DAKOTA DATEBOOK: Three Calvins and a Cook
by Merry Helm
December 2, 2019 – North Dakota has had two different towns named Calvin. The first one, in Rolette County, consisted of a rural post office established October 23, 1899. The postmaster was named Ira Eisenhour, but his job was short lived. His post office order was rescinded almost exactly a year later, and that was the end of Calvin number one.
The second town of Calvin was – and still is – near the Canadian border in Cavalier County. It was founded as a Great Northern Railroad townsite in 1902. The first postmaster was Reverend David Sykes, who named the town for John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian Church. It’s interesting that John Calvin had changed his name from his birth name of Jean Chauvin. In Latin, Calvin means bald.
The official newspaper of Calvin during the 1920s was called the Western Cavalier County Independent. In April 1926, the paper featured a story about a young woman who had made good in Washington, D.C., where she worked for a man named. . . Calvin.
“When President Calvin Coolidge breakfasts on his usual fare of toast and coffee,” the article read, “he is assured of the best in quality and service, for the hands that prepare the repast are those of a North Dakota girl, Miss Elsie Rodenhauser, who formerly resided near Langdon, Cavalier County, where she was born on the family homestead.
“Her father, Peter Rodenhauser, moved with this family from Buffalo, N.Y., onto a government homestead in Cavalier County, but some years later sold out and moved to Mitchellville, Maryland, where he purchased a 500 acre farm about 18 miles from Washington, where the family now reside.
“Miss Rodenhauser,” the article continued, “a tall brunette with wavy black hair, deep blue eyes and rosy cheeks, early sought employment in the capital city, taking up work in the home of an Under-Secretary of State, who later became Ambassador to Belgium. Here she attracted the attention of Mrs. Warren G. Harding, who when her former employer went abroad took Miss Elsie to the White House as Assistant Cook.
“That was 4 years ago, when she was only eighteen. Then, when the Hardings went out and the Coolidge family took possession of the Executive Mansion, no changes were made in the personnel of so important as the culinary department,” the article finished.
Calvin Coolidge became president when Warren Harding died in office in 1923. Coolidge was shy and was known as Silent Cal, but his First Lady, Grace, helped people warm to him. Elsie Rodenhauser and the other White House staff called Mrs. Coolidge “Sunshine” because of her bright disposition. For example, when her puritanical husband once forbade Grace to speak in public, she countered by answering reporters in sign language; one of her closest friends was Helen Keller. Coolidge also didn’t want Grace to fly in a plane, bob her hair, wear pants or ride horses, but she became famous for her sense of fashion and was known for wearing red.
President Coolidge wasn’t all doom and gloom, however – he was actually famous for his dry wit, and he indulged his love of animals by keeping six dogs, two cats and a raccoon named Rebecca in the executive mansion. Elsie Rodenhauser surely learned another trait of his lighter side – he loved playing practical jokes on the White House staff.
“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.