Harding accepted the payment.  He  used the money to buy $500,000 stocks on margin, which he bought under the name of one of his Secret Service agents.

And when he died of a heart attack two years into his term—in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco—his wife (assisted by Attorney General Harry Daugherty) spent several days burning most of his papers.

While president, Harding pushed laws to restrict immigration because immigrants (mostly from southern and eastern Europe) were seen as taking jobs from U.S. workers.

On the plus side, Harding invited several countries to a meeting to discuss post-war disarmament—in particular reducing the size of their fleets and abolishing the use of poison gas.  In addition to the United States, the 1921 Washington Disarmament Conference included Britain, France, and Japan. Unlike Wilson, who excluded the Senate from the League of Nations discussion, Harding included members of the Senate on the American delegation.  Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes suggested that the participants scrap their ships in a ratio of 5  (U.S.), 5 (Britain), 5 (Japan), and 1.7 (France).  The countries also would be held to a 10-year ship building moratorium.  Japan reluctantly agreed to the arrangement under the stipulation that the U.S. not fortify the Philippines, Guam, Wake Island and the Aleutian Islands.  (This would become a problem in two decades.)

Harding was the first president who had to submit an annual budget to Congress.  In 1921, Congress passed the Budget and Accounting Act, which gave it control over Federal spending and required the President to submit a budget to Congress its approval.  He established the Bureau of the Budget to help him prepare the annual submission.

Harding was an advocate for improving the lives of blacks and called for anti-lynching laws.  In a speech arguing for protections for the rights of blacks, he said:  “Unless our democracy is a lie, you must stand for that democracy” (Baker, 2015).  Harding’s sympathy for blacks may have originated from rumors that Harding himself had black blood.  This rumor was meant to hurt his chances of getting elected.  In addition, the rumors imperiled his impending marriage to Florence in 1891.  Her father was upset by the rumors and was against the marriage.  (DNA testing conducted in 2015 showed that Harding did not have black ancestors, at least not within four generations.) (Baker, 2015)

Still, Harding was known as an intellectual lightweight.  His treasury secretary said his “speeches left the impression of an army of pompous phrases moving over a landscape in search of an idea.  Sometimes these meandering words would actually capture a straggling thought and bear it off triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and overwork”

* * *

Trying to visit Harding wasn’t as easy as it might seem.

The obvious place is his house in Marion. But it’s closed until at least 2019 as it is restored to its 1920 appearance. A presidential center also is being added to the site, scheduled to open in 2020, 100 years after Harding’s election.

So Tom looked up locations important in the Teapot Dome scandal (but not Wyoming itself). But those sites and others tied to other scandals during Harding’s presidency have been torn down — now they’re part of the Department of Veterans Affairs and random office buildings in downtown Washington.

After about a month of research, we decided to go to his hometown of Marion, anyway. After all, he and Florence are buried there. And the city has a historical society. That has to include Harding information, right?

Right. We were pleasantly surprised with what we found.

We flew to Marion through Columbus on an overcast and breezy 47-degree day at the end of March. As we approached town on our hour-long drive, we found rolling farmland, strip malls and dilapidated houses as the “Welcome to Marion” sign greeted us.

Harding Memorial
Our first stop was the Harding Memorial. As we were driving along, Tom started pointing, saying “huge.” I looked over, and there it was. It is massive.

Harding had said he wanted a “simple burial under a tree in the open sky,” according to the Ohio Historical Association’s information placards on a marble kiosk outside the tomb.

That’s what he got — a huge, open-air dome that looks a bit like a Greek temple, with both Ionic and Doric columns. Inside the memorial is a tree, with the two black granite tombs beneath it. Gardens hang down from the top of the memorial. A simple inscription with Warren and Florence’s names and birth and death dates is carved into the white Georgia marble in the back. Unfortunately, the memorial is gated, so you can only look, not wander around.

The tombs within Harding Memorial
The memorial is in a small park across the street from the cemetery. Trees were planted and landscaped so the entire area forms a Latin cross.

After Harding died, the quickly formed Harding Memorial Association—comprised of President Coolidge, members of Harding’s cabinet the Marion business community and others—started a nationwide fund-raising campaign for the memorial. More than one million people from the U.S., Europe and the Philippines donated almost $1 million. That includes 200,000 kids who gathered pennies for the effort, according to the Ohio History Connection.  (As expected, the Harding Memorial Association touted the positive accomplishments of Harding and turned a blind eye to the scandals.  One of the placards in the part states:  “Historians attempting to use Harding’s presidential papers for research were turned away by the Harding Memorial Association.  The HMA, which owned the papers, was wary of additional sensational and inaccurate books being published.”  Another placard says Harding had “no knowledge of Teapot Dome” and his “reputation was sullied because of wild gossip and innuendo.”)  The tomb and Harding’s house are now owned by the state of Ohio and managed by the Ohio Historical Society. 

Lunch at Courthouse Grub & Pub
After a tasty lunch in the cozy Courthouse Grub and Pub next to the county courthouse, we headed for the old U.S. Post Office building. The building houses Heritage Hall, operated by the Marion County Historical Society and is dedicated to all types of Marion history, including popcorn (more on that later).

Next to First Harding High School is the old post office and Heritage Hall inside.

The resident docent was a Marion retiree.  He told us he was “a farmer, soldier, city worker, and truck driver.”  He once jackknifed a tractor-trailer and walked away.  But he knew that it was time to quit.  “God’s way of telling me to stop,” he said. 

He told us that Marion had seen better days., calling it a “a typical rust belt town.”  It was once a factory town but many businesses have closed.  Now the major employers are a Whirlpool factory, the hospital and three prisons.  Harding’s old paper, the Marion Star, was bought by Gannett.  The docent said “it’s not much of a paper now.” 

Indeed, earlier when we walked along Church Street, one of the main downtown thoroughfares, we passed a small gathering outside the YMCA featuring speakers discussing the horrors of the opioid epidemic and remembering a friend who had died from addiction in 2016.  A sign read, “Don’t cry, fight.” 

And then there’s the two Confederate flags we spotted flapping in the wind.  What?  Ohio was a staunch member of the Union 150 years ago.

We found two rooms on the ground floor chock full of Harding memorabilia.

Glass display cases line the walls, with more in the center of the rooms, holding photos, campaign posters, campaign pins, newspapers, invitations, gadgets, coins, stuff. The docent told us that he expected it would all move to the Harding presidential center once it’s built. But for now, it suited our purposes perfectly.

The Hardings' dog, Laddie Boy, was famous.
One display case was devoted to Laddie Boy, the Hardings’ famous dog.  The Airedale terrier who arrived at the White House as a puppy, even had his own chair at Cabinet meetings.  The case even displays an old song sheet for the dog:  Laddie Boy He’s Gone, which memorialized Harding’s death.  (As a side note, Laddie Boy even has his own Wikipedia page.)

There’s also the Harding chapel, which seems to have nothing to do with the Hardings, other than a donation was made.

In the areas that highlight Florence, we learned something interesting. While Eleanor Roosevelt is credited as being the first first lady to advocate for her own issues, Florence Harding had several causes that she promoted: women’s issues, particularly single working women, women’s professional sports leagues, and wounded vets from WWI.

The rest of Heritage Hall is a potpourri of historical Marion County stuff. Besides the Harding rooms, the downstairs holds a resource library and genealogical records, a replica of a country store, and an exhibit of Marion’s manufacturing past. A red, old-time Coke machine-cooler sits in a hallway.

Upstairs is a military room, with a Civil War exhibit and war library. There’s a Victorian Room, complete with fashions of the day. There also is an enormous stuffed Percheron draft horse, which was born in Napoleon III’s stables.

The Wyandot Popcorn Museum is not to be missed.
And beyond the horse — the Wyandot Popcorn Museum. This is something Cathy had been looking forward to seeing, and was delighted when we found that it was in the same building as the Harding memorabilia — Tom could find no way to avoid it.

The museum is set up under a big circus tent in the back of the building. It boasts that it has the largest collection of popcorn wagons and peanut roasters in the U.S. All of these antiques have been restored to their former brass and candy apple red luster, looking brand new. There is also a display of all the toys inside Cracker Jacks over the years.

One of the popcorn wagons is a Model T that is brought
Creepy clown (on the right)
out each year for the town’s annual Popcorn Festival and Parade in September.

In the middle of the area are displays showing the history of Wyandot Popcorn. The company was established by W. Hoover Brown and his wife Ava in 1936 as a way to supplement their grain and livestock farming operation in Wyandot County, Ohio. Popcorn took off as a treat during the Depression because it was inexpensive, allowing the company to grow steadily.

The display also exhibits the different types of popcorn. Wyandot introduced three hybrids in the 1950s, including Super C for caramel corn, featuring a ball-shaped kernel that doesn’t crumble under the pressure of the caramel.

Yes, the museum gives you a box of popcorn on the way out. Yum!

My only quibble is that many of the wagons include small, creepy clown figurines that look like they’re turning the hand crank. I know clowns were big in the day, especially when the circus came to town. But … Pennywise.

Harding's home is closed until the 100-year
anniversary of his election in 1919.
View from the front porch.
Our Harding tour concluded with a stop at his house, although it was closed for renovations. We were able, however, to walk around his spacious front porch, where he ran the fourth — and last — front porch campaign in U.S. history.  Standing in the wide, circular corner of the porch, between the columns, with plenty of lawn in front, you can easily picture Senator Harding orating to the masses.  Here is what he boomed on one occasion:  “It is fine to idealize, but it is very practical to make sure our own house is in perfect order before we attempt the miracle of old world stabilization.  To safeguard America first, to prosper America first, to stabilize America first, to think of America first, to exalt America first, to live for and revere America first.”