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Passing through: Presidents have visited North Dakota to give comfort, sell agendas, promote candidates

In 1960, a campaigning JFK visited Fargo. It was billed as Burdick's Birthday Party. I was still in school and on freelance assignment for the Grand Forks Herald. I doubt anybody ever took a bad photo of Kennedy. 1960 photo Colburn Hvidston III, special for the Grand Forks Herald1 / 6
President Bill Clinton reaches over to assure Grand Forks Mayor Pat Owens that she was OK after she started her speech with a light comment at the start of a serious briefing on flood damage and flood-fighting efforts from local officials at the Grand Forks Air Force Base in 1997. Dave Wallis/The Forum2 / 6
President George W. Bush waves as he boards Air Force One and leaves Fargo in 2005. Darren Gibbins / The Forum3 / 6
John F. Kennedy address supporters at Fargo's Hector Airport in 1960. The campaign stop was billed as Burdick's Birthday Party. 1960 Photo Colburn Hvidston III, on freelance assignment for the Grand Forks Herald4 / 6
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama waves to the crowd as he makes an appearance Thursday at The Children's Museum at Yunker Farm in Fargo in 2008. Dave Wallis / The Forum5 / 6
President Harry Truman speaking during a "whistle-stop" appearance in Williston, N.D., in 1952. Digital Horizon photo special to The Forum.6 / 6

FARGO -- Presidents have traveled to North Dakota to promise aid and comfort after disasters. They have come to tout their agendas and preside over ceremonies. They have come to stump for fellow politicians of their party.

And sometimes, they just were passing through on their way to or from another destination. In all, 15 of 26 presidents came to North Dakota since the first trekked to northern Dakota Territory in September 1878, when President Rutherford B. Hayes came to Fargo.

Hayes, accompanied by his wife and three of their seven sons, came to have breakfast and give a speech at the Headquarters Hotel. He traveled on a special train provided by the Northern Pacific Railroad.

The Northern Pacific, in fact, had been quite generous with Hayes. The railroad gave him a 930-acre farm in Hay Creek Township five miles north of Bismarck. Hayes owned the farm from 1877 to 1885, though never visited it, according to Rick Collin, a presidential historian from Bismarck. The farm sold in 1885 for $21,000 -- the equivalent of more than $580,000 today.

President Chester Arthur was the next to visit. He passed through Fargo in September 1883, but didn’t stop, on his way back to Washington, D.C., after a visit to Yellowstone National Park.

Arthur had been scheduled to stop at a dedication ceremony in Montana marking the completion of the Northern Pacific, but was tired.

“He just ordered the train to go to Fargo and head east,” said Collin, who has compiled a list of presidential visits in North Dakota, many of which are cited here.

Not surprisingly, Theodore Roosevelt visited North Dakota many times, before and after he was president from 1901 to 1909. His first visit came famously in 1883, when he traveled to the Little MIssouri Badlands to shoot a buffalo, fast disappearing from the northern Great Plains, and where he later ranched.

As president, Roosevelt made one stop in North Dakota, in April 1903, when he stopped in Fargo, then headed west by train through Jamestown, Bismarck, Dickinson and Medora along the Northern Pacific. Roosevelt returned to Fargo in 1910 to speak at the dedication of a new library for long-defunct Fargo College, an event that drew 30,000.

Hayes was an investor in the Northern Pacific. So was Ulysses S. Grant, who stopped in Bismarck as a former president to take part in the ceremony in 1883 to dedicate the cornerstone for the new territorial capitol, which drew a crowd of about 5,000. Dignitaries also included Sitting Bull from the nearby Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

President Woodrow Wilson stopped in Bismarck in the fall of 1919 as part of a national speaking tour to promote his proposed League of Nations, a failed post-World War I vision that later was realized after World War II as the United Nations. He was driven through town in a motorcade and spoke at the auditorium. A few months later, he was stricken by a debilitating stroke.

A year later, former President William Howard Taft visited Valley City, where he spoke at a Chautauqua gathering.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited North Dakota many times between 1934 and 1944, Collin said, starting with appearances to view drought conditions in the Dirty Thirties. In 1942 and 1944, during World War II, Roosevelt’s train passed through during unpublicized tours of military establishments.

President Harry Truman made two whistle-stop train tours through North Dakota. In May 1950 he spoke to a Fargo crowd of 35,000 at the Great Northern Railway depot. Two years later, he returned to North Dakota to campaign for Adlai Stevenson, again appearing in Fargo, among other stops.

President Dwight Eisenhower came in June 1953 to dedicate Garrison Dam, where he proclaimed, “Garrison Dam was built with the people’s money, and its benefits shall go to the people.”

As a presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy made several North Dakota stops in 1960, including an appearance in Fargo that coincided with the birthday of Sen. Quentin Burdick. As president, Kennedy made one stop in North Dakota while on a “conservation tour” of 11 states in 1963.

During an appearance in Grand Forks in late September, Kennedy accepted an honorary law degree from the University of North Dakota and endorsed the Garrison Diversion Water Project -- which decades later morphed into the yet-to-be-built Red River Valley Water Supply Project. Two months later, in Dallas, Kennedy was assassinated.

President Richard Nixon made two appearances in North Dakota, including a stop in Fargo in 1970 to address a national governors’ conference. He spoke about the Vietnam War and revenue sharing. Later that year, in Grand Forks, Nixon stumped for Congressman Tom Kleppe, who made an unsuccessful run for the Senate.

President Ronald Reagan came to Grand Forks in October 1986, when he stopped in Grand Forks to campaign for Sen. Mark Andrews at UND. The next month, Andrews lost to Kent Conrad in a stunning upset.

President George H.W. Bush came to Bismarck in 1989, planting a tree on the capitol lawn to celebrate North Dakota’s centennial. Unfortunately the tree, an American elm descended from a tree President John Quincy Adams had planted, died a few months later after a harsh winter. “It was replaced by a hardier burr oak,” Collin said.

The next presidential visit in North Dakota was in Grand Forks, when President Bill Clinton came in the aftermath of the devastating flood of 1997 to promise the government’s help in rebuilding.

“He was very engaged when he got back to D.C. in lining up aid to rebuild Grand Forks,” Collin said. Being at the scene of a disaster and meeting with the people who are suffering provides presidents with a level of understanding that can’t come from a briefing, he said.

“It’s that eyeballing of the situation as opposed to being thousands of miles away being briefed on the disaster,” added Collin, who has taught courses on the presidency as an adjunct instructor at Bismarck State College and the University of Mary.

President George W. Bush made two visits to North Dakota. The first came in March 2001, during a national tour to promote a proposed tax cut, when he stopped in Fargo and spoke to a crowd of 7,000 at the Bison Sports Arena.

Bush returned four years later, in February 2005, early in his second term, to tout his proposal to privatize Social Security. The idea fizzled, but found an enthusiastic audience of 7,000, once again at the Bison Sports Arena. After Bush’s visit, a minor controversy ensued when some spectators on a “do not admit” list were excluded from the rally.

President Barack Obama made the first presidential visit to Indian Country in North Dakota when he appeared at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in June 2014 to highlight the stubborn problems plaguing reservations and his administration’s efforts to improve conditions. He met with reservation youths and attended a traditional pow-wow. As a presidential candidate, Obama campaigned in Fargo and Grand Forks in 2008.

Last May, President Donald Trump took the stage outside the Andeavor oil refinery in Mandan to promote tax cuts, which he said would stimulate the economy, including the energy sector.

Collin’s fascination with the presidency stems from his childhood. He grew up in Maryland a few miles from Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C. As a third-grader, he watched from his yard as Air Force One flew in for a landing, bearing a casket of JFK after he was slain in Dallas.

“That was a powerful memory,” he said.

President’s Day facts

Youngest president: Theodore Roosevelt, who was 42 when he took office after William McKinley’s assassination in 1901.

Youngest president elected: John F. Kennedy, who was 43 when elected in 1960.

Oldest president: Ronald Reagan, who was 77 when he left office in 1989.

Oldest president elected: Donald Trump, who was 70 when elected in 2016.

Only president to resign: Richard M. Nixon, following investigations into the Watergate scandal.

President with shortest term: William Henry Harrison, who died of pneumonia 31 days after taking office.

President with longest term: Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died of a stroke at age 63 after serving 12 years and 39 days.

Presidents who have died in office: Eight presidents have died in office: Four were assassinated: Abraham Lincoln, 1865; James A. Garfield, 1881; William McKinley, 1901, and John F. Kennedy, 1963. Four died of natural causes: William Henry Harrison, 1841; Zachary Taylor, 1850; Warren G. Harding, 1923; and Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1945.

Source: Compiled by Rick Collin