'Vermont is a state I love'
When a throng gathered in Bennington to see Calvin Coolidge, he left them with a phrase that resonates
BENNINGTON — President Calvin Coolidge is known as a man of few words.
But during his visit to Bennington on Sept. 21, 1928, concluding a two-day stop in the Green Mountain State that also carried him through Brattleboro and Bellows Falls, Coolidge spoke from the heart.
The speech he gave here is best known by a three-word phrase that has come to define Vermont and its people: "brave little state."
The phrase is inscribed into the marble at the Vermont Statehouse. It's the name of a podcast on Vermont Public Radio. It was alluded to frequently during the state's recovery from Tropical Storm Irene, which is fitting, since Coolidge uttered those words to describe Vermont's recovery from an even more devastating natural disaster, the Flood of 1927. Last year, a re-enactment took place in Bennington from the back of a caboose parked where Coolidge spoke, near the corner of Depot and River streets.
"I think every kid going through social studies [in Vermont] hears this speech one way or another," said John Farrell, the office administrator and conservator for the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, based in Plymouth Notch. "It's hard to come to Vermont in any capacity and not come across that speech. And I think it still resonates."
A green and gold sign marks the spot on Depot Street where Coolidge delivered the "brave little state" speech, also known as "Vermont is a state I love."
Standing in that spot, one can imagine Coolidge seeing familiar faces and sights — the 304-foot Bennington Battle Monument just to the west, the Green Mountains to the east — as he looked out from the rear platform.
What's harder to imagine: A flag-waving throng of about 5,000 people — one out of every two Bennington residents at the time, according to U.S. Census figures — gathered to see Coolidge's last visit to Vermont as president.
Hardship and praise
The Bennington Evening Banner was there. Its headline the next day — three columns at the top of a crowded front page on Saturday, Sept. 22, 1928 — read "COOLIDGE IN SPEECH PRAISES VERMONTERS FOR THEIR COURAGE."
Indeed, Coolidge's trip home to Plymouth Notch was front-page news in the Banner and the Brattleboro Daily Reformer, as reported by the newspapers themselves and by The Associated Press.
Coolidge had come home one last time to get a look at how Vermont was recovering from a flood that wreaked havoc.
About 10 inches of rain from a tropical system fell on Vermont in three days from Nov. 2-4, 1927. Devastation followed, especially in Vermont's more densely-populated river valleys.
The flood waters destroyed 1,285 bridges. The 84 dead included Lt. Governor S. Hollister Jackson, who drowned when he attempted to escape his car and was carried away by the Potash Brook in Barre, and 15 residents of a single boarding house that was washed over Bolton Falls by the flood-swollen Winooski River.
It was a catastrophe, especially for families who lost homes, farms, livestock and loved ones.
Late on Thursday, Sept. 20, 1928, Calvin and Grace Goodhue Coolidge arrived at the family homestead in Plymouth Notch after a full day of train travel, north from his adopted hometown of Northampton, Mass., through Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, Windsor, White River Junction, Bethel and Montpelier before reaching Burlington. There they decorated the grave of the First Lady's father, Capt. Andrew Goodhue.
In Brattleboro, about 250 people had waited at the train station for a glimpse of the 30th president. The train stopped briefly, at 9:05 a.m., but Coolidge did not speak. U.S. Rep. Ernest W. Gibson of Brattleboro was there to greet the President, and his daughter presented Mrs. Coolidge with a bouquet of roses, the Reformer reported.
The next morning, Friday, Sept. 21, Calvin and Grace Coolidge awoke in his hometown of Plymouth Notch — where he had been sworn in upon the death of President Warren G. Harding — and decorated the graves of Coolidge's late father and the couple's son, Calvin Jr., who died of a blood infection four years earlier, at the age of 16. The Associated Press reported that Grace decorated the graves with roses and gladioli, while Calvin "stood by in silence."
In his autobiography, a heartbroken Coolidge wrote this of his youngest son's death: "When he went, the power and the glory of the Presidency went with him."
Making an exception
That Coolidge did not offer remarks in Brattleboro, or anywhere else along the line, was not a surprise.
"It has never been my practice to speak from rear platforms," Coolidge said in a passage about presidential travel in his autobiography, published in 1929. "The confusion is so great that few people could hear it and it does not seem to me very dignified. When the President speaks it ought to be an event."
But Bennington had planned an event.
The Bennington Evening Banner reported on Sept. 20 that despite relatively short notice, the town's leaders, led by Fred C. Barber, U.S. Associate Judge Orion Metcalf Parker and Hall Park McCullough, arranged for as much good old-fashioned red, white and blue pageantry as the town could muster.
The Banner reported that the greeting committee arranged for the American Legion Drum Corps, to greet the president's train, with the howitzer company of the 172nd Vermont Infantry doubling as security when the president arrived.
There would be a parade, too. The procession of bands and local officials would leave the town offices on South Street at 6 p.m. Friday, turn left onto Main Street at the Four Corners, and then right on Depot Street to the train station at the corner of Depot and River streets. Onlookers were encouraged to bring American flags for the occasion.
"My theory is he wanted to give that speech on his last real stop in Vermont," Farrell said. "Knowing Coolidge, he wanted to make his parting words to his state on that visit after seeing first-hand the work they had done recovering from that massive disaster. He wanted it to be very heartfelt and directed at the people of Vermont."
The president's train arrived at 6:50 p.m. stopping just beyond River Street, the Banner reported. The Coolidges emerged onto the rear platform, along with fellow Vermonter and U.S. Attorney General John G. Sargent, Secret Service agents, and members of the press.
A moment or two later, Mrs. Coolidge was presented with a bouquet by young Marion White, representing the Girl Scouts of North Bennington. The flowers were gladioli — the same flowers the couple had put on their son's grave earlier that morning.
President Coolidge held up his hand for silence, the Banner reported, and then began to speak, "his voice quivering with the emotion that it was evident he felt."
Short speech, big emotion
The "brave little state" speech totals 290 words, in five paragraphs. Its most frequently-cited passage, the last two paragraphs starting with "Vermont is a state I love," takes up 114 of those words.
The Banner reported that Coolidge showed "more emotion than in any other speech of his career," and that his speech received loud applause, so much that after ducking back inside the railway car, he and the First Lady re-appeared to acknowledge the applause.
The Associated Press, in an account published in the Brattleboro Daily Reformer and around the world, said Coolidge "satisfied the roaring demands of over 5,000 people gathered at the station and, obviously much moved, spoke of his love for his native state and praised its reconstruction work after last year's floods."
The Banner, in an editorial printed the following Monday, said Coolidge "rose to the heights of eloquence never before reached by him in any public address."
Like Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the Banner said, "Mr. Coolidge's tribute to Vermont was simply phrased, and like it too there was in it a note of triumphant faith quietly expressed."
"Mr. Coolidge may never again attain the same heights of perfection in oratory," the editorial closed, "but his tribute to his native state, spoken under the stress of emotions stirred by his tour, insures him a place among the elect few who have spoken our tongue so greatly as to command the centuries for audience."
It was memorable enough for Coolidge that he mentioned it in his autobiography a year later.
"About the only time that I have spoken [from the rear of a train] was at Bennington in September of 1928, where I expressed my affection and respect for the people of Vermont, as I was passing through that town on my way back to Washington," he wrote. "I found that the love I had for the hills where I was born touched a responsive chord in the heart of the whole nation."
Greg Sukiennik is editor of Southern Vermont Landscapes.
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