American presidents have long made a tradition of escaping the pressure cooker of life in Washington to seek respite in the quieter, more bucolic corners of our country, typically during the summer or winter holidays.
Several parts of New England have accommodated First Families for their getaways. The Kennedys, of course, returned often to Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, and more recently the Bush family reclined on their perch along the coast in Kennebunkport, Maine.
In Vermont, Calvin Coolidge was summering at his home in Plymouth Notch when he took the oath of office, only hours after learning of President Warren G. Harding’s untimely death.
A decade earlier, the president was Woodrow Wilson, and for the first few years of his tenure in office (1913-15), he chose the Upper Valley as the location of his Summer White House—specifically Windsor, Vermont, and Cornish, New Hampshire.
The President (center) with his family, possibly in Cornish.
Not a lot of information about Wilson’s time in the region is immediately retrievable online, though intrepid researchers may have better luck combing through local newspaper archives and other historical records. The scarcity might have been by design, as the famously reserved Wilson is said to have preferred going unnoticed rather than drawn attention to himself.
And where else better to hide away than here?
Still, can a president ever be completely on vacation? Wilson kept up important correspondences, and he did so from what can be called the “Summer Oval Office” on the second floor of the historic Post Office and Courthouse on Main Street in Windsor.
Windsor Post Office and Courthouse
The Windsor Post Office, built 1856-59, still stands and happens to be the oldest continually operating post office in the United States. Upstairs of the mail operation, a courtroom remains entirely intact since it ceased to hear cases in the mid-1970s—and looks exactly as you’d expect an old New England courtroom to look. (Check out this video of Windsor town manager Tom Marsh’s tour of the building a few years ago.)
In one of several spaces adjoining the courtroom, among the judge’s chambers and jury room, President Wilson tapped away at his typewriter and presumably made a few calls to Washington. Old phone book records show that a number was registered under “W Wilson.”
Other proof of Wilson’s low-profile existence in town is this letter addressed to an unspecified governor, to whom the President gushes about his present surroundings:
Toward the end of that same summer in 1914, Wilson returned to the area, but under far unhappier circumstances. His wife and First Lady, Ellen Axson Wilson, had succumbed to kidney disease and passed away in early August.
According to this write-up in the Sacramento Union from August 29, 1914, seeking rest and even celebrating his daughter’s birthday, “[the] President did his best to appear cheerful, but plainly showed his grief.”
Excerpt from the Sacramento Union on August 29, 1914
When he wasn’t running the country from above the Post Office in Windsor, Wilson made his home away from the White House in Cornish, where he leased Harlakenden House, a sprawling estate overlooking the Connecticut River, from Winston Churchill—not the British statesman but the American writer of the same name. Churchill was one among the thriving local artist collective known as the Cornish Colony, which included sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, painter Maxfield Parrish, literary editor Maxwell Perkins, and dancer Isadora Duncan.
By most accounts, Wilson and his family were welcomed by the crowd of Cornish creatives.
Wilson’s ties to Windsor extended beyond his office hours. He was friendly with the retired U.S. Secretary of State, William Evarts, who was quite influential in the community. Stories passed down around town also suggest he enjoyed spending time with another well-heeled local by the name of Frank Kennedy.
Kennedy was relatively new to Windsor, having cashed in on his Boston-based biscuit company, which merged with another biscuit maker to form the National Biscuit Company (aka Nabisco), and moved to town to become a gentleman farmer. Kennedy owned a considerable swath of land that included much of the hilltop known as Buena Vista and the so-named (and still-named) Kennedy Pond.
As one handed-down story goes—possibly apocryphal—Kennedy had invited President Wilson to join him on a rowboat ride around the pond. Meanwhile, along the opposite shore, residents lazing on the sand quickly took notice of the dignitary on the water—and decided it was a good time to heckle him about some of his political positions.
Reportedly, Kennedy was so humiliated by the locals’ treatment of his guest that he instantly banned the community from using the pond, ordering his staff to pull the floating docks out of the water.
But the people weren’t having it. Kennedy came home that evening to discover windows in his house and barn had been shattered by rocks. Angrily, he rushed down to notify Windsor’s constable, explaining what had happened earlier that day on the pond, and demanded that the culprits be brought to justice.
Apparently, the constable could only shrug and say, “What do you want me to do, Frank? My advice to you is, reopen the pond.”
The next morning, the docks were back on the water.
Be sure to check out these other stories Around Windsor: