The 1928 Summer White House

A postcard commemorating Superior Central High School’s moment as the “Summer White House.” (Image: Zenith City Press)

Like many others before and since, President Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge found the sweltering Washington D.C. summers oppressive, so during the warmer months he travelled to less-humid destinations to relax and recreate. But the business of the nation had to continue, so Coolidge and his staff established offices near where he was staying, each of which the press dubbed the “Summer White House.” During his first three years in office Coolidge set up shop at Marion Court College, a Roman Catholic university on an ocean-front estate in Swampscott, Massachusetts; White Pine Camp in the New York Adirondacks; and the Game Lodge at South Dakota’s Custer State Park. In 1928, Coolidge summered in northwest Wisconsin, establishing his presidential office in the former library of Superior Central High School. That summer the Superior Evening Telegram referred to Superior as “The Nation’s Summer Capital.”

Earlier that year the nation was atwitter with guesses as to where President Coolidge would spend his last summer in office—he had announced he would not seek reelection the previous year while vacationing at South Dakota, where he enjoyed riding horseback and fly fishing.

In May, Irvine Lenroot invited President Coolidge to spend his summer sojourn in northern Wisconsin, citing the area’s excellent fishing, pleasant weather, and privacy. At the time Lenroot was a former State Senator and native of Superior, where he had practiced law before embarking on a successful political career.

Clay Arthur Pierce, son of businessman and financier Henry Clay Pierce, offered his father’s secluded estate on the Brule River, Cedar Island Lodge, as Coolidge’s summer residence.

Coolidge accepted the invitation and the May 31 edition of the Evening Telegram announced that the chief executive of the nation would establish his offices in Superior. Central High School was officially dedicated for use as the United States Summer White House Offices. The Evening Telegram temporarily updated its masthead to include the phrase, “Home of the Nation’s Summer Capitol.”

For the next two weeks, Superior and Douglas County prepared for the President’s arrival. One account estimated six cars of telephone equipment—mostly cross arms, glass insulators and copper wire—were installed along Highway 2 to Brule, employing over 100 linemen of the Wisconsin Telephone Company. An 80-line switchboard was proposed for the President’s temporary office within the high school. The Postmaster requisitioned a new truck to carry the President’s mail from the airport to the school, and a telegraph office was installed in the Androy Hotel.

The Coolidges Arrive

President Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge arrived by train to the Superior depot after a 36-hour trip from Washington D.C. on the morning of Friday, June 15, 1928, accompanied by a reported entourage of 60 soldiers, 14 servants, and 10 secret service agents.  A motorcade of 13 cars awaited the travelers, ready to escort Coolidge to Cedar Island Lodge—Mrs. Coolidge stayed on board the train all the way to the Brule stop.

The Superior School’s boys marching band greeted the President with the Legionnaires and the Veterans of Foreign Wars falling in step behind. The large crowd of onlookers was described as being “awed” and “overcome” by seeing President Coolidge in person.

The presidential motorcade proceeded along the main thoroughfares of Winter Street, Tower Avenue, and Belknap Street, then past Central High School to Highway 2—later named the Coolidge Memorial Highway. Somewhere before reaching the city limits, Coolidge was transferred from an open vehicle—provided by Henry Ford—to a closed car for the remainder of the trip. He was waiting on the porch at Cedar Island Lodge, relaxing in a rocking chair, when Mrs. Coolidge arrived.

The President’s Office

The Superior Evening Telegram described Central High School’s library—on the second floor of the southwest corner of the building—as a “spacious room well lit by natural light from the large windows.” It contained a single steel-and-mahogany desk appointed with everything the President might need: a calendar, a small clock, ten freshly sharpened pencils, two pair of scissors, two paper weights, two letter openers, a couple of pens with an inkwell, and an ashtray. Special note was made of the office’s modern telephone: “This is of the combination mouthpiece and earpiece type, requiring only one hand to hold it,” the paper reported.

For eight days after Coolidge’s arrival, residents of Superior waited for the president to occupy his summer office, but steady rain and poor road conditions (caused mostly by the carloads of curious residents trying to get a peek at the president) kept him at the lodge. In the meantime, local papers answered the demand for news of the visiting dignitary with stories of his successful fishing on the Brule River, interviews with the caretakers and guides, and a photo of the President’s new tackle box.

Coolidge conducted minor business, including sending telegrams of congratulations to Herbert Hoover on his nomination for president and to his running mate, Kansas Senator Charles Curtis. His first official act of state while in residing in Wisconsin was denial of clemency for three death row inmates convicted in 1926 for the murder of a Washington D.C. policeman.

By Monday, June 25, the rain and clouds finally gave way to blue skies and sunshine. Still, there was no sign of the president at his Central School office.

Finally, on Tuesday, June 26, President Coolidge made the trip into Superior. When the President arrived at the school, more than 100 people were gathered to see him. He smiled and offered a simple “hello” before ducking inside. The President worked just two hours, but he returned again on Friday. On Tuesday, July 3, he graciously accepted a specially designed fly rod presented to him by a group of 60 Boy Scouts.

During his three-month stay Coolidge met with numerous dignitaries, including Mayor Robert Baxter of Superior and Duluth Mayor S. F. Snively. Wisconsin Governor Fred R. Zimmerman, arrived in Superior by train the morning of July 4. He participated in the city’s Independence Day celebration, while the President quietly celebrated the nation’s—and his own—birthday. The Governor spent the following day and night at Cedar Island Lodge as the guest of the Coolidge family.

On July 16 Coolidge formally announced his support of Hoover in the upcoming presidential election. Hoover stood at the President’s side on the steps of Central High School as the President spoke.

Silent Cal

Though much excitement and fanfare surrounded Coolidge’s summer in Wisconsin, there is little record of any notable, official business conducted from his Summer White House—not surprising in light of the fact that Coolidge has often been characterized as an ineffective and lazy chief executive whose term was marked by inaction and apathy.

Author and historian Robert E. Gilbert defends “Silent Cal’s” reticence and seeming indifference in his book, The Tormented President: Calvin Coolidge, Death and Clinical Depression. Gilbert points to evidence of severe and prolonged clinical depression suffered by the President following the unexpected 1924 death of his son, 16-year-old Calvin Jr.

Gilbert draws a comparison of Coolidge’s dynamic leadership and public approval as Vice President and successor to President Harding, and his withdrawn interaction and lackluster leadership after his son’s death.

Whatever the underlying reason, it appears that President Coolidge spent the majority of his time in northern Wisconsin relaxing in the outdoors and fishing along the Brule River. He did take a day to pay his respects to Duluth, which he and the First Lady toured on August 20. The Coolidge’s also toured the Minnesota Iron Range while they were staying in Northwestern Wisconsin.

Bids Farewell

On the evening of September 10, in a drenching downpour, President Coolidge delivered his farewell address to the people of Superior and Douglas County from the steps of Central High School. Both the President and First Lady graciously offered high praise for northern Wisconsin and expressed gratefulness for the hospitality extended them. The crowd sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” with Mrs. Coolidge joining in.

Sometime after the President’s departure, his temporary office in Superior Central High School was named the Coolidge Room in his honor. The space became a study hall in the mid-1930s. Near the end of the school’s tenure, it served as a detention room.

In 1965 Superior Central High School transitioned to a Junior High and later a Middle School. The school closed in June of 2003 and was razed in 2004. Artifacts from President Coolidge’s summer office are on display at the Douglas County Historical Society in Superior.

Story by Judith Leibaert. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Judith Leibaert.