April 20, 2018
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Maine’s ‘first’ tourists

By Kevin Miller, BDN Staff

Taft sailed the presidential yacht around Mount Desert Island and sipped tea at the Jordan Pond House while enjoying Maine summer air that he likened to “champagne in a Prohibition state.”

Nixon ordered up 40 lobsters for himself and other guests and went sailing during a weekend-long retreat on a tiny Penobscot Bay island.

And Eisenhower cast for trout in western Maine before attending a cookout thrown by Skowhegan’s own Margaret Chase Smith.

While presidential visits to Maine are not unusual, relatively few sitting presidents — with the obvious exception of seasonal Kennebunkport resident George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush — have chosen to vacation in the Pine Tree State.

So President Barack Obama’s choice of Bar Harbor for a weekend getaway with the family is understandably big news, even on an island that sees more than its fair share of visits from Washington powerbrokers and top-shelf celebrities.

The first family is expected to arrive on Mount Desert Island around midday Friday. But history buffs will note that the Obamas’ visit to MDI comes almost exactly 100 years to the day since the last presidential vacation took place in Bar Harbor.

William Howard Taft, the nation’s 27th president, arrived in Bar Harbor aboard the presidential yacht, The Mayflower, on July 20, 1910, although some accounts put it as early as the 18th.

Taft played golf at the Kebo Valley Club — where he reportedly shot an abysmal 23 on a par-4 hole after getting stuck in a sand trap — and had tea at the Jordan Pond House, which still serves up tea and popovers within Acadia National Park.

According to a Bangor Daily News article from the time, Taft left Bar Harbor for a speaking engagement in Bangor on July 22, 1910, but not before doling out some compliments — of sorts — to his host town.

“The President congratulated the people of Bar Harbor upon living in such a delightful climate,” the BDN article states. “He said the summer air was like ‘champagne in a prohibition state’ and that the severe winters tended to build up a sturdy and never-surrendering race.”

Presidents Chester A. Arthur and Benjamin Harrison also apparently visited MDI in 1882 and 1889, respectively. Both men also stopped in Bangor during their trips, although Arthur’s visit was an unexpected one. Rough weather prompted the president to choose to travel overland —rather than by water — to New York, ac-cording to news accounts.

Maine’s woods and waters have drawn other presidents over the decades.

As a younger man, Theodore Roosevelt camped and fished on the banks of Katahdin Lake — now a part of Baxter State Park — in 1879 before summiting Maine’s highest peak the next day.

Roosevelt returned to Maine as president 23 years later apparently on business, where he delivered addresses at the Eastern Maine State Fair and at the Bangor House. News accounts from the time compared the enthusiastic reception for Teddy Roosevelt to the one given to then-President and former Civil War Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in 1871.

“Not since the days of Grant has the man of courage been so applauded here,” gushed the BDN in a write-up of Roosevelt’s Aug. 27, 1902, visit to Bangor. “He acted as the people would have him act — with cheerful courtesy and noblest democracy.”

The next high-profile instance of presidential R&R in Maine — if only briefly — took place in 1955 when President Dwight D. Eisenhower passed through the state.

The June 27, 1955, edition of the BDN features the message “Welcome to Bangor, Mr. President” above the masthead.

Just below was a series of three pictures of the commander in chief trying his luck with a fly rod on the Magalloway River: one during his first cast, as guide Don Cameron watches, the second as Cameron lands Ike’s fish and the third as a grinning president holds up what looks to be a 6- or 8-inch trout.

Eisenhower later attended a party at the late Sen. Margaret Chase Smith’s residence in Skowhegan.

Then in August 1971, President Richard M. Nixon and first lady Patricia chose 22-acre Minot Island — located just off Islesboro — for a weekend getaway at a home of a well-known Wall Street broker.

Largely secluded from the press and the public on Minot, the Nixons feasted on lobster several times and went for an afternoon cruise in the bay aboard one of the boats owned by their host, Jack Dreyfus. They also monitored the successful return to Earth of the Apollo 15 astronauts from a trip to the moon.

During his arrival at Bangor International Airport, Nixon was greeted by thousands of enthusiastic supporters but also by a small but vocal group of Vietnam War protesters and hecklers.

Nonetheless, the Nixons appeared to have enjoyed their minivacation in Maine.

“It was an island of enchantment,” the first lady told reporters.

The isolated island is a far cry from Kennebunkport, where residents are more accustomed to the presence of Secret Service, media and tourists visiting Walker’s Point to get a glimpse of George H.W. Bush.

Besides hosting his son at the family compound several times during his presidency, the elder Bush welcomed former President Bill Clinton in 2005, when the two played in a local golf tournament.

For the Obamas’ visit to MDI, the White House said that the first family will not be making any public appearances, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be seen in public.

The president, his wife, Michelle, and their two daughters, 12-year-old Malia and 9-year-old Sasha, are believed to be staying at the Bar Harbor Regency, a waterfront hotel not far from downtown Bar Harbor.

Amid tight security, the White House has been mum about where exactly the Obamas might go while visiting MDI. Acadia National Park seems an almost certain destination, as suggested by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs during a Wednesday press conference.

Asked why the Obamas chose Bar Harbor, Gibbs said the first family “enjoyed immensely” their trip out West to several national parks last year and that the trip to Maine “builds off of that.” The Obamas also visited Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard last summer.

“I think you’ll see hiking, and I think you’ll see them spend a lot of time outside,” Gibbs said,

The National Weather Service is predicting foggy conditions on Friday with thunderstorms likely Friday night. Saturday and Sunday are expected to be mostly sunny with highs in the 80s.

BDN librarian Charlie Campo contributed materials to this report.

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