Turkey on a Train

When the White House wanted a nice, fresh turkey for Thanksgiving dinner in 1925, they opted for delivery.

But instead of Door Dash or another nearby delivery service, President and Mrs. Coolidge turned to their home state, Vermont, and one of their favorite civic groups.

First Lady Grace Coolidge had been an enthusiastic Girl Scout since her husband was vice president. Now Honorary President of the Girl Scouts, Mrs. Coolidge tried to incorporate Girl Scouts into White House events whenever possible. The Washington organization was in the midst of a $20,000 fund drive, and a Thanksgiving-related photo call would be great for publicity.

She ordered a Vermont turkey, from a family friend in East Montpelier, and the First Lady wanted it delivered—-and cooked—-by a Girl Scout.

Thirteen-year-old Leona Baldwin was chosen for this mission, as the 20-lb turkey hailed from her family farm. Leona had never travelled beyond her hometown, so her leader, Laura Gould, accompanied her on the long train ride. They departed on November 6.

Moderately relevant photo from Alabama restaurant

After their adventure in Washington, they planned to make a stop in New York City on the way home. (The turkey did not have a round-trip ticket.)

No account of the trip clarifies whether the turkey traveled with a ticket, in a crate, or in a roasting pan.

Upon arrival, Leona and Mrs. Gould were whisked away from Union Station and taken to the Girl Scout Little House at 1750 New York Avenue NW.

The Little House was a recent gift from the Better Homes of America and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. It was modeled after the house that inspired the “Home Sweet Home” song and contained a working kitchen, furnished dining room, living rooms, bedrooms, and bathroom.

Leona inspected the kitchen and was no doubt relieved to learn that a team of 19 local girls would be there to assist. Newspaper reports of the time do not mention where Leona, Mrs. Gould, or the turkey spent the evening.

The next morning, Leona and Mrs. Gould went to the Tivioli Theater, which was holding a benefit performance of the comedy “Cold Turkey” for the Girl Scouts. Leona met Mrs. Coolidge, for the first time.

After the film ended, the dignitaries moved on for dinner. In addition to the Coolidges, the guest list included Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Hoover, who had secured the building for the Girl Scouts; May Flather, head of Girl Scouts in Washington, DC; J.S. Storrow, national president of the Boy Scouts; and Dean Sarah Arnold, national president of the Girl Scouts.

President and Mrs. Coolidge arrive at the Little House, November 7, 1925
National Photo/Library of Congress

The girls gathered in the dining room and, once everyone was seated, began to serve.

Leona’s glistening turkey rested on a sideboard. When she passed the platter to the President, “Silent Cal” commented, “Thank you. It looks very good.”

Aside from Leona, the other girls were local. Lucille Weber and Margaret Strong, for example, were hostesses. Marian Bates, of Troop 42, was in charge of circulating the cream and sugar, while Phyllis Adelman, also from Troop 42, had celery and carrot duty. Everyone was nervous.

Marian and I bumped each other, spilling cream on the President’s coat. We cleaned it off as best we could and Grace Coolidge was so kind. … Cal ignored the whole thing!

Recollections of Phyllis Adelman Larson, GSCNC Archives.

Newspaper accounts of this most memorable dinner focus exclusively on Leona, using extremely outdated language that makes the dinner seem like an installment of the “Perils of Pauline.”

Leona collapsed after the luncheon was over. The honor and excitement had been too great. A little heart had beaten too wildly and had signaled to a set of taut nerves that it was time for reaction. Hysteria, the price of Leona’s glory, ensued.

Solicitous Scout leaders gathered around the little Vermont girl, and after much nursing and petting and drying of tears, brought her back to emotional stability.

Washington Post (November 8, 1925): 1.

And what of the other 19 girls?

They hardly were standing by taking selfies. In fact, given the limited capacity of the Little House, THEY were probably the ones giving aid.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Patch from Making Friends

©2020 Ann Robertson, writer, editor, and Girl Scout historian