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Presiding from the Ponderosas: Coolidge in the Black Hills
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Local Boy Scout presents Coolidge with a saddle horse.
Local Boy Scout presents Coolidge with a saddle horse.
1881 Courthouse Museum, Custer

In the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace moved White House operations to the Black Hills. Accompanied by their dogs, aides, secret servicemen and East Coast press contingent, the couple's working vacation helped put South Dakota, agricultural issues, and Native Americans in national headlines like never before.

Seth Tupper, enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal, has written Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills (The History Press, 2017), which not only chronicles Coolidge's trout-fishing and rodeo-going, but also the sturm und drang a Presidential visit conjures on local people and places. Tupper talked with SDPB about his new book.

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Katy Beem: "What spurred you as a writer to tell the story of Calvin Coolidge's summer in the Black Hills?"

Seth Tupper: "I was recruited to it. During the spring of 2015, Greg Dumais, who was then an acquisitions editor for The History Press — a Charleston, S.C., publishing company specializing in topics of regional, historical interest — had been on the lookout for South Dakota book ideas. He discovered there had never been a book written about the Coolidge summer, and he began contacting potential writers. Jon Lauck, a Sioux Falls-based author of several history books and a senior adviser to Sen. John Thune, declined the opportunity to write the book but was kind enough to mention me as a potential candidate.

I jumped at the chance to write the book, because I knew enough about the Coolidge summer from my own recreational and work-related reading to know there was a story to tell and plenty of available material. That reading included A Marvelous Hundred Square Miles: Black Hills Tourism, 1880-1941 by Suzanne Barta Julin; Peter Norbeck: Prairie Statesman by Gilbert Fite; and Great White Fathers, (about Gutzon Borglum and Mount Rushmore), by John Taliaferro, all of which included some information about the Coolidge summer. "

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KB: "There’s so much terrific storytelling in the book. How did you reconstruct scenes such as the open-air car ride then-Governor William Bulow took with an “annoyed” Coolidge through Pierre – particularly their conversation about enforcing Prohibition laws in SD?"

ST: "Bulow, who loved to spin a good yarn, recounted the details of that conversation in a 1947 article he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post. The written recollections of notable people like him, along with those of everyday people and the reports filed by the gaggle of national and local reporters who followed Coolidge's every move in the Black Hills, provided a deep well of stories and details to draw from. Without those sources, it would have been difficult to write the book, because Coolidge left little behind in the way of presidential papers, and he said very little to reporters while in South Dakota and delivered only a few speeches in the state. When Coolidge wrote his characteristically short autobiography, he mentioned the Black Hills only as the place where one of his dogs died.

So, I relied on press accounts of the time — which required many hours in front of a microfilm machine — and on the written record left by other people who had direct contact with Coolidge. That record includes autobiographies by Edmund Starling, of the Secret Service, and by South Dakota's U.S. Rep. William Williamson; and the papers of people including South Dakota's U.S. Sen. Peter Norbeck, Coolidge political benefactor Frank Stearns and Coolidge housekeeper Ellen Agnes Riley, among other sources.

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KB: "I enjoy the different takes the Eastern press and the Rapid City Journal press have on the same event, i.e., the reassigning of Secret Service man Jim Haley and the hailstorm that damaged the airmail planes. Was this difference in the way stories were reported between the Eastern press and the local press a noticeable phenomenon as you researched? And, what was it like as a journalist to compare and contrast the different press accounts from the President’s visit?"

ST: "The difference between the writing of Easterners and the local press was revealing and oftentimes comical. They came at the assignment of covering the president's vacation from different perspectives. Some of the Easterners seemed annoyed at having to spend three months in what they perceived as a backwater, while the local press was of course thrilled to have access to a president and to have the attention of the nation.

Those differences in perspective were laid bare during some noteworthy events, like the hailstorm that happened early in the president's visit. The local journalists, being accustomed to the violent weather of the Great Plains and also probably fearing that the volatile weather would reflect poorly on the region's worthiness as a presidential vacation spot, covered the storm dismissively. Meanwhile, a reporter for the New York Times described the event in great detail and called it 'a terrific hail storm of cyclonic proportions.'

Beyond regional differences in reporting, there were also differences in how individual reporters remembered events they witnessed collectively. There were perhaps a couple of dozen reporters in the room at the old Rapid City High School, for example, when Coolidge distributed his infamous 'I do not choose' note, in which he used only 12 words to announce that he would not run for re-election in 1928. With nothing but Coolidge's tersely written note to use as a source for their news stories, reporters had to lean heavily on their own observations, and those observations varied. Some of the reporters recalled Coolidge's mood that day as grimly serious, while others said he was nervous, or under deep emotion or faintly amused. Those observations reflected how differently individual people — including reporters with a supposedly trained eye — can interpret something they witnessed as a group, and they also reflected Coolidge's enigmatic nature."

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KB: "Can you tell us about the national and world wide response to Coolidge’s endorsement of Mt. Rushmore and of the Black Hills in general? Can we attribute surges in tourism to the Black Hills to the President’s summer visit and the descriptive write-ups of the Black Hills by the press corps who accompanied them?"

ST: "We can absolutely attribute surges in tourism to Coolidge's visit. Automobile tourism was a budding phenomenon back then, and because of Coolidge’s decision to vacation in the Black Hills, South Dakota not only benefited from a glut of free and prolonged publicity in virtually every newspaper in the nation, but also from a campaign to improve roads that South Dakota leaders waged in anticipation of heavier tourist traffic caused by the presidential visit. The combination of those things brought a flood of motoring tourists to the state, and that flood has never really abated.

I was particularly impressed during my research by the seemingly universal credit that Mount Rushmore historians give Coolidge for his role in kick-starting the carving of the mountain. Boosters of the project had been trying for several years to get it underway, but it was Coolidge's visit and his pledge of federal financial support for the carving that gave it a much-needed jolt of momentum and finally got it going."

KB: "Now that you’ve immersed yourself so deeply in this topic, do you think the McNary-Haugen Bill was the top reason Coolidge chose to summer in the Hills in 1927? Or was it more a perfect storm of circumstance, Norbeck’s jockeying and the wives’ friendship?"

ST: I don't think we’ll ever know definitively why Coolidge chose South Dakota, because in keeping with his reputation as "Silent Cal," he never fully explained his choice.

His veto of the McNary-Haugen bill — which was legislation that aimed to provide economic relief for struggling farmers — and the perceived farm-country backlash against the veto seemed to be the things that inspired him to consider a vacation in the Midwest or West, instead of the East, where presidents had typically gone during their vacations up to that point.

Among the places Coolidge could have gone in the Midwest or West, South Dakota was chosen not only because of the salesmanship of people like the state's legendary U.S. Sen. Peter Norbeck (and, as you mentioned, because of the friendship between Norbeck's wife, Lydia, and first lady Grace Coolidge), but also because the Black Hills was the only place where President Coolidge could enjoy the cool, high, dry and bug-free mountain escape that he craved while still being close enough to farm country to visit farmers and to receive visits from farm leaders.

Other factors in South Dakota's favor included Coolidge’s curiosity about some of his ancestors who had settled in the West (resulting in some South Dakota cousins, who visited him while he was in the Black Hills), and the scheduled remodeling of part of the White House during the summer of 1927, which gave the Coolidges more time to go farther away for their vacation."

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KB: "What opinion would you hazard about Coolidge’s decision not to seek reelection?"

ST: "When Coolidge announced his trip to South Dakota in 1927, the popular wisdom was that he was headed west to regain political support from farmers who were angered by his veto of farm legislation (farmers, as a political bloc, comprised a much larger segment of the electorate than they do today). But Coolidge seemingly blew up that popular wisdom when he announced, from Rapid City, that he would not seek re-election.

I think Coolidge had already been leaning strongly against a re-election bid when he vetoed the McNary-Haugen farm legislation, but I think he felt some responsibility to ensure that the Republican Party could weather the political storm that his veto created. So, I think he went west with a hope of assessing the political damage and repairing it with a goodwill campaign. When he found that the political situation for him and fellow Republicans was not nearly so grim as he had been led to believe (in part because of an excellent growing season that blunted anger over the McNary-Haugen veto), I think he was emboldened to act on the choice that he had already been leaning toward making, which was to forgo seeking another term as president.

Other factors contributed to Coolidge's decision to leave public life. One of his sons had died during Coolidge's time in the White House, which sapped Coolidge of some of his ambition. And before Coolidge served his own four-year term, he had served part of Warren Harding's term after Harding died in office, leading to speculation that any further service by Coolidge as president would have constituted an unprecedented third term."

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KB: "Tell us about the selection of the image for the cover and what it says about a President who signed the Indian Citizenship Act and 'still hoped Native Americans could be assimilated.'"

ST: "I had concerns about using an image of President Coolidge in a headdress on the cover, but those concerns were overcome by a couple of considerations.

One was that the image was, quite simply and without a doubt, the most striking image I found of Coolidge from his time in South Dakota.

The other was the context in which the photo was taken. Coolidge did not buy a headdress at a curio shop. He did not swipe it from the hand of a Native American so he could mug for the cameras. He was given the headdress during a solemn ceremony at the Days of '76 in Deadwood, where some Sioux leaders from South Dakota ceremonially adopted him into the Sioux Nation and placed the headdress onto his head.

During his South Dakota vacation, Coolidge also took the time to visit the Rapid City Indian School and to travel to Pine Ridge, where he delivered a long and thoughtful speech that reflected a heartfelt interest in Native American affairs.

So, when I look at the image on the cover, I do not see cultural appropriation, as some critics of the image might. I see a president who humbly participated in Native American culture, at the invitation of people within that culture."

KB: "Anything you’d like to add?"

ST: "In contrast to his staid reputation, Coolidge had a lot of fun in South Dakota and had many adventures and misadventures. And so did the people around him. From the subterfuge of South Dakota officials who stocked a stream with huge fish for the president to catch, to the airmail pilots who crashed on their way to deliver the presidential mail, to Coolidge's angry dismissal of a Secret Service agent for getting lost on a hike with the first lady, there is hopefully a lot in the book that readers will find not only educational but also entertaining."

Tune in to In the Moment with Lori Walsh on SDPB Radio in August for an interview with Seth Tupper.