When the Country's Founding Father is Your Founding Father
Far from being royalty, the descendants of American presidents are the athletic trainers, lawyers, salesmen and executives of everyday life
- By Megan Gambino
- Smithsonian.com, February 17, 2012
(Steve Hooper / Keene Sentinel)
Westmoreland, New Hampshire
Jennifer Sayles Harville’s grandfather, John Coolidge, was her closest relative to have known her great-grandfather, President Calvin Coolidge. But John was quiet—“like his father,” says Harville—and did not share many firsthand accounts.
Harville, 41, grew up in Massachusetts and Georgia, but she regularly visited her grandparents in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, where Coolidge was born and raised. “My grandfather would wander around town and get his mail, but nobody knew who he was,” says Harville. “He just kind of blended in.”
During her teenage years, Harville’s mother, Lydia, worked as a waitress at the Wilder House, a restaurant in the village in the childhood home of President Coolidge’s mother. “There were a couple of times when my mom was caught asking for money to get her picture taken,” says Harville. “My grandfather found out about that, and she got into big trouble.”
In 1956, John and his wife, Florence, donated the Coolidge Homestead to the state of Vermont. To this day, the house is furnished just as it was on August 3, 1923, when then-Vice President Calvin Coolidge received word while on vacation that President Warren Harding had died. His father, a notary public, administered the oath of office. The couple purchased other properties in the village, including the Plymouth Cheese Factory, built by the president’s father, and a one-room schoolhouse. Those landmarks and others are now part of the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site, maintained by Vermont’s Division for Historic Preservation.
“I definitely know the basics,” says Harville, of Calvin Coolidge’s life. “But, if you were to ask me a really specific question about a certain time period or a certain policy that he worked on, I would still have to research it like anyone else.”
Harville, a stay-at-home mom, gives presentations about the Coolidge family and Coolidge’s administration to historical societies and senior groups in southwestern New Hampshire, where she lives. She and her cousin, Christopher Jeter, 44, also take turns serving on the board of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. They make up—with Harville’s brother John, 37—the oldest living generation of Coolidge descendants.