A Cabin in the Woods

President Calvin Coolidge Riding in Lumber Wagon

President Calvin Coolidge takes a ride on a lumber wagon in the Black Hills of South Dakota. (Rapid City Public Library.)

In the heart of the southern Black Hills, a long, flat meadow leads to a hand-laid foundation of oblong granite stones, held together by gritty mortar. A small staircase sits at the base of a large, multi-terraced structure with three chimneys and an impressive porch. In the 1920s, the building boasted nearly two dozen rooms, a large stone fireplace, and was decorated with bison and other furs. Its wooden siding bore a deep brown color, while light cream trim accentuated the window panes, gutters, and trusses that supported the mansion’s many overhanging verandas. This building is the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park. For three months in 1927, it also served as Calvin Coolidge’s “Summer White House.”

That summer, Custer—South Dakota’s first and largest state park—covered more than 50,000 acres of deep green ponderosa pine trees, trickling streams, and open meadows. All of these were interlaced with a variety of steep, craggy mountains and gentle rolling hills peppered with steely gray outcroppings of quartz-laden granite. The park’s tallest mountain, called Hinhan Kaga Paha by local American Indians—and more often known by its English name, Harney Peak—rises 7,242 feet above sea level, making it the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and Europe. As one newspaper reporter wrote during the president’s 1927 visit, “nine thousand acres” of the park were “devoted to the buffalo pasture,” while “[m]ountain sheep, elk, and deer live[d] on the cliffs” and a variety of other animals “roam[ed] about freely.” Fish—most notably rainbow trout—packed the park’s creeks and dams.

From June to September, the president, First Lady Grace Coolidge, and their son, John lived in their lodge, nestled along a creek bed between Harney Peak and the bison-filled meadows at the park’s southern edge. Far away from the bustling politics and sweltering summers of Washington, D.C., President Coolidge—who reportedly suffered a long bout with bronchitis that year—could enjoy the dry, warm climate and be rejuvenated by hiking and fishing near the lodge. In preparation for the president’s stay, workers had hastily constructed a three-mile trail following a stream from Center Lake down to a small pond along the road leading to the Game Lodge. They also built a series of six dams and stocked the stream with large—and as one contemporary suggested, aged, lethargic, and “eminently catchable”—­rainbow trout from the hatchery in Spearfish, a town some eighty miles to the north, in order to ensure the president’s success as a novice fisherman.

A Cabin in the Woods