South Dakota had presidential fever in 1927. That’s the year that Calvin Coolidge made the Black Hills his summer White House. President Coolidge couldn’t stand the summers in Washington D.C. The heat and humidity aggravated his bronchitis. For the summer of 1927 he resolved to vacation somewhere "west of the Allegheny's and east of the Rockies." That was South Dakota's opportunity to strike.
Even in the 1920’s, without Twitter or Facebook, there was a thirst for presidential gossip or news. Newspapers paid attention to what a President said or did. South Dakota was desperate to get national attention on the Black Hills and start developing it as a tourist attraction. That gave South Dakota Senator Peter Norbeck and others an idea. South Dakota would invite President Coolidge to come to the Black Hills for the summer. The state legislature passed a formal resolution on January 7, 1927 that colorfully painted the Black Hills as having lofty peaks, magnificent forest, sparkling streams and “ideal” climate, but also, “splendid fishing, golf, polo and tennis.” To try to assure Coolidge that stories of gunslingers and ladies of the evening were all in the Black Hills’ past, the proclamation declared “the population in and about the mountains is intelligent and moral.” After letters, legislative proclamations and personal invites, even Norbeck was surprised when Coolidge accepted the invitation.
In June 1927, President Coolidge, First Lady Grace Coolidge, their pets (two dogs, five canaries, Grace’s pet racoon, Rebecca, who lived in a wicker basket), Secret Service, White House staff and three dozen members of the national media arrived by train in Rapid City (population 7000) and then made the 32 mile trek to the State Game Lodge at Custer State Park. The State Game Lodge would be the Summer White House where the couple lived throughout their three months in the Black Hills.
There are many stories about Coolidge’s time in South Dakota. Most know that it was because of this trip that President Coolidge was persuaded to support funding for Mt. Rushmore. One of his last actions before leaving office was signing a $250,000 appropriation bill for Mt. Rushmore. My personal favorite was what the state government did to make sure that the President was successful on his fishing excursions. To ensure that Coolidge caught fish every day in Grace Coolidge Creek, the state installed fishnets above and below the park and then dumped 2000 trout from the state fish hatchery. These weren’t small fish either. These were large breeding trout that the hatchery was planning to get rid of anyway. They were lazy, big and easily catchable. Rumor has it they didn’t taste too great, but the President was proud of the catch and ate them regularly. On one of Governor Bulow’s visit to see the President, he had to choke down the trout which tasted like horse meat and ground liver. That truly was taking one for the team.
There’s a lot more I could say about Coolidge’s time in South Dakota but I’d rather you see it for yourself. That’s why we are hosting all the WASHTO 2018 attendees at the State Game Lodge for a dinner of buffalo prime rib, walleye (which tastes much better than trout!) and other South Dakota favorites. You’ll get to see where Silent Cal spent the summer of 1927 and why he stayed for three months when he originally planned to only be here for three weeks. Following dinner, we’ll take you to one of the Nation’s most iconic “great faces”, Mt. Rushmore. We’ll make sure to get there for the lighting ceremony. I still marvel at how one man’s vision became a symbol of our democracy. I know whether it’s your first time to the mountain or you’ve seen it before, this will be the “Great Faces” you remember most from your time in South Dakota.