Divine Daytripper Freelance Travel Writer


Woodstock, Vermont

Postcard with Edison, Firestone, Coolidge and Ford


I have a postcard on my refrigerator of a historical meeting of three industrial revolution icons taken in the summer of 1924 at Plymouth Notch, Vermont, the birthplace and boyhood home of our nation’s 30th President, Calvin Coolidge. The postcard is a photograph of Harvey Firestone watching as President Coolidge signs the bottom of a sap bucket for Henry Ford. Thomas Edison dressed in a three-piece suit and holding a Panama straw hat, is sharing a warm and animated conversation with Grace, the President’s wife. Harvey Firestone’s son Russell, the only person standing in the photograph, peers down at the two. Sitting tall and proud in a straight back wooden chair is the President’s father, Colonel Coolidge.

This postcard is held on my refrigerator door by a magnet of a 1950’s style woman with a text balloon over her head, “It’s so involved being me.” I look at the postcard of these captains of industry and wonder what kind of business deal took place on that August day. Were they plotting to replace the nation’s existing transportation system with the automobile? What was Thomas Edison and Grace Coolidge talking about that looked like so much fun? Why was Russell Firestone, a mere boy, bending over and listening on the conversation? Every time I look at this postcard, I remember my fall foliage journey to Vermont .

Someone suggested to me that if traveled alone, yet wanted to maintain a human connection, stay at a bed and breakfast. I followed this advice and stayed at the home of innkeeper Arlene Gibson, who runs the 1830’s Shire Town Inn. I knew there would be built in companions to share our collective journeys every morning, even if it meant setting my alarm clock to join them. During my three morning stay at the Inn, I met a mother in her 70’s from Idaho traveling with her three-grown children, a middle-aged couple from Syracuse, New York traveling with their 21-year-old daughter, and two older couples from New Jersey and Exeter, England who held a spirited conversation on how the British media portrayed President Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. “There are two things I saw” said the Brit. “One: there is a racial divide in America , and two: if there were a terrorist attack on American soil, you would not be prepared.”

Woodstock, Vermont, the prettiest little town in America was settled in 1765, and began attracting influential and prosperous Americans early in our nation’s history. This scenic, pastoral town on the banks of the gentle Ottaquechee River features well-preserved Federal style houses, covered bridges, white steeple churches and a tony downtown shopping area. The backdrop of the fall leaves in crimson, gold, and light green on trees such as Alder, Mountain Ash, Maple, Oak and Large Tooth Aspen only served to heighten the upper crust New England autumn experience. I’m almost certain that the zenith of the fall foliage led Senator Jacob Collamer, President Lincoln’s confidant to declare, “The good people of Woodstock have less incentive than others to yearn for heaven.”

Vermont MansionI toured a nineteenth century Queen Anne style mansion that served as Mary and Laurence Rockefeller’s summer home. There is a wrap-around porch with a view that is protected for all of perpetuity by the Vermont Land Trust. In this 28-room summer home, there are original works of art by Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Cole, and Asher B. Durand. In the library there are antique books on railroad exploration in the American West and natural history books on quadrupeds of North America.

What held my interest more than paintings and books were the candid photographs of Laurence and Mary. I saw a group picture with them and their extended family taken at a granddaughter’s wedding, outside in the rose garden in the 70’s. This picture captivates me because they seem like ordinary people living regular lives. Their extraordinary wealth, class, and social standing fade into the background. They are the matriarch and patriarch of a large, happy family celebrating a milestone. In the end, Mary and Laurance aren’t that different from you and I. They may have drunk better wine and flown first class, but still they had to live life one day at a time.

I ditched my mansion tour early due to capitalism overexposure, and traveled one of the carriage roads behind the Rockefeller summer home on a hike up to Mt. Tom. I brought along a picnic lunch from the Village Butcher Shop. In my backpack was a smoked turkey and provolone sandwich, a bag of sea salt and vinegar chips, a bottle of Reed’s ginger brew and a pecan chocolate chip bar on shortbread for desert.

It was at the top of Mt. Tom that I met the runner Chuck and his dog Jezebel. I was hiking on the carriage roads up to South Peak , absorbed on finding a way to the lookout point when Jezebel grazed past me with so much intensity and proximity I froze in fright. When I realized it was only a black Labrador surging head-on to Billings’ Pogue Pond, I clutched my heart and exhaled a breath of relief. I asked the runner to point me in the direction of South Peak, and was soon on the right path.

Fall Foliage in VermontThe view from South Peak of Woodstock below and the surrounding hills from Mt. Tom was ethereal. The transformation of trees from summer’s green to autumn’s gold and crimson captured my gaze. Chuck found me transfixed on the landscape. We walked down the hillside together, choosing the off-road option of mountain switchbacks resulting in soil erosion over paved roads. He told me about his life in Vermont : the beauty of a six-month winter complete with cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snow camping; working for the county in road planning; and gaining high speed internet access via cable networking. I was happy for the company and sad to see Chuck go as we approached ground level. We walked along a row of houses called millionaire’s row. We passed by a mansion painted the color pink. I told him that is where Mary Kay Ash, the founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics lived, a big, fat lie. “Really?” He asked. “Yup, that’s her pad.” We shook hands and said goodbye.

I drove my rental car eighteen miles along Route 100A from Woodstock, Vermont to Plymouth Notch with the heated car seat turned on high while listening to XM satellite radio. The fall foliage was on display along with my high spirits. The freedom of being on the open road to explore, learn, and enjoy was the reason I embarked on this journey.

Vice President Calvin Coolidge was vacationing at Plymouth Notch in August of 1923 when he received word about the unexpected death of President Warren Harding in San Francisco of a heart attack. Colonel John Coolidge, his father and also a notary public, swore him into office by candlelight in the middle of the night. Someone once asked Colonel Coolidge how he knew it was legal to administer the presidential oath to his own son. Coolidge replied, “I didn’t know that I couldn’t.”

The village of Plymouth Notch has been preserved since the time of Coolidge’s presidency. The community church, cheese factory, general store and one-room school house hold their original furnishings. The entire village is organized through interpretive signs coded to a number and keyed to a visitors map, so that at any time you can find where you are. I found myself entering the Union Christian Church, built in 1840. The interior is designed in the Carpenter Gothic style, featuring intricate hard pine woodwork.

For me, there is a deep reverence when I enter a church. As I prepared to find a place in the empty pews to pray, I was surprised to see a large-screen television occupying the pulpit. Turns out that building number eleven, the church I was in, is owned by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. The Foundation perpetuates the memory of President Coolidge through educational publications and programs such as the video shown on the pulpit. At the end of the video presentation a small-world twist made me ponder the lives of well-connected Vermonters. A screen credit was given to Mary French Rockefeller. She and her husband Laurance were generous supporters of the Coolidge Foundation for many years. The world is even smaller for the wealthy.

I spent the last day of my trip at the Atlantic Ocean in New Hampshire. Most people assume New Hampshire is land-locked, but it does have an 18-mile strip of coastline. After I took the 90-mile drive from Woodstock to Concord, New Hampshire, I stopped at a rest area and visitor center to ask about the drive to the Atlantic Ocean.

I expected to find a kindly old-timer wearing a maple-sugaring plaid jacket, sitting behind the desk. Instead, I discovered a run-down, weather-beaten biker blasting southern fried rock. I asked him if I had enough time for a quick trip to the Atlantic and still make my flight out of Logan Airport in Boston . When he answered, I fell into the deepest pool of blue eyes I’ve ever seen. His exterior was tough, but interior held the eyes of an angel with a heart of gold. I remembered my friend who used to say dirty living with a clean heart.

“If you take the 93 south to the 101 east, you’ll be at Hampton Beach in an hour,” said the biker. “You can make it.” I figured this sidelined former Hell’s Angel for an adventurer like me, and took his advice. I pointed my car east towards the Atlantic, and stepped on the gas.