by Rich Szlosek

With all the festivities that take place between Halloween and New Year’s Day, you likely have not noticed yet another ongoing celebration that is underway in the Northampton area.  Forbes Library, which first opened to the public in 1894 is commemorating its 125th anniversary in 2019 with a year long series of events.  The observance kicked off last September with the community sing on the library lawn and will conclude next fall. Each month a different aspect of the library’s various services will be featured through a series of talks and displays open to all.

The feature for January will be the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Memorial Museum – the only presidential museum in a public library in the entire nation. Just having such a unique entity would be reason enough to highlight the collection but January is also a key month in Coolidge’s history. January 2 will mark the 100th anniversary of his being inaugurated governor of Massachusetts and January 5 will be the 86th commemoration of his untimely death in 1933. There will also be a discussion later in the year of Coolidge’s role in the Boston Police Strike, the event that made him a national figure in 1919.

Coolidge’s history with Forbes went back to the very first year the library was in existence. After graduating from Amherst College in 1895, he came to Northampton to work as a clerk in the law offices of Hammond and Fields. One of the first things he did was to get a library card, a copy of which still exists at Forbes.  Forbes’ attraction for Coolidge was the extensive collection of law books that had been left to the library by its founder, Judge Charles Forbes. Young Calvin practiced law by day and read the law at night at the library and some have referred to Forbes as Coolidge’s law school. He successfully passed the bar and opened his own law office in what was then the brand new Masonic building which is often called the Fitzwilly’s building today. As Coolidge grew more successful, he continued to remain a patron of Forbes and, after he was elected vice-president, he began to donate items to the library for their historical interest. Once he left the presidency, his entire White House book collection was shipped to Forbes and it is still on display in the museum. The present museum was officially dedicated in a ceremony in 1956 in which Mrs. Coolidge and their son, John took part.

In the interests of full disclosure, I volunteer at the Coolidge museum and I am constantly mystified by the fact that so many local folks are unaware of its existence.  Coolidge was the most famous person to ever live here and deserves to receive much more attention from the city in which he chose to reside during his entire adult life. Yes, it is true he was both born and buried in Vermont but Northampton and Massachusetts are where he grew his reputation. When he left the presidency, he returned to town and his rented home on Massasoit Street before he finally bought a house known as “the Beeches”. He met his wife, Grace Goodhue, here in 1903 and they were wed two years later. Their two sons were born in Northampton. Ironically, Grace had also been born in Vermont and came to Northampton to teach at the Clarke School for the Deaf. Like her husband, she never left town and remained a resident until her death in 1957.

If you have never visited the museum, I think you would enjoy the experience. You will learn a lot about this quiet man who rose to the top of the political world and then just gave it all up.  The museum is small and will not take you long to explore and, of course, it is free. It is on the second floor of Forbes Library and is handicapped accessible. But, even if you have no interest in Coolidge, you should make a resolution to visit Forbes this year. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at all the art exhibits, special events and programs that happen in the building and how beneficial the library is to the life of Northampton. Forbes is open from 9-9  on Monday and Wednesday; 9-5 on Friday and Saturday; 1-5 on Tuesday and Thursday and closed on Sunday. I hope to see you there soon and, for now, Happy New Year.