by Martha F. Barkley
Two places to visit with outdoor tramping grounds and rural life at its best, Paris and Plymouth, not that far away.
The McLaughlin Lilac Gardens in western Maine was in full bloom one May. We went to hear the annual reading of Walt Whitman's iconic poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Most lilacs were transplanted from France and thrive all over New England. Their heart shaped deep green leaves with pastel lacy flowery petals of pink, white and every shade of deep purple to light lavender add fragrances strong in almost every yard along many Main Streets.
The poet Whitman spent his Civil War years caring for soldiers in Washington, DC hospitals. Many a family received a personal letter about their son's last days under Walt Whitman's poetic pen dictated by the dying youth. He took frequent dictations from boys who wished to write home. Little things, like a special apple or pudding were provided by the daily visits of a caring Whitman who was successful at finding his brother in Virginia after so many were killed at Fredericksburg. George with a minor injury was still alive and well enough for Walt to bring home safely to their mother in New York.
Hannibal Hamlin was born not far from these lovely lilac gardens in South Paris, Maine. He is best known as Vice President for Abraham Lincoln during our country's worst war-torn years. Notorious Andrew Johnson from Tennessee was Lincoln's second term Vice President. Balancing the ticket was all important for Lincoln's two successful runs.
The beautiful large white mansion with grand circling driveway is where Hannibal grew up in Paris, Maine. We did not go inside for a tour, but we did find the old prison turned library/museum nearby. Access was free and the second floor of this odd looking library, prison architecture is plain, is a Hamlin Museum full of Lincoln memorabilia. Very intriguing to view with librarian available for any questions you may have. Hamlin served more on the ground in a Maine militia than at the White House during his vice presidency.
I once attended a book group at the Edgar Allen Poe Public Library in Mount Pleasant, SC, part of Fort Moultrie. It was a palmetto timbered fort built during the Revolutionary War. Our book group met in a prison cell. Now that was very interesting! All fifteen of us squeezed into the small space with no windows. Our discussion was open and tantalizing, quite different from our claustrophobic surroundings.
Bangor, Maine has various Hannibal Hamlin spots to visit since he lived there and practiced law. The historic home, his burial location and a grand statue of Hamlin are places of interest. He died on July 4, 1891. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both dying on the July 4, 1826 without realizing it was momentous because it was the fiftieth anniversary of our country. Hamlin was 81 at his death and had served in Spain briefly, recommended by James G. Blaine.
Yes, this was the same Blaine who gave Blaine House for our governor's mansion in Augusta. That would be a grand local tour if open, otherwise look up the C-SPAN-archived program held there with Earle Shettleworth, Maine historian, and Elizabeth Leonard, Colby history specialist on the Civil War.
Leaves of Grass was the Whitman required reading for my English major in college. It included the famed lilacs poem honoring the April death of Lincoln and "Song of Myself" made my heart sing as I read it the first time. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" took many years for me to read a full reading and understand its great significance verse by verse. Flowering lilacs each spring make me think of Lincoln.
Leonard generously presented her history books at our Belgrade Public Library the year she received the Lincoln Prize for her Lincoln's Forgotten Ally: Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt of Kentucky. Spring Gallery in Belgrade Lakes Village shared their Lincoln bronze bust and four Civil War soldier bronzes. Very beautiful.
That building in the village is on the market now, but you can buy bronzes from Spring Gallery through Susan McPherran in Farmington. She came for a swim at our dock the other day.
Plymouth, Vermont is the Calvin Coolidge Homestead and burial site. A journey over to Vermont is worthwhile, since "Silent Cal" has gained a fine reputation in politics in recent years. (Editor's Note: Coolidge turned 19 on the day that Hannibal Hamlin died. He was the only U.S. president to have been born on July 4.) As it turns out, Coolidge has written one of the finest autobiographies in print. The new history book Author in Chief by Craig Fehrman, 2020, convinced me to pull my small autobiography by Coolidge off the shelf and reread it more carefully.
Haven't you read a book and then years later find it better to reread? Jane Eyre was a classic in high school and I fell in love with it again when our SC book group reread it decades later. Good writing is good writing and a mature reader sometimes benefits from going through the precious pages again. I had bought my Coolidge biography when we visited Plymouth quite a few years ago.
Anyways, the second reading of Calvin Coolidge's simple and brief life story was well worth it for me. Of all the presidents, from Jefferson's masterful eloquence to Obama's literary life story in Dreams from My Father, I was struck by Coolidge being lifted so very high by Craig Fehrman who studied the writings by every US president for ten years.
Truman's autobiography is also a short one like Coolidge, but Fehrman maintains that the style of Coolidge is far superior. Perhaps it is, but I also recommend Truman's short autobiography. Sometimes I really enjoy a brief book for a change. Both Truman and Coolidge helped on their family farms and knew the time and effort required 24 hours a day.
Carter's An Hour Before Daylight is a beautiful sharing of growing up on his family peanut farm. After his presidency, he and Rosalynn returned to their Plains, GA peanut farm and teaching Sunday Bible School. In a 2020 interview on C-SPAN, Carter looks so very healthy in his 90s after several health crises.
Craig Fehrman really goes into the blockbusters of David McCullough's huge histories of John Adams and Truman along side Danielle Steel's novels, of all authors. So very different with such a contrast of appeal in novels produced yearly and histories taking years to write.
Just the fact that Calvin's father, a notary, swore his son into the presidency right there in the tiny town of Plymouth is so very unique to New England history. President Harding's unexpected death found Coolidge at home on his family farm. Small beginnings like Lincoln from log cabin days and splitting rails. The disciplined life of Coolidge is so very like the disciplined life of Truman, helping their parents at home with the land.
I walked from building to building in Plymouth and was amazed at its smallness in size but largeness in producing our finest writer of his own life story, becoming president and living benevolently after. Many refer to Calvin and Grace Coolidge losing their teenage son while he was president. Such a great loss and yet he persevered in office and did a fine job.
Calvin honored his wife Grace by donating all his funds to her former school where she taught the deaf in Massachusetts. He was not interested in building up his own legacy. Coolidge felt it was her turn after she had lived a life for him. What greater love can there be?
Amity Shlaes's The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression covers the economy under Coolidge. His policies of conservatism and major strides helped bring about in the U.S. economy great improvements. Amity, who helps run the Coolidge Homestead, brought her family to their home in Maine during the Manhattan virus scare in April.
President Calvin Coolidge's accomplishments have been underestimated apparently and our only New England president before John Kennedy can be understood by visitors to his hometown in nearby Vermont. Have a good local venture, maybe an overnight in Vermont or New Hampshire.
Trump's The Art of the Deal is covered in this history of presidents' books in Author in Chief. Craig Fehrman explains the typical usage of ghostwriters for many books written before serving and after serving the highest office in our land. Bestselling blockbusters in the business are recently all too common.
The controversial writing of John F. Kennedy's Pulitzer-Prize-winning Profiles in Courage has many pages of research with JFK's close advisor and speechwiter Theodore Sorenson as the author of other efforts by President Kennedy as well.
This may shock: "[Peter] Osnos approved the deal, which meant the same editor who signed The Art of the Deal also signed Dreams from My Father." (p. 308)
Bull Moose in Waterville has Author in Chief for $21.97, discounted from $30.00. They can also order any title available, like most bookstores.