The new book "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills," written by Journal reporter Seth Tupper and published by The History Press, chronicles the nearly three months that the then-president spent vacationing in the region during the summer of 1927. In this excerpt from the book, Coolidge is driven from his vacation home in Custer State Park to his summer office at the old Rapid City High School, where he surprises the nation on Aug. 2, 1927, with a terse announcement about his future.
By this eighth week of the president’s vacation, his presence had become routine. The limo made its regular weekday-morning entry into Rapid City, where the conversion of streets from gravel to pavement was still a work in progress.
It was a place not long advanced from a frontier. Less than 60 years earlier, the Black Hills were a wilderness exalted by the Sioux people and reserved for their use. The gold rush that began in the 1870s changed that and forever fixed the Black Hills’ place in western mythology, due in large part to Deadwood and its cast of colorful characters, including Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane.
President Coolidge, who was born 17 years before South Dakota became a state, had enjoyed some of the western character of the Black Hills during his long vacation. But today, there was business to conduct. Sometime prior to 9 a.m. local Mountain time, his limo parked at Rapid City High School, a three-story brick building situated on a rise at the southern end of downtown. A group of people stood outside the building hoping to see and greet him.
The president entered the building and went to his summer office, a converted French teacher’s classroom with blackboards on three walls. He handled some routine business items for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes and then welcomed about two dozen reporters into the room for one of his regular Tuesday and Friday news conferences.
Because it was the fourth anniversary of Coolidge’s presidency (and therefore also the fourth anniversary of the death of former president Warren Harding, which had elevated then vice president Coolidge into the White House), a reporter asked the president to reflect on his accomplishments.
The president obliged in his typical businesslike and unemotional fashion, although he did go on a bit longer than usual. The country had avoided war, he said. The economy was doing well. Labor strife had been avoided. The national debt was down. Each of those points and others he explained in detail.
After about a half hour with the reporters, the president ended with a surprise.
“If the conference will return at twelve o’clock,” he said, “I may have a further statement to make.”
The reporters retreated to gossip. It was the first time they could recall Coolidge ending a press conference with a request to reconvene later the same day.
For the next two and a half hours, the president received a number of visitors. Two Rapid City men gave him a vest trimmed in rattlesnake skin. South Dakota’s chief justice, other dignitaries and some common citizens paid visits. A band from Watertown, a city on the eastern side of the state, performed outside and drew the president out to listen until a mist drove him back indoors. Dozens of onlookers waited on the high school grounds, hoping to see the president again.
At noon, the president welcomed the reporters back into his classroom office. He stood beside his mahogany desk with a cigar in one hand and a wad of small paper slips in the other, each one folded over on itself. When the room filled and the door was closed, Coolidge asked if everyone was present. After receiving confirmation of that, he asked the reporters to pass by him one by one as he gave each a slip of paper.
Few people knew Coolidge well or could read his thoughts, least of all the reporters at that moment. Some later recalled him as grimly serious. Others wrote that he was visibly nervous or under deep emotion. Still others remembered him as faintly amused.
The looks on the reporters’ faces, meanwhile, were easily interpreted as shock when they opened their folded slips of paper and read only this: “I do not choose to run for president in nineteen twenty eight.”
One of the reporters asked if the president had any further comment. Some heard him answer “no” or “none.” Others saw only a shake of his head.
Lest there be any doubt that the conference was over, a presidential staffer signaled it by opening the door. Reporters scrambled out, rushing to find the nearest communication device and transmit the news in time for evening editions of newspapers. Some reporters raced to the phones in the high school, some bolted for the town’s telegraph office and some went to their own temporary summertime offices. By foot or by car, they hurried away.
The tourists and onlookers outside, who’d come only to see and hopefully speak with the president as he walked in and out of the building, stood dumbfounded as they witnessed the reporters dash out as though escaping a fire.
Some minutes later, the president emerged from his office, donned his overcoat and stepped back out into the cool, overcast day. He stopped briefly on the front steps with a group of Sioux people who’d come to see him and then hopped into the presidential limousine with Arthur Capper, a visiting U.S. senator from Kansas. Off the limo puttered again, back to the State Game Lodge.
“Such was the dramatic fashion,” wrote a reporter that afternoon, “even spectacular by contrast with the simple manner by which it was disclosed, that an outstanding story was given to the country.”
Another reporter estimated that 50,000 words were sent out over the telegraph wires from Rapid City that day to fill up the nation’s newspapers.
The news stunned the country. Across the land that evening and the next morning, Americans read it in their papers and heard it on their radios and felt a collective bewilderment.
What in the world, they wondered, had happened out there in the wilds of South Dakota to provoke such a shocking announcement, and why had the president gone so far away for so long?