Every educated American is aware of Vermont’s greatest gift to America’s political tradition, President Calvin Coolidge. He has come to symbolize the traditional stoic Vermonter—quiet, thrifty, forthright, and hard working. Today thousands of tourists visit his ancestral home in Plymouth Notch and Tea Party Republicans have adopted his fiscal policies during his presidency (1923-1929) as their own. But today nobody ever mentions Vermont’s first birthright President, Chester Alan Arthur (1829-1886, President 1881-1885) and one needs great powers of detection to find his alleged birth site in Fairfield Vermont.
I set off on a warm sunny September day from our family home in Greensboro Vermont in search of Arthur’s birth place. One of my hobbies is to visit presidential homes and over the years I have visited many, including those of Wilson, located just across the street from my college office in Staunton, Virginia, and Coolidge’s beautiful site. My wife and I visited Arthur’s home on a fine September day in 1974, but my memories of that visit are dim to say the very least. It was high time for another visit.
North Fairfield Baptist Church
The Chester Arthur Historic Site is the exact antithesis of the Coolidge home in Plymouth Notch.The Coolidge complex, which consists of the Coolidge home, church, farm, post office and much more, is in fact a neatly contained little village. There is an active modern museum and plenty of guides to show you around. The Arthur site, on the other hand, consists of a small stone monument, a modern replica of the house where it is said that Arthur was born, and a small church a mile or so down the road.
Getting to the Arthur birth place is not easy. Driving west along State Highway 15 heading towards St. Albans, you never see signs advertising or guiding you to the site. When I asked Siri on my iPhone for help, “she” replied that she had never heard of the place. The best that she could do was to guide me to the Chester Arthur Church in North Fairfield. After wandering around some dirt roads near the church, I saw a tiny rusty old signs pointing in the direction of the birth place.
After traveling a mile or so down the dirt road, I finally spotted a tiny yellow house located in a beautiful clearing by the road and an old forlorn stone marker stating that it is thought that Arthur had been born in a cabin on that spot. The original house was torn down decades ago, but in 1953 the state of Vermont ordered the construction of a replica based on a fuzzy old photograph of the original. What really surprised me was the fact that there was nobody there! The house is only open on Saturdays during the warmer months of the year and on this Thursday there was probably nobody else within a mile of the place. It is located in a beautiful wooded setting near the Canadian border, but is really obscure—a hidden jewel in the glorious countryside of northwestern Vermont.
The Chester Arthur story, however, is worth retelling. Chester Arthur was the son of William Arthur who was born in Ireland, educated at Belfast College, and an immigrant to southern Quebec where he taught school near the Vermont border. He married Malvina Stone, a young Vermont woman who lived near the Quebec border. William Arthur was ordained as a Baptist minister. North Fairfield’s 46-member congregation was his first post. The Arthur family lived in a small cabin for more than a year while the Fairfield congregation finished the frame parsonage on the site of the 1953 reconstruction. Chester Arthur was born October 5, 1829, in the temporary parsonage.
The Arthur family moved to New York State in 1835; the same year William Arthur co-founded the New York Anti-Slavery Society and began to increasingly promote his abolitionist and temperance views. Chester Arthur later graduated from Union College in Schenectady New York, studied law, and was a school teacher in Vermont before returning to New York to practice law. He worked his way up the chain of command in New York’s Republican party and was a surprise candidate for Vice-President when James Garfield won the GOP nomination in 1881. When Garfield was assassinated a few months after his inauguration, a very surprised Arthur found himself President. Historians give his administration high marks for its integrity, support for civil service reform, and drive to strengthen the American navy. Sadly for Arthur, his kidneys began to fail late in his presidency and he died just a year after leaving office.
There is, of course the intense controversy over Arthur’s citizenship? Was he an American citizen or was he a British subject? At the time of his presidency several journalists claimed that Arthur was born in Quebec and not in Vermont which would have disqualified him for the presidency because only persons who are citizens at birth can become President. We lack official records from Fairfield in 1829, so it is difficult to come up with a conclusive answer, but most historians agree that Arthur was born in Vermont.
The North Fairfield Baptist Church, built around 1840, stands on a beautiful rocky knoll with a panoramic view of the Green Mountains not far from the Arthur birth place. It was at this very site that William Arthur was called to preach shortly before Chester was born. The present church was built in 1840 on the site of the original church. This church, which has never had electricity, was donated in 1970 to the State of Vermont in 1970.
Today a granite monument stands next to small two-room, brightly painted yellow house set back from a gravel road. A casual driver may wonder what the granite marker means. If they stop and walk across the lawn they will see a monument that was dedicated in 1903 by Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Lincoln. The marker identifies the location where it was thought Chester Arthur was born. Oral history identified this as the location of the Arthur house and the monument was placed on a small plot of land presented to the State of Vermont by Peter Bent Brigham Northrop. The small replica house contains exhibits describing Arthur’s life and presidency.
Today we Americans honor our past Presidents with elaborate museums, libraries, and presidential homes, but Arthur’s birthplace and church are beautiful though totally obscure reminders of a long forgotten pastoral America. Despite its obscurity, however, the adventuresome tourist who makes his way here will relish the awesome tranquility and beauty of rural Vermont along with the total lack of the hordes of visitors at places like Jefferson’s Monticello.
Copyright © 2013 Daniel Metraux