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Slayton: White Pine Camp

The presence of Calvin Coolidge still hovers over White Pine Camp like the morning mist rising off nearby Osgood Pond. There are several photos of him scattered around the camp complex, and the largest two cottages are named for Coolidge and his wife, Grace. But why is his frowning, taciturn ghost here, deep in the northern Adirondack forest?

This is one of the famed Adirondack Great Camps, built by the wealthy New York banker Archibald White for his socialite wife, Olive, in 1908 through 1911. And like all the Adirondack Great Camps, a wealth of history has accrued to it over the years. It’s a beautiful and fascinating place.

In late summer, I walked the grounds of the camp with Dick George, a former director, who recounted much of the place’s history.

More than a little of that history has to do with Calvin Coolidge, because this remote camp became his summer White House in 1926. There are photos of him, usually scowling, at various locations around this collection of rustic buildings. But there’s one picture of him smiling, as he holds up a northern pike he caught.

However, echoes of tragedy darkened the President’s’s summer in the Adirondacks.

By 1926, White Pine Camp had been sold to Kansas newspaperman Irwin Kirkwood, whose wife, Laura was a close friend of Grace Coolidge. When Laura Kirkwood died, in the winter of 1926, her husband understandably lost his desire to vacation at the camp. So he offered the use of it to President Coolidge.

Coolidge’s own life had been touched by tragic events. He was still grieving over the sudden death in 1924 of his son, Calvin Jr., which had shattered him.

Nevertheless, Coolidge and his wife, Grace, accepted Kirkwood’s offer, and spent the summer of 1926 at White Pine Camp, perhaps hoping to recover and heal in the soothing depths of the northern Adirondack forest.

Much of the place’s history preceded Coolidge’s stay there, and most of it was decidedly not mournful. Olive White, for whom the camp was built, was a bon vivant with a reputation for hard drinking and numerous love affairs. She said once that she never wanted to have to walk more than 300 feet for a drink. And so, small liquor stations were installed along some of the camp trails — every 300 feet!

Today, White Pine Camp is a quiet forest retreat on a lovely lake. It wears its patina of history lightly, as a reminder that human affairs, both tragic and humorous, are woven into every landscape throughout our region, even the most remote.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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