Holy Cow! History: Cal Coolidge’s crazy coon

More than presidents have called 1600 Pennsylvania home. The White House has been a kind of landlocked Noah’s Ark over the years. The Lincolns had nanny goats. William Howard Taft kept a beloved dairy cow on the premises. Teddy Roosevelt housed an incredible 23 species indoors and out, including a lion and a badger. And there have been more dogs and cats than you can shake the proverbial stick at.

But for sheer strangeness, Calvin Coolidge outdid them all.

Though the flinty New Englander wasn’t known for personal warmth, Silent Cal had a soft spot in his heart for critters. When word got out that the president and first lady Grace Coolidge were animal lovers, Americans flooded them with living, breathing gifts.

There were the obligatory canines, of course, so many that, “We always had more dogs than we could take care of,” Coolidge later noted in his autobiography. They were nothing compared to tire baron Harvey Firestone’s donated African pygmy hippo, a black bear sent from Mexico and even two lion cubs, which the father of fiscal conservativism gave the less-than-cuddly names “Tax Reduction” and “Budget Bureau.”

The menagerie grew so large that the White House press dubbed it the “Pennsylvania Avenue Zoo.”

So, it was no surprise when Vinnie Joyce’s gift was delivered to the Executive Mansion late in the fall of 1926. That animal was different. It was meant to be eaten. For Thanksgiving dinner, no less. But the would-be entrée didn’t have wings and feathers. It was a plump raccoon.

Strange as it sounds today, Americans ate a surprising amount of raccoon meat in the early 20th century. You could even find it in some grocery stores. (This, it should be pointed out, was long before the animal became associated with rabies.)

Those with discriminating palates reported it tasted like a cross between a young pig and (what else?) chicken, though not as fatty as possum.

Little is known about Mr. Joyce of Nitta Yuma, Miss., or why he thought the 30th president would have a hankering for fresh coon swimming in gravy for his big feast. But this much is certain: He misjudged the recipient.

Coolidge took one look at the fat female raccoon and fell in love with her. He wasted no time issuing one of those presidential pardons that turkeys so famously receive at this time of year and quickly named her Rebecca.

The wily Procyon lotor (its formal scientific name) not only knew how to cheat the hangman, but she was equally talented at wiggling her war into the first family’s hearts. They grew so fond of her that she was given a collar engraved with “Rebecca Raccoon of the White House” that Christmas. She liked to nestle in the president’s lap as he sat beside the fireplace at night.

But she was also a bit of a spoiled brat. She clawed White House furniture and clothing and loved gnawing her way out of her wooden crate, prompting frantic rescue missions by Secret Service agents desperate to avoid telling their boss they had lost his pet on their watch.

First lady Grace Coolidge, who was as vivacious and outgoing as her husband was cool and reserved, particularly loved showing off Rebecca to the public and press. Though the encounters didn’t always go as scripted.

Take the 1927 Easter Egg Roll. All the screaming kids and flashing cameras got on Rebecca’s nerves. When she clawed at the first lady, she was promptly taken inside.

Even the president himself wasn’t exempt from her outbursts. Coolidge made a public appearance with his wrist wrapped in bandages one day. Someone asked what had happened. “Rebecca,” was all the taciturn president said, tersely. That incident resulted in her being banished to what later became the National Zoo. But the exile didn’t last long. In a week she was back at the White House.

The Coolidges decided Rebecca needed companionship. So, a male raccoon was trapped in Virginia and brought to Washington. The First Family named him Reuben. Not only did Cupid’s arrows not fly, but Rebecca hated her suitor. The feeling was mutual. Reuben kept running away (once resulting in a nasty traffic jam on Pennsylvania Avenue) until he finally slipped away for good. Rebecca wasn’t upset in the least.

The raccoon rode in the presidential limousine, tagged along on a family vacation to the South Dakota Black Hills and was better behaved at 1928’s Egg Roll.

However, as the Coolidges began contemplating their post-presidential life, it grew apparent there wasn’t a place for Rebecca in it. They decided she needed to be with other animals once more. So it was sent back to the zoo in early 1929, this time for good.

That was one change too many, and Rebecca died a short time later.

It had been quite a ride, stretching from the backwoods of rural Mississippi to a comfortable spot inside one of the nation’s premier mansions. And it is worth noting that Calvin Coolidge went to the grave himself not long afterward without having ever tasted raccoon meat, for Thanksgiving or otherwise.

Holy Cow! History is written by novelist, former TV journalist and diehard history buff J. Mark Powell. Have a historic mystery that needs solving? A forgotten moment worth remembering? Please send it to [email protected]