Did President Calvin Coolidge have lunch in Dade City?

That’s a local legend, but the facts dispute that claim

Not a single historic marker — among more than 50 posted across Pasco County — refers to it, but there’s a longstanding legend that President Calvin Coolidge had lunch at the Gray Moss Inn in Dade City, during his visit to Florida to dedicate Bok Tower Gardens in Polk County.

Numerous sources document Dade City’s 126-year history.

Edward Bok and his wife, Mary Louise, are shown here with President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace, on Feb. 1, 1929, the day that Coolidge spoke at the dedication ceremony at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. (Courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens)

Edward Bok and his wife, Mary Louise, are shown here with President Calvin Coolidge and his wife, Grace, on Feb. 1, 1929, the day that Coolidge spoke at the dedication ceremony at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales.
(Courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens)

Those accounts detail the world’s largest citrus processing plant (formerly Lykes Pasco Packing); Bill Larkin’s patented cattle underpass; and namesake Major Francis Langhorne Dade, who died on Dec. 28, 1835, when he and 100 of his men were ambushed, resulting in the first battle of the Second Seminole War.

But there is no record to substantiate Coolidge’s reputed visit to Dade City.

Here are facts that can be documented about Coolidge’s visit to Central Florida.

On Feb. 1, 1929, some 60 miles from Dade City, Coolidge dedicated Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales, Florida.

According to published reports, he had spent the previous evening at a private dinner party hosted by the Godfrey family, close relatives to First Lady Grace Anna Coolidge. The President departed on the morning of the dedication from 335 Ponce de Leon Place in Orlando.

Legend has it that President Calvin Coolidge ate lunch at the Gray Moss Inn in Dade City, but no documentation can be found to verify that claim (Courtesy of Helen Eck Sparkman Collection)

Legend has it that President Calvin Coolidge ate lunch at the Gray Moss Inn in Dade City, but no documentation can be found to verify that claim
(Courtesy of Helen Eck Sparkman Collection)

Known in the press as “Silent Cal,” a Commander-in-Chief of few words, the President told reporters: “(Bok) is dedicating it as a bird sanctuary and putting up these bells to interest the birds in music.”

Large crowds stopped the Presidential Train in Sanford to present gifts of citrus, and in Winter Park to present floral arrangements, according to published accounts.

Approximately 75,000 people came out to hear Coolidge dedicate Bok Tower Gardens, a gift to the American people from Edward Bok, the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his autobiography.

The evening of the dedication, Florida Gov. Doyle E. Carlton attended a dinner in honor of the President and First Lady at Bok’s home.

Hours later, Coolidge and his wife headed back overnight to Washington on an Atlantic Coast Railway special.

Despite exhaustive research, it appears there are no records to prove that Coolidge ever set foot in Dade City.

Mittie Roberts Sumner with family members seated on the family porch, around 1908. (Courtesy of Susan Sumner Shelton)

Mittie Roberts Sumner with family members seated on the family porch, around 1908.
(Courtesy of Susan Sumner Shelton)

Julie Bartlett Nelson is the archivist for a collection of Coolidge documents and memorabilia, kept at Forbes Library in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was unable to find any travel logs or newspaper clippings about Dade City or the Gray Moss Inn in her archives.

Eve Bacon, who is now deceased, was a Central Florida historian who owned and edited her own newspaper during the 1950s in Orange County.

She published extensive documentation of Coolidge’s visit, tracking him from the Godfrey home in Orlando, to his departure from Bok’s home for a return trip to the nation’s capital.

That account is included in Bacon’s two-volume book, “Orlando, A Centennial History.” She describes everything from frontier gun battles to Cracker underworld kings to gators and buffaloes on Orange Avenue. But, there’s no mention of Coolidge visiting Dade City.

There are references to Coolidge’s visit in a book compiled for the Pasco County Historical Preservation Committee in 1992, and also a reference by Madonna Wise that was published in 2014.

Yet local newspaper accounts — in the Tampa Morning Tribune and the Dade City Banner — that were published during the period of Coolidge’s trip to Bok Tower do not mention the President making a detour to Dade City.

There also were unconfirmed “tips” that proved interesting.

This photograph is believed to be from the dedication day of Bok Tower Gardens on Feb. 1, 1929. (Courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens)

This photograph is believed to be from the dedication day of Bok Tower Gardens on Feb. 1, 1929.
(Courtesy of Bok Tower Gardens)

One was that the old guest registry of the Gray Moss Inn, purportedly signed by Coolidge, wound up in the hands of Dr. R. D. Sistrunk, who lived next door.

Another was that Coolidge had befriended the Dudley family and secretly made a trip to visit with them as the owners of the Gray Moss Inn.

But those could not be verified.

Interestingly enough, though, there was another link between Dade City and Edward Bok.

LeHeup Hill, south of Dade City, was one of the early sites considered by Bok along Fort King Road. At 240 feet above sea level, the hill named for the family that moved there in 1911, was among the leading candidates.

But negotiations with Bok broke down.

Fred T. Himmelwright proceeded with plans for an observation tower at LeHeup Hill. He spent nearly $8,000 in 1926 to erect his structure, which he opened as a public attraction.

Tourists enjoyed “a comfortable room, all glassed in, for cool or stormy weather,” the Dade City Banner reported. The room was “fitted up with chairs so that visitors may enjoy rest and the glorious scenery at the same time,” according to the newspaper.

And, tourists could purchase orange juice at “5 cents a glass,” the newspaper says.

While the rumor of a Coolidge visit persists, Gordon and Phyllis Gill, who have been managers of the Gray Moss Inn since the 1990s, have found no record of “Silent Cal” visiting there.

Before he died in 1933, Coolidge did return to Florida to spend a month at the Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora.

As it turns out, George W. Bush is the only confirmed President who visited Pasco County during his presidency.

Bush was running for re-election and made a campaign stop in New Port Richey in October 2004. “W” shared the stage at Sims Park with his younger brother, then Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

By Doug Sanders

Local Sources
June Booth Farmer, now 83, was a little girl when her father worked as a citrus grove planter for Fred T. Himmelwright. She still has memories of Edward Bok ending his negotiations for LeHeup Hill.

  • Jeff Miller has maintained a website for the history of Pasco County at Fivay.org since 2001. He has scanned more than 1,500 articles from the Dade City Banner.
  • Susan Sumner Shelton is one of many descendants of the Sumner family. She is currently a board member of the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village in Dade City.

Coolidge facts
President Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge was the first sitting president to:

  • Fly in an airplane
  • Visit Cuba
  • Give a speech broadcast over the radio

 

Gray Moss Inn
The Gray Moss Inn, built in 1905, was initially a five-room cottage for Jefferson Davis “J.D.” Sumner and his family of nine children. One of that family’s descendants was Robert D. Sumner, a former county attorney. The structure, which is located in what is now the historic Church Street District in Dade City, still has its original stucco version of the Mediterranean Revival Style.

 

Bok Tower Gardens facts
Located in Lake Wales, Bok Tower Gardens is deemed one of America’s finest gardens. Its 205-foot Singing Tower, the architectural centerpiece of the gardens, offers daily carillon music concerts. Visitors can meander through spacious grounds of oaks, palms, azaleas, irises and camellias. The gardens and carillon tower are situated on Iron Mountain, which is one of the highest points in Florida at an estimated 295 feet above sea level.

Doug Sanders has a penchant for unearthing interesting stories about local history. His sleuthing skills have been developed through his experiences in newspaper and government work. If you have an idea for a future history column, contact Doug at .

 

Published August 19, 2015

 

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