White Oak Mountain’s own First Lady

Published 12:11 pm Tuesday, April 26, 2022

April 30 is National First Ladies Day, so it is the perfect time to share an interesting story regarding our area’s own connection to a very special First Lady. 

Grace Goodhue Coolidge was a popular First Lady while her husband, Calvin, served as the 30th president of the United States from 1923 – 1929. They were an unlikely pair. Grace was an outgoing, intelligent woman who loved having a good time, bright colors, animals, and sports, especially baseball. She even had a pet raccoon while living in the White House.

Calvin, on the other hand, appeared glum and dour and took a dim view of social activities. However, they shared some important traits, love of family, sincerity, high principles, and humor; his dry and unexpected, hers open and friendly.

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While serving in the White House, Grace was one of Calvin’s most important assets. The Secret Service called her, “Sunshine.” However, she was never encouraged to share her opinions, political or otherwise, and she wasn’t even consulted on State Dinners where she was expected to be a charming hostess. And she always was.

Despite his solemn manner, Calvin adored Grace and loved for her to dress in the fashion of the day. Some historians have referred to her as the first, “Jackie O.” She and Nancy Reagan are the only First Ladies dressed in bright red for their official White House Portraits!

Calvin did not run for a second term in part because they were still grieving the loss of their beloved son, Calvin Jr., five years earlier. They retired to Northampton, Massachusetts so that Grace could be close to the Clarke School for the Deaf and Blind, an institution where she taught as a young woman and that she supported throughout her adult life.

Three years later, Calvin suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack. Grace was lost. She told her friends, “I am a lost soul. Nobody is going to believe how I miss being told what to do. My father told me what to do; then Calvin told me what to do.”

Grace was not lost for long due to her friendship with neighbor Florence Bannard Adams, who was already free of men telling her what to do, a staunch democrat, a suffragette, and a divorcee. The first Christmas after Calvin’s death, Grace accompanied “Florrie” to Slick Rock, a stately hunting lodge on White Oak Mountain built in 1918 by Florrie’s uncle, New York financier Otto Tremont Bannard. It would be the beginning of many such trips with Florrie driving the 950 miles from Northampton with fearless enthusiasm, taking only three days to cover the route of two-lane, country roads, small towns, and plenty of bumps. For the first few years, the ladies stayed at Slick Rock during their months-long visits. Grace’s signature can still be found in the guest book. 

After Uncle Otto died in 1929, Florrie and Grace decided to build their own mountain retreat on land that Florrie inherited from his vast estate. And what a residence it turned out to be with ten rooms and wide glass windows that provided magnificent views of the sky, sunsets, and gathering weather in both North and South

They engaged a contractor from Northampton to oversee the planning and hired Karl S. Putnam, a professor at Smith College to be the designer. The building process was challenging, and the home was aptly named, The Narrows, as it was carved into a narrow mountain ledge five miles up from Columbus. They also built a simple caretaker’s house where they stayed while the retreat was being constructed. The caretaker’s cottage still stands today and has the distinction of being the 3rd oldest house on the Mountain. Her valued caretakers were Hershel Newman and A. D. McMurray.

Florrie sold The Narrows in 1948; the once beautiful home burned to the ground in 1961. Slick Rock, better known today as the Dodge House, still stands and is enjoyed and lovingly cared for by Otto’s descendants, the Dodge family.

Grace reveled in her rebellion from the limits placed on her by her husband, enjoying the freedom of Florrie’s lifestyle. The First Lady changed outwardly during those years. She bobbed her hair, which caused a media frenzy; she began to wear trousers, and occasionally smoked in public.

Grace and Florrie read voraciously, cross-stitched, played cards, and worked crossword puzzles. They often cooked outside and slept on the terrace. And they hiked all over the mountain. Our Mountain became a restoring balm, a “place of uninterrupted solitude.” Newspaper articles tell us that Florrie and Grace enjoyed attending worship services at some of the small mountain churches and on several occasions, they were honored guests at the Tryon Riding & Hunt Club horse shows. The locals treated Grace with great respect and guarded her privacy. 

It is interesting to note that “Polk County boy,” Howard Williams, who died April 22, was the last surviving citizen who knew Grace while she was here in the Foothills

Howard’s parents were the caretakers at the Skyuka Hotel. When Grace and Florrie passed by on their treks to Rix Haven, it was Howard who refreshed the women with cups of cold water from the nearby spring house. Howard recalls that Grace was not the least bit uppity. “She acted like a normal person.”

After almost 75 years, a Polk County legend exists that Calvin Coolidge owned property on White Oak Mountain. Occasionally, folks can be found roaming the Mountain looking for the Coolidge house. Just to set the record straight, Calvin Coolidge never came to White Oak Mountain. Grace came after his death and found a deep love and appreciation for our Mountain. She cherished her visits here.

In a letter to her son, John, Grace wrote, “I see miles and miles of red fields prepared for new seed. Here and there are patches of evergreen trees and green meadows with the Green River winding in and out. Beyond, the mountain ranges are tiered purple and a little smoky today as a few forest fires are burning. I took my book and went out to the Easter rocks.”

As a resident of White Oak Mountain, I take great pleasure in knowing that our Mountain gave such joy to a First Lady that gave so much to her husband, her family, her country, her friends, and those in need. 

 

Submitted by Susan S. Speight