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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Madison's First Presidential Visit

Today's visit by President Obama to Wright Middle School in Madison swamped our Library with calls about previous visits by incumbent chief executives. The first of those occurred on Sept. 10, 1878, when Rutherford B. Hayes spent the day in our capital city.

Unlike Obama, Hayes was not an especially noteworthy president. In 1876 he had actually lost the popular election, and the electoral college vote was hotly disputed. He was finally named President in January 1877 when a special congressional committee reviewed the electoral college balloting and gave him a one-vote victory. He announced he would serve only a single term, and during those four years the vitriolic animosity of Reconstruction Era politics hamstrung his efforts at reform.

After 18 months of Washington in-fighting, Hayes decided in 1878 that he needed a tour through the Northern states over the summer. He arrived in Madison on Sept. 10, 1878, the first time the state received a visit from a sitting chief executive of the nation. The president, Mrs. Hayes, and their three sons stayed at the Park Hotel in Madison. The hotel's barber, Herman Gaertner, recalled shaving many other dignitaries there but had no recollection of the visit of President Hayes -- perhaps because he wore a full beard.

A reception was given for the President in the Assembly chamber, and the first family were guests of Gen. David Atwood. They took a boat ride around Lake Mendota and went to the State Fair at Camp Randall, where Hayes gave a speech on the nation's fiscal policy. Mrs. Hayes "went to ladies hall at the university" and "mingled in a friendly manner," a contemporary account says, "with the young lady students." The first family then went on to Milwaukee by train the next morning.

Two later sitting presidents skipped Madison when they came to Wisconsin for rest and relaxation. Calvin Coolidge visited northern Wisconsin on a working vacation in 1928. Known as "Silent Cal" to the press, he probably didn't scare away any fish with boisterous comments but he may have frightened a few with this goofy hat. A generation later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower vacationed up north and he, too, appears to have enjoyed peculiar taste in headgear.

Over the years many other presidents visited Wisconsin, of course, either while campaigning, during office, or later in their careers. The only president who spent much of his life here was Zachary Taylor, who was an officer at all three of Wisconsin's territorial forts from 1817 to 1836.

:: Posted in on November 3, 2009

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