"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, about his friend and peer, George Washington
It's true. George Washington did sleep here - somewhere "on the eastern edge of the town of Augusta." But it also surprised me to learn that at least 10 more of our 44 national leaders are known to have touched down here for a few hours, stayed 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 both George Bush Sr. and Jr. came here 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 his 1996 victory to herald Gov. Zell Miller's Hope Scholarship program and shore up the Democratic Party base following his loss in the state to Republican candidate Bob Dole. Another visitor and likely campaigner was Georgia's 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 Cobb's "Detroit Tygers" spring training games while her husband played golf.
Years later, golfers Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan would play their rounds at the Augusta National Golf Course. During Reagan's visit, however, a Columbia County man, upset about unemployment problems, crashed his truck through one of the gates at the National and held several people hostage at the clubhouse in his unsuccessful attempt to reach the president.
There were no gatecrashers during Eisenhower's many visits to Augusta, but he left a lasting, local legacy. "Mamie's Cottage" is named for his wife, and the largest military hospital in the Southeast bears his name.
Eisenhower's own medical history may have been the reason behind the Fort Gordon medical facility's 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 small, white chapel near the current Gordon Club in the event a funeral was necessary.
Although the Eisenhower's normally worshipped at Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church on Walton Way, someone of his stature would have been accorded 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 (1791), and the president was the guest of Gov. Edward Telfair. Although he had stopped first in Savannah to visit friends from his Revolutionary War days, the primary reason for his visit was to discuss what to do with Georgia's western lands, an area still occupied by Indians.
Washington long had been attentive to Georgia's dilemma, and he had already invited Indian leaders to New York (the first U.S. capital) to persuade them to relinquish all lands 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 Georgians, however, did not like the plan at all, which is why the president decided to visit the state.
The Indian land problem would not be resolved until long after the presidential visit, but George Washington's personal appearance warmed the heart of his Southern citizens. Many events were held here in his honor, including a formal ball hosted by Mrs. Telfair. Before departing the area, the president also 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 president's sorrow commented, "His heart was as tender as a woman's ... at the loss of his favorite pet."
(Barbara Seaborn is a local, free-lance writer. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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