His integrity was most pure, and his justice was inflexible He was in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man.
- Thomas Jefferson on his friend and peer, George Washington
Do you know how many U.S. presidents have been to this part of Georgia? I may not have them all, but I was surprised to learn that out of the 43 leaders of our country, at least 11 are known to have touched down for a few hours, spent a night or two or, in one case, remained for an entire winter.
Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes came as guests; William Howard Taft, Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. and Jr. came to campaign. Taft, who had friends in Columbia County, enjoyed the area so much that following his November 1908 election he spent the winter here. Clinton returned soon after the 1996 election to herald Gov. Zell Millers Hope Scholarship program, and shore up the Democratic base following his loss in the state to Republican candidate Bob Dole. Another certain visitor and likely campaigner was Georgias own Jimmy Carter.
President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding arrived in the spring of 1923 to stay in the new Bon Air Hotel. (The first Bon Air had been destroyed by fire two years before.) Mrs. Harding, the family baseball fan, attended one of Ty Cobbs Detroit Tygers spring training games, while her husband played golf.
Later golfers Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan would play their rounds at the Augusta National. During Reagans visit, a Columbia County man, upset about unemployment, crashed his truck through one of the gates at the National and held several people hostage in the clubhouse in an unsuccessful attempt to reach the president.
There were no gatecrashers during Eisenhowers many visits to Augusta, but he left a lasting, local legacy. Mamies Cottage at the Augusta National is named for his wife, and the largest military hospital in the Southeast bears his name.
Eisenhowers own medical history may have been one of the reasons for the Fort Gordon medical facilitys name. During one visit, near the end of his first term in office, the president had a heart attack. Fearing the former Army general might die while in our midst, almost overnight the Army renovated the white chapel near the current Gordon Club in case a funeral was necessary. Although the Eisenhowers normally attended Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church on Walton Way, someone of his stature would have been given a full military funeral. Fortunately, no such service took place.
The first president to visit our area, however, was none other than the father of our country, George Washington. Augusta was the capital of Georgia at the time, and the president was the guest of Gov. Edward Telfair.
Although Washington stopped first in Savannah to visit friends from his Revolutionary War days, the primary reason for his visit was to discuss what to do about Georgias western lands that were still occupied by the Indians.
Washington had been attentive to Georgias dilemma, and had already invited Indian leaders to New York (the first U.S. capital) to persuade them to relinquish all land east of the Oconee River. When the president promised not to usurp any further land without the Indians consent, they agreed to his plan. Fast-growing, land-hungry Georgia, however, didnt like the plan at all, which is why the president decided to visit the state.
The Indian land problem wouldnt be resolved until long after the presidential visit, but George Washingtons personal appearance warmed the heart of his Southern citizens. Many events were held in his honor, including a formal ball hosted by Mrs. Telfair. Before departing, the president visited the Academy of Richmond County and listened as students took their oral exams.
Sadly, at some point during his visit, his beloved greyhound Cornwallis died and was buried in Augusta. Someone who witnessed the presidents sorrow commented, his heart was as tender as a womans at the loss of a favorite pet.
(Barbara Seaborn is a local free-lance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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