by Peter Nardini
|Calvin Coolidge with his catch of the day|
This past week we said goodbye to some of our favorite items on display in our Leigh Perkins Gallery, returning Calvin Coolidge’s fly tackle to the Calvin Coolidge State Historical Site in Plymouth Notch, Vermont. During the 1970s (and again in the 1990s), the site received a donation of a wooden packing crate full of Coolidge’s fly-fishing equipment. The staff made note of the contribution and intended to catalog the collection after buildings were renovated and exhibitions were installed. In the fall of 2010, after successfully opening a new visitor center, the site’s regional historic site administrator, Bill Jenney, contacted the American Museum of Fly Fishing for help with the identification of that fly-fishing collection. Yoshi Akiyama, deputy director, was called into service.
We were fortunate enough to have a few of those items on display at the AMFF as part of our Wonders of Fly Fishing exhibition until last week. I helped Yoshi inventory and inspect the equipment and carefully wrapped it up for safe transport back to Plymouth, my hands shaking at the thought of being as close as I would probably ever come to a President or anything belonging to one. Among the first items laid out on the table were two Meisselbach reels owned by President Coolidge. Of all the items in the collection, these reels showed the most significant signs of wear. These were not simply thrown into the usual pile of unused gifts of state - the black finish on one reel in particular was chipped off in multiple places, an impressive feat considering that the President only used it for anywhere from 5 to 7 years. Calvin Coolidge had been a lifelong angler and picked up fly fishing in 1926 during a summer trip to the Adirondacks. By the time he vacationed in the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1928 (for three months!) it had become a full-time obsession. His Secret Service Chief and Presidential Fishing Buddy, Edmund Starling, was a fly fishing enthusiast and hedged his bet that he would make President Coolidge a fly fisherman by making sure ahead of time that all of the places the President would be fishing were stocked full of trout. After duping stocked rainbows and taking fishing lessons, Calvin Coolidge had the fever, spending most of his presidential vacations fishing at many locations across the country – from Maine to Georgia and back again. In fact, in an excerpt from Grace Coolidge’s memoirs she writes: “Enthusiasm for the sport had so taken hold of him that at the close of the fishing season he was reluctant to give it up. He scanned the New York State fish and game laws and learned that while fishing was not permitted in the county in which we were living after the first of September, it was not prohibited in the adjoining county until Labor Day, a fact which was not known to the guide or to the caretaker of the camp, himself an ardent sportsman.” If Calvin Coolidge set out to catch a fish he was going to do so, not sacrificing his chance of success on the idea that fishing only with a fly rod was considered the “pure” way. In politics he was similarly removed of all pretense or snobbery, stepping up and providing the country with a stabilizing presence after President Warren Harding died in office then picking up and moving on despite calls for him to run for President. The allure of the Oval Office did not get to Calvin Coolidge.
Perhaps my favorite item in the collection is the most utilitarian piece of equipment. Rod cases don’t have the same appeal that rods, reels, and flies do; however, this case was the essential “Cool Cal”. The “Name” field the luggage tag reads very matter-of-factly, “The President”. If “duh” were an expression used back then it probably would have prefaced that title. The luggage tag also gives us clues as to Coolidge’s destination, Reynolds Mansion in Sapelo Island, Georgia. A summer retreat for the President in 1928, the mansion started as Spalding Plantation Manor from 1810 until the Civil War. After being damaged by Union troops during the Civil War, the home was damaged and fell into disrepair. In 1912, construction of a rebuilt version of the house was started by Detroit automotive engineer Howard Coffin completing in 1925. A history of the home tells of Coolidge having a suite on the second floor complete with an office containing a phone line that was a direct connection to the White House and capitol. Secret service workers also stayed in rooms on either side of Coolidge during his stay. In the good old days the leader of the free world could actually get away with unplugging from the daily rigors of the presidency. Many of the early presidents including John Quincy Adams, Grover Cleveland, Herbert Hoover, and Coolidge turned to fly-fishing as their escape.
The piece that carried the most mystery in the collection was Coolidge’s tackle box. The box was not open on display in the gallery so I was excited and unsure what to expect when we opened it. We were surprised to find it virtually empty. On one side sat a couple of conventional trolling lures and everyman items such as some “No-Skeeto” mosquito repellant cream and a scale. As with most things in life, President Coolidge was a very precise man who left nothing to chance. There are many pictures of Coolidge fishing or holding up his catch, not because he was boastful but, according to friends’ accounts, he grew weary of the usual questioning of fish stories and wanted photos and detailed information to procure when called out on it – hence the scale in the tackle box. In today’s terms, Coolidge would be the modest guy with the GoPro who keeps most of his footage to himself and friends instead of publishing it on social media.
The other half of the President’s tackle box contained a case of silk fly line and two conventional tackle lures. These interesting jointed shrimp lures might have been used when fishing in the saltwater on Cape Cod (he was known to fish the ponds around that area for trout) but more likely on his trips to the Reynolds Mansion or the Cabin Bluff resort in Georgia, where he was known to frequent in the summer. While Calvin Coolidge’s tackle box did not reveal any hidden treasures or 24k gold lures (although there was a neat looking mother-of-pearl spinner in one of the compartments) it reinforced his simple persona as “just another” fisherman.
As President, Calvin Coolidge had an inherent advantage at acquiring fishing tackle and, in the few
short years that he did fly fish, he built an impressive quiver of six bamboo fly rods. Two of them, a 7’ H.L. Leonard “Baby Catskill” and a 6’6 Abercrombie & Fitch (yes, that Abercrombie & Fitch-believe me they were less about high fashion, shirtless models, and loud music back in the early 1900’s) both made of bamboo and in fantastic condition, were exhibited at the AMFF. Their length and action make them the quintessential rods for remote small-streams in Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts that he fished often (he is also rumored to have been a member of the Mecawee Club in Vermont, where his fishing cap is on display). We passed one such stream on the way to Plymouth and I envisioned Coolidge hiking in and stalking wary Northeastern trout with the short bamboo fly rods just as I had the day before. We pulled up to the site, met with Bill Jenney, and Yoshi went over the list of items that were transferred. As the equipment sat still wrapped on a table, the papers were signed and just like that we bid farewell to a few fantastic loan items. It was fitting that the transfer only took minutes to complete, just as Coolidge would have done it- quick, straight, and to the point.
|Coolidge's "Baby Catskill" fly rod|
Whether good or bad, a lot of times the title of President dehumanizes the person behind it in a lot of people’s minds. In fact, Calvin Coolidge was an angling crazed man who scoured fishing reports and game laws, had a different rod for each occasion, and would use any method to catch fish if he thought it might work.
Our Father, Julian Hall, was a boyhood friend of Pres. Calvin Coolidge. Both were born and grew up in the little town of Plymouth, VT. Their friendship continued over the years, during his Presidency and after. Pres. Coolidge would always write to our Father, either from the White House or from his home in Northampton, Mass. to inform him of his forthcoming trips to Plymouth. Both being avid fishermen, Pres. Coolidge would arrange a fishing trip. Our Father was familiar with all of the trout streams in and around the Plymouth area, and Pres. Coolidge preferred to fish them. This incident occurred on one of their trips. Pres. Coolidge always would go ahead of our Father, trying his luck first. The Pres. wasn’t having any luck at all; the fish just weren’t taking his bait. He glanced around to see how our Father was doing and, to his amazement, saw him pulling them in, one after another. He turned to our Father and said, “Julian, how are you catching so many fish and I can’t even get a bite?” To this our Father replied, “Well, Cal, I always use a whole worm on my hook!”
Norma Hall Vivier & Evelyn Hall Whittemore
Norma & Evelyn were long-time seasonal employees at the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site until 1991 (Evelyn) and 1995 (Norma).