In the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge summered at a location far from Washington D.C., in Custer State Park, located near Rapid City, South Dakota. Besides getting a break from Washington, Coolidge had a second purpose for choosing this location, that being to meet sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the man who would design Mount Rushmore. Coolidge had met Gutzon Borglum earlier on during his presidency and had approved Borglum's plan to mint commemorative coins which Borglum hoped to raise funds to carve a mountain into sculpture. Although the Stone Mountain coins were minted, Borglum never completed the project, reportedly because he was too temperamental for the project managers to deal with.
Coolidge did not particularly like Borglum. He was reported to have once said to a visitor, "About how far would y'say 'tis from here to the Black Hills?" The visitor replies "Oh, I don't know, Mr. President, I'd guess maybe fifteen hundred miles." To this Coolidge replied "Well, y'know that's about as close to Mr. Borglum as I care to be."
In 1927, President Coolidge decided on a summer away from Washington where a scheduled White House renovation was taking place. The Washington, D.C. air in the summer irritated his bronchitis. A number of South Dakota politicians lobbied the President to get him to spend his vacation in the Black Hills. The idea appealed to the President and on June 13, 1927, Calvin and Grace Coolidge arrived in Rapid City.
By all accounts the Coolidges enjoyed their stay in South Dakota. They attended a local church and spent time going out and visiting different areas of the state in a low-key manner. The South Dakotans responded kindly and favorably. They presented their President with a horse, a large-brimmed Western hat, and boots as gifts. The president adopted the hat and boots as his local costume.
Their residence at Custer State Park was known as the Game Lodge. There Grace Coolidge would sit and knit on the porch where her husband went trout fishing. By many accounts Coolidge was quite successful as a trout fisherman, even though he had never tried it before this trip. Unbeknownst to Coolidge, to make sure he enjoyed his stay, the locals had the creek stocked with big fat fish from a local hatchery. Whether it was the good fishing or the friendly people, Coolidge decided to extend his visit from three weeks to three months.
It was on this trip that the incident involving the First Lady and Haley became sensationalized in the press. Some have speculated that the death of the Coolidge's son John in 1924 put a strain on their marriage, but this is not a generally accepted theory. Grace and Haley had left on their hike at 9:00 a.m. that morning and the first lady was reported to have been walking at a brisk pace. When Coolidge returned home for lunch at one o'clock, he was upset that his wife was not there. He was described as "pacing the porch nervously" and becoming increasingly upset by her absence. At 2:15 p.m. Coolidge was arranging for a search party, just as the tired Mrs. Coolidge returned from the hike. She cheerily greeted him, saying "Hello papa, sorry to keep you waiting!" Coolidge was unamused. He had a private word with her and the contents of their discussion have not been recorded for posterity.
The Boston Herald ran a story about the incident with the headline "Wife's Long Hike Vexes Coolidge: President Paces Porch as First Lady Hits 15 Mile Trail". The Boston Post ran a similar headline which read "First Lady Almost Loss: President Worried, On Point of Forming Search Party Just as Mrs. Coolidge Returns". The Boston Globe Headline read "Wife's Delay Taxes Coolidge's Patience. She Goes Off on Long Hike and Luncheon Gets Cold. President Sits on Porch an Hour Waiting for Her to Explain". A few days later, the Globe headline read "Haley Out as Mrs. Coolidge's Escort".
Although Coolidge tried to keep somewhat of a low profile and to limit his public appearances during his summer vacation, Gutzon Borglum convinced the president to dedicate the Mount Rushmore site. This took place on August 10, 1927. In the ceremony, Coolidge made a speech in which he said:
"We have come here to dedicate a cornerstone laid by the hand of the Almighty. The union of these four presidents carved on the face of the everlasting Black Hills of South Dakota will be distinctly American in its conception, in its magnitude, in its meaning. No one can look upon it without realizing it is a picture of hope fulfilled. Its location will be significant. Here in the heart of the continent, on the side of a mountain which probably no white man had ever beheld in the days of Washington, in territory acquired by the action of Jefferson, which remained an unbroken wilderness beyond the days of Lincoln, which was especially loved by Roosevelt."
Coolidge presented Borglum with six steel drill bits with which the artist would start carving the hill. Borglum asked Coolidge to write the explanatory inscription Borglum envisioned as part of the sculpture. He said to Coolidge:
"Mr. Coolidge! As the first president who has taken part in this great undertaking, please write the inscription to be carved on that mountain! We want your connection with it shown in some other way than just by your presence! I want the name of Coolidge on that mountain!"
Unfortunately, when the mountain was sculpted, there was no room for the inscription, and the subsequent depression economy restricted the proposed scope of the project. But Coolidge's goodwill was helpful in the effort to raise funds for the monument; he signed the first large appropriation bill for the project just days before the end of his presidency.