Out & About: Bridgewater Historical Society, Coolidge Foundation, mark 100th anniversary of Coolidge presidency

Nellie Perkins sits at a switchboard at the Southern Vermont Telephone Company in Bridgewater. Perkins played an important role in getting the message to then Vice President Calvin Coolidge that the President Warren Harding had died, making him the 30th president of the United States. (Courtesy Bridgewater Historical Society)

Nellie Perkins sits at a switchboard at the Southern Vermont Telephone Company in Bridgewater. Perkins played an important role in getting the message to then Vice President Calvin Coolidge that the President Warren Harding had died, making him the 30th president of the United States. (Courtesy Bridgewater Historical Society) Courtesy Bridgewater Historical Society

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 07-31-2023 5:22 PM

Late at night on Aug. 2, 1923, a telegraph came through to the Southern Vermont Telephone Co. in Bridgewater.

It woke up Nellie Perkins, who worked as an operator at the company founded by her husband, Winfred A. Perkins, in 1907.

“She’s going to hear it because it came right to her house,” said Polly Timken, president of the Bridgewater Historical Society. It was an important message: President Warren Harding was dead and Vice President Calvin Coolidge, then vacationing at his family homestead in Plymouth Notch, Vt., needed to be informed.

“She took down by hand what the telegram message was,” said Matthew Denhart, president of the Calvin Coolidge Foundation.

Nellie Perkins passed the message to her husband, and they tried to call a store in Plymouth Notch that had a phone for the vice president’s use; it went unanswered. Winfred Perkins then got in his car and quickly made his way out to the vice president’s father’s house, as the Coolidge homestead did not have a telephone.

Beginning Wednesday, a four-day celebration will kick off at the President Calvin Coolidge State Historic Site to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the start of Coolidge’s presidency.

This summer, the Bridgewater Historical Society has an exhibit “The Message Gets Through,” which focuses on Bridgewater’s role in that historic moment. It can be viewed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturday of each month through Oct. 8.

“Of course, the story got lost during the years,” Timken said. “Bridgewater is very proud the Southern Vermont Telephone Co. was here and that they played such an important part.”

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Much of what is known is because of the Perkins’ granddaughter Jeannette Sawyer, a member of the historical society’s board of directors, who has diligently kept and researched her family’s history.

“Without her, nothing would have been saved,” Timken said.

At 2:47 a.m. early the morning of Aug. 3, 1923, Coolidge, a Republican, was sworn in as the 30th president of the United States. His father, Col. John Coolidge, a notary, administered the oath of office.

“When it was done Calvin Coolidge went back to bed,” Denhart said.

As part of the festivities, a reenactment of the oath will take place at 2:47 a.m., Aug. 3, 2023. Coolidge’s grandson Chris Jeter, will play president Coolidge; Coolidge’s great-granddaughter Jennifer Coolidge Harville will play Coolidge’s wife, Grace Coolidge; and former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas will play Coolidge’s father.

The tradition of the middle-of-the-night reenactment started in 1998, when the Coolidge Foundation celebrated the 75th anniversary of Coolidge’s presidency.

“They set the tone and we decided we would follow suit,” Denhart said. Around 100 people attended the reenactment during that anniversary.

For those who do not wish to attend the 2:47 a.m. ceremony, it will be repeated throughout the celebration. Other events include lectures, tours and a screening of “Coolidge: Rediscovering an American President,” which will take place 6 p.m. Thursday at the Woodstock Town Hall Theatre.

Coolidge was born in Plymouth Notch and graduated from Amherst College in Massachusetts, according to a biography posted on the White House’s website. He started his political career as a councilman in Northampton, Mass., and eventually became the governor of Massachusetts. After serving as president from 1923 to 1929, he retired in Northampton. Despite the majority of his adulthood and political life being spent in Massachusetts, he is often regarded as a Vermonter.

“Vermonters rightly sort of claim Coolidge,” Denhart said. “I think the values he was instilled with having grown up in a tiny village were really important and stayed with him. He came back again and again to Plymouth.”

It was also where he chose to be buried.

“Vermont stayed important to him his entire life,” Denhart said. “I think he would have said he was a Vermonter through and through.”

For more information about the Bridgewater Historical Society, visit bridgewaterhistory.org. For more information about the Centennial Celebration at the historic site, visit coolidge2023.org.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.