- Associated Press - Sunday, July 20, 2014

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - In the summer of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge was looking for relief from the bugs, heat and bad air of Washington and escape from repair work that would drive the first couple out of the White House.

After some persuasion from South Dakota Gov. William Bulow, Sen. Peter Norbeck and railroad officials, Coolidge and the first lady, Grace, found the perfect getaway in the Black Hills. With promises of no bugs, cool mountain air, trout-filled streams and wide-open spaces ideal for Grace’s long walks, the first family traveled west by train for three weeks.

That short stay turned into three months of photo opportunities, mingling with the locals and mending fences with farm folks. With the White House press corps following the president’s every move, the national spotlight was shining on the Black Hills like never before - or since.

Memories of those months are on display in The Journey Museum’s lobby through Sept. 1 in “Coolidge in the Hills,” a mini exhibit that features story boards, photos and memorabilia of the president’s stay.

“There’s stoic Calvin Coolidge in a 10-gallon hat. That’s something no one should miss,” Kristi Thielen, programs and exhibits director at the Journey, told the Rapid City Journal (http://bit.ly/1t4YFVM ).

“He’s one of those men: Some people look good in hats and some do not. He belonged to the latter group. The only thing he ever really looked good in was a straw boater. He was photographed in that plenty of times that summer, too.”

After a series of receptions across the state - which turned into a “400-mile cheering section,” according to “Coolidge,” by Amity Shlaes - the Coolidges arrived in Rapid City on June 13 with their son, John, and a menagerie of sorts: five canaries, two collies and Rebecca, the first lady’s pet raccoon.

They established the summer White House at the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park. The press corps, staff and guests lived nearby in cabins.

The president had his executive office at Rapid City High School, at the corner of Columbus and Seventh streets. A historic marker commemorating the site was recently dedicated.

“You forget how long ago this was,” Thielen said. “The road between Rapid City and the lodge was rough. The state surveyor said he wouldn’t have time to survey it before grading it, and Gov. Bulow told him to just go ahead and grade it so the road would be ready for the president.”

Coolidge, the Republican from Vermont who was not known for being chatty, was embraced by the South Dakotans from the minute he arrived. He was photographed at various times wearing the cowboy hat, fishing waders, chaps, cowboy boots and a Lakota headdress - often drawing hoots from the East Coast press. The Boy Scouts of Custer gave him a horse.

By all accounts, Coolidge enjoyed himself here, visiting Native American reservations and an experimental farm in Ardmore, going to county fairs, seeing a rodeo and attending church services in Hermosa, where the brand-new minister gave his first sermon to the president.

“He went to everything that was held that summer,” Thielen said. “There were various events where he gave speeches or commemorations. He must have gone back to Washington exhausted.”

Knowing that South Dakota officials were eager to establish a tourism industry, Coolidge touted the advantages of the area’s weather, people and new attractions.

“He diligently devoted himself to the task of promoting the state,” Thielen said.

At the Days of ‘76, Coolidge was given a Sioux name (Leading Eagle), said Pat Roseland, a Rapid City history buff who contributed items for the exhibit.

“He kind of jumped right into all the culture,” Roseland said. “I think he just made friends wherever he went. He made it home.”

Coolidge entertained a number of dignitaries, including Gen. Leonard Wood and Gutzon Borglum, whose mountain carving project got a boost when Coolidge presided over a second dedication, riding up the mountain on horseback with his entourage when his car got stuck on the primitive road. Later, Coolidge signed an appropriations bill for Mount Rushmore.

Other events that summer included the start of construction on the Hotel Alex Johnson and a mini scandal that erupted when Grace and her Secret Service agent got lost on a walk.

But the biggest bombshell came on Aug. 2, when Coolidge, known for his reticence, held one of his press conferences at Rapid City High School and handed out slips of paper that read, “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.”

Thielen’s research for the exhibit included reading Shlaes’ book and looking at materials from Black Hills Knowledge Network, the Minnilusa Historical Association and the Rapid City Public Library.

“I was lucky,” she said. “A lot of things fell into my hands because people came forward. I’m surprised at the number of people who are Coolidge fans.”

One of those is Roseland, who has a collection of Coolidge memorabilia, including postcards, a book written about the president’s stay and a letter with the return address of “White House, Rapid City, SD.”

“A lot of the stuff I just picked up along the way,” Roseland said. “I was fascinated by his trip.”

By the time the Coolidges left in mid-September, the worldwide press coverage and the work on Mount Rushmore helped establish the Black Hills as a tourist destination at a time when automobiles were just allowing Americans to take vacations to places they had been unable to visit before.

“Having a president come to an area is a remarkable thing,” Thielen said. “It even drove traffic that summer,” with thousands of Americans heading to the Black Hills to catch a glimpse of Coolidge.

The Coolidge story that remains a favorite for both Thielen and Roseland is a tale of trout and the lengths to which state officials would go to please the president.

“They wanted to make sure he had an excellent fishing experience, but they also knew he was inexperienced at fishing and the trout here were pretty wily,” Thielen said. “They knew they would have to concoct it.”

Nightcrawlers were fed a special diet so they would grow 12 inches long for the presidential hook, according to Shlaes’ book. Game wardens hauled in hundreds of elderly trout from the Spearfish hatchery and blocked off Squaw Creek (renamed for Grace) with wire netting so the fish couldn’t get in or out, Roseland said.

“They made sure he caught fish,” Roseland said.

___

Information from: Rapid City Journal, http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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