On June 27, I remember with nostalgia a big event in my life and for my hometown of Farmington. On that day, 65 years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower came to town, the only incumbent United States president to do so, before or since.

He was my “first” president, in that I hadn’t been aware of any other previous presidents due to my young age at that time.

In 1955, I didn’t realize that my president had been commander-in-chief of the Allied Forces; had planned and served as supreme commander of “Torch,” the Allied invasion of French North Africa; had planned and served as supreme commander of “Overlord,” the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy; and had served as president of Columbia University, one our nation’s most prestigious universities.  And I didn’t know he had been an accomplished college football player at West Point, where he was a starter as a running back and linebacker in 1912 . . . even once tackling the legendary Jim Thorpe of the Carlisle Indians.

However, I did sense he was America’s most celebrated war hero and, as an 11-year-old, I was sure he was the world’s most famous and important person of that time.

President Eisenhower at the intersection of Broadway and Maine Street in Farmington, June 27, 1955. Courtesy Paul Mills

I had become very aware of President Eisenhower by virtue of my parent’s new television set in 1955.  This new and exciting medium kept current events in front of me for the first time. After all, what 11-year-old ever read the newspaper or listened to the news on the old Philco radio?

In 1955, Eisenhower held the first televised presidential news conference. That was the same year that Dr. Salk’s anti-polio vaccine was deemed a success and Bill Harley &  The Comets’ record, “Rock Around the Clock,” brought rock and roll to the consciousness of America and the world.

Farmington, Maine, normally not on the route for world famous travelers, became so on June 27, 1955. After a weekend of fishing near Parmachenee Lake, north of Rangeley, President Eisenhower passed through my hometown.

Five top Maine game wardens, including Jack Shaw of Strong and Arthur Hitchcock of Oquossoc, had served as special guards while Ike tried his fishing luck. He landed a three-pound salmon on a fly tied by guide Don Cameron from Wilson Mills.  But . . .  there was a little more to the story.

My father, the best fly-fisherman I’ve ever known, told me that fish and game personnel had stocked the waters with the largest fish available from their hatcheries.  I remember thinking that was a little odd. But back then I was too young to understand the “VIP” treatment!

The presidential motor caravan was headed from the Rangeley area to Dow Air Force Base in Bangor for a flight back to the nation’s capital. The caravan, escorted by State Police, included 20 state police vehicles, two buses and numerous private cars containing Secret Service and FBI agents, the press and presidential staff.

The whole parade arrived in Farmington Monday afternoon at 3:30 pm under the leadership of State Police Sgt. Kenneth Twitchell of Farmington.

Hundreds of people had been gathering outdoors for hours. Main Street was lined with spectators throughout the business district as far as South Street where the caravan would cross to High Street. People also packed South Street and High Street, all the way to the fairgrounds.

Many were waving flags and “Welcome Ike” signs were hung along the way.  Several onlookers found their way to the rooftops of the downtown stores for a better view.  A huge American flag was hung across Main Street by Franklin County Flyers semi-pro baseball team members Carleton “Blackie Norton” Tufts and Jack Riley under the direction of local promoter, Dick Bell.

At Farmington State Teachers College (now the University of Maine at Farmington) students, faculty and staff packed the lawn in front of Merrill Hall.

It was a beautiful, hot summer day as the president’s open black convertible proceeded through town without stopping. Eisenhower stood in the back seat waving to all on both sides of the street.

Everyone was charmed by the famous Ike grin that today is still etched in my mind. I remember he was bareheaded and wore a brown suit.  He was well tanned and looked younger and healthier in person than on TV.  The president and war hero radiated an appearance of strength. It was a thrill and a privilege for us to see the powerful image of the president of the United States against the backdrop of our own small community.

President Eisenhower shaking hands with Maine State Police Trooper Kenneth Twitchell. Also pictured, U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, Col. Schurter, Bud Leavitt, Frederick Kneeland and Steven Wentworth, June 27, 1955. Courtesy Margaret Chase Smith Library

Alas, my moment with Ike was disappointingly brief. I was convinced the viability and perhaps even the existence of the United States depended upon this man. I revered him and didn’t want him to disappear down High Street that day.

But he did and his presidential motorcade went on to Skowhegan, where he met with his friend, Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who gave him a pine tree as a welcoming gift.

President Eisenhower dined that evening with Smith at her Skowhegan residence.  Guests included, among many, Gov. Muskie, and the Maine congressional delegation of Sen. Fredrick Payne and Representatives Clifford McIntire, Charles Nelson and Robert Hale (remember, until 1962 Maine had three congressional districts).

Dinner, of course, included a lobster bake that was prepared by Kenneth Pray of Belgrade Lakes.  The 232-person outdoor event was catered by Skowhegan’s Gene’s Restaurant.

While in Skowhegan the president spoke to a large crowd at the Skowhegan Fairgrounds. In his remarks he said, “I am grateful for the warmth of the welcome I have received all along the line, from young and old, from men and women, from workers and people who seemed to be on vacation.  And I might say, the most touching welcome that I received was from what the guides called midges and I call plain black flies!  I am certain that during all these years when I did not come, they have been waiting on me, because they swarmed around me with their cannibalistic tendencies, and I am sure they will probably starve until I get back here!”

In his remarks while in Skowhegan he also said, “There are no thanks due to me coming to this section of the United States, for long have I felt that my education was sadly lacking, in that I did not have an intimate acquaintance-ship with this region.  I have satisfied a long-felt desire to come here.”

U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith preparing a Maine lobster bake for President Eisenhower at the senator’s residence in Skowhegan, June 27, 1955. Courtesy Margaret Chase Smith Library

A month later our president was off to the “Big Four Conference” in Geneva, Switzerland, where he would clearly establish himself as a world statesman when he proposed to the Soviets his “Open Skies” disarmament program.

Three months later the nation, the world and this 11-year-old were shocked by the news of the president’s heart attack. I was scared and had my doubts that my country could survive if he should die.

I thought the spread of communism would crumble our nation without his able leadership. But to my great relief he survived and, on February 29, 1956, he announced that he would run for a second term.

The Eisenhower era ended in 1960 when America’s then oldest president was succeeded by the youngest, John F. Kennedy. Ike had served his country in an exemplary fashion in war and in peace for half a century.

On March 28, 1969, President Dwight D. Eisenhower passed away at the age of 78.  His last words to his wife Mamie, included “I have always loved my country.”

Eisenhower’s death was not a memorable event for me because by then he was not the important person to me that he had been in my youth. The country had survived without his leadership for nearly a decade.

By then I knew that our country didn’t rise or fall on the life of one person, not even a president who was a true giant of his era. However, I was still saddened.

Every president since has left me with memories, some of which will be embedded in my mind forever: an assassination, attempted assassinations, a resignation, and impeachments.

Still, no event involving the presidency will ever be as indelible as that hot summer day in June of 1955 when I walked from my home on Greenwood Avenue to the corner of Maple Avenue and High Street and stood on Doris and Lloyd Pratt’s lawn where I waved to President Eisenhower and received a broad grin and a return wave.

Roger G. Spear, UMF V.P. Emeritus, normally writes local sports history. However, given the lack of a 4th of July parade this year, an event that brings so many to the streets of FarmingtonSpear decided to share this article about a significant parade-like event that occurred 65 years ago. It is a rewrite of a story first written and published three decades ago.

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