Podcast: Presidential Footprints on Galveston Island

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Galveston Island has long been an attractive place for vacationers and sportsmen, but the city has also received visits from many politicians, including United States Presidents. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard Nixon all stayed at the 1911 Hotel Galvez, while earlier Presidents stayed at the Tremont House.

Later in the 20th century, George H. W. Bush was particularly fond of the island, enjoying many vacations here. His son, George W. Bush, is very familiar with Galveston as well. After leaving office, Bill Clinton joined the elder Bush on a solemn tour in 2008 in the wake of Hurricane Ike to raise awareness and money for those impacted.

Even though many of these presidents were not in office during their time here, their visits have left a lasting impact on Galveston Island. Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, between 1869 and 1877, was the first U. S. president known to step ashore in the spring of 1880 when he embarked on a whirlwind week-long tour of Texas. He was followed by the 19th U. S. president, Rutherford B. Hayes, and the 20th U.S. president, James Garfield. Then the 22nd and 23rd presidents, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison, all of whom enjoyed the luxury of the second rendition of the Tremont house hotel, Cleveland and Harrison were both said to have been drawn to Galveston by the island's wealthy citizens to seek federal funding, to improve the city's port infrastructure.

Harrison was impressed and signed the bill for funding in 1891. Franklin D. Roosevelt arrived at Galveston on April 30th, 1937, just as he was beginning his second term as president. During his time on the island, FDR elected the Hotel Galvez to serve as his temporary White House. All official communications were sent through the hotel and then forwarded to his yacht, where he was likely to be found fishing. While on shore, he was surrounded and schmoozed by the wealthy Galveston elites of the time, such as W. L. Moody Jr., Isaac H. Kempner, and George Sealy. Sealy actually named a variety of Oleander after the president in honor of his visit. The Oleander Chosen is described as a large class oleander with single, dark salmon flowers with a yellow throat on large clustered spikes.

On his last day in the area, May 11th, Roosevelt arranged to meet a young and ambitious U. S. Congressman, Lyndon B. Johnson. They posed for a historically significant photo opportunity, and Galveston Mayor Adrian Levy Presented the president with a fishing pole and a painting of Galveston Oleanders to commemorate his trip. Lyndon B. Johnson made his important acquaintance thanks to a very powerful Fort Worth oil man, Sid Richardson. During his 11 days of fishing, Roosevelt spent a lot of time on and around both San Jose Island, owned by Richardson, and Matagorda Island, owned by Clint Murchison, Richardson's fellow businessman and lifelong friend.

The pair had pegged LBJ as a determined and capable politician who would help them advance their private interests. As Lyndon B. Johnson climbed the political ladder, he continued to stop in to Galveston to campaign.

Dwight D. Eisenhower visited on December 7th, 1949, just three years before he was elected president. At that time, he was touring the state, giving speeches, and making important political and financial connections. Eisenhower arrived in Galveston in time for a luncheon, which would be followed by a speech to rally support for his presidential campaign. A few days later, prominent Galveston businessman Ike Kempner wrote a letter to his daughter Cecil, who wrote, " There was room only for 600 at the luncheon, so there was a terrific rush for tickets at only $2."

Just a fun fact: if we adjusted this for inflation, it would come out to $26. According to Kempner's letter, "Eisenhower could have caught a movie on the island that night for $1. 80, or the equivalent of $24".

Newspapers reported that around 2,000 people attended his speech, which detailed his vision for the future of the United States. He advised the locals to be careful when choosing their political servants, from the school board to the president. He received "thunderous applause when he declared, We will not bow our necks to centralized dictatorial authority." Kempner continued to say, "There is no doubt that Eisenhower made a tremendous impression in Texas and if not, the feeling at least a strong hope exists that he will be the Republican Party candidate for president in '52(1952)".

On June 11th, 1955, Richard Nixon was still vice president under Eisenhower. When he arrived at his speaking engagement for the Texas Press Association, he was given some... not quite Galveston gifts.

The 1955 Rose Queen of Tyler, Texas, Maymerle Shirley, presented Nixon with a bouquet of roses. Jeff Davis, publisher of the Crockett Democrat, presented him with three coonskin caps, one for Nixon and two for his daughters. Nixon politely declined to try the cap on for the cameras, saying they were a Tennessee trademark and that he wouldn't want to confuse the newsmen.

Throughout the island's rich history, Galveston has welcomed a multitude of U.S. presidents, each leaving a unique mark on the island. Undoubtedly, the island left a unique mark on each president.

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J.R. Shaw Creator & Host of Galveston Unscripted

J.R. Shaw is the creator and host of Galveston Unscripted Podcast & audio tour. Shaw recognizes that history is nuanced and learning it can be powerful. He's made it his mission to reduce the friction between true history and anyone who is willing to listen! J.R. Shaw focuses on telling the full story through podcasting and social media with the goal of making learning accurate history easy and entertaining for all who seek it.

J.R. grew up along the Texas Gulf Coast, where he learned to love talking with anyone about anything! He started Galveston Unscripted after he realized how much he loved talking to people about their stories related to Galveston Island and Texas History. "So much of our history is lost when we don't have the opportunity to hear from those who lived it or have second-hand knowledge."