That thing on the president’s head provided the lightest moments of Dwight Eisenhower’s stop in Missoula in 1954.
It was Sept. 22, a Wednesday evening, and the man they called Ike had just become the third sitting U.S. president to visit the Garden City. Donald Trump became the fourth on Thursday.
"That thing” was a white helmet of the modern-day smokejumper. At first Eisenhower demurred when the crowd urged him to try it on. He finally relented and drew a roar when he pulled down the wire facemask, as cameras from a large local and national press corps clicked away.
Smokejumpers Fred Brauer of Missoula and Wayne Webb of McCall, Idaho, beamed in the background.
“When I saw this big crowd before I landed I was alarmed that perhaps I was expected to take to a parachute to get here,” Eisenhower quipped in a 15-minute address to dedicate the new Aerial Fire Depot and smokejumper base.
A crowd of what the highway patrol estimated at 30,000 — others guessed 20,000 — gathered at the new Missoula County airport, some of them probably on the same ground where 6,000 to 8,000 sat and stood Thursday at Minuteman Aviation to see and hear Trump.
While other men who would be or had been president have visited Missoula, from Theodore Roosevelt in 1884, 1911 and 1912 to Barack Obama in 2008, only two others were in office when they came and spoke.
Here’s a look:
Willam Howard Taft, Sept. 27, 1909: Taft, a Republican, was in the first year of his presidency when he traveled to the West. His special train didn’t pull into the Northern Pacific station at the head of Higgins Avenue until 11:05 p.m. after a day in which he was dropped 1,200 feet into a copper mine in Butte, visited the Washoe Smelter in Anaconda and stopped by the state fair in Helena.
The Missoulian made a point of noting that at the fair the president stopped in his tracks to admire the Missoula County exhibit assembled by Charles Dallman.
“These are the finest potatoes and onions that I ever saw in my life,” Taft gushed.
In Missoula, some 500 people gathered at the depot as the train pulled in long after darkness fell. Taft had no prepared speech, but Sen. Joseph Dixon, Missoulian owner and publisher, persuaded him to “say good night” on the platform.
The president spent 10 minutes doing it, mostly poking fun at Dixon and an old Yale classmate.
“You have here in Missoula an old classmate of mine, Professor William Aber," he said. “I will say, however, that he was older than I was at school, and that we called him 'Father Aber.' I do this so that you may not get confused as to ages, and his attitude was certainly as paternal as his mastery of the classic languages was remarkable."
In Missoula he was known as “Daddy” Aber, a member of the University of Montana’s original faculty. Today his legacies include Aber Hall, the high-rise dormitory built in 1967, and the annual campus cleanup day instituted in 1915.
Taft said when he was secretary of war (1904 to 1908) he was "bothered to death" by Dixon informing him that the modernization of Fort Missoula "would be of the greatest advantage to the nation."
"Considering the other parts of the country, Missoula has more than it deserves, perhaps, but the post is here now and we can't move it if we wished to," he asserted.
Harry S Truman, May 13, 1950: Decades after Taft’s almost-midnight visit, the lone Democratic president to stop in Missoula arrived by train from the west at 1:13 a.m. By 7 a.m., a crowd estimated by police at 4,000 began gathering and Truman appeared on the rear platform on a siding east of the NP station.
Somebody called out, “We want Margaret,” but the president replied his daughter was still in bed.
Truman was introduced by Mike Mansfield, the former UM professor who was running for his third term in the U.S. House.
“In his talk, Mr. Truman referred to men in public life who, he said, could look at an acorn and see only an acorn,” the Missoulian reported. “Others, with broad vision, could see (that) the acorn would eventually become a giant, spreading tree.”
Truman praised Mansfield for his efforts in pushing the Hungry Horse Dam on the Flathead. That and the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington that Truman had dedicated the day before were developed by those who weren’t “acorn thinkers,” Truman said.
After his 10-minute talk, Truman was greeted with handshakes from a stream of Democrats and community representatives. Mayor Ralph Starr, a Republican, presented him a key to the city and closed by saying the president “could return to western Montana at any time and be assured of catching better fish than in the Atlantic ocean or Florida streams,” the newspaper said. “Mr. Truman grinned as the crowd shouted, ‘That’s right.’”
Bands from UM and Missoula County High School played and a delegation from the Flathead Reservation garbed in “colorful feather headpieces” and other regalia met with Truman. He stepped off the train briefly to be made an honorary member of the Missoula chapter of the high school journalism society, the Quill and Scroll.
It was a Friday, and Truman was starting the sixth day of a 6,400-mile tour. His 13-car special train had made 16 stops in Idaho and Oregon on Wednesday. From Missoula it proceeded on to Butte, where he delivered one of nine principal addresses on his cross-country trip to a crowd of some 6,000.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Sept. 22, 1954: Eisenhower, a Republican, was the first president to fly into Missoula. Earlier the same year the four-engine Lockheed Constellation became the first to be dubbed Air Force One. Legend has it the call sign was invoked by either a Secret Service agent or the pilot of the plane, Air Force 8610, when it shared the same air space as United Flight 8610. An air traffic controller asked which was which.
Columbine II came into the Missoula County Airport from Denver and landed at 5:29 p.m., a minute ahead of schedule. The afternoon had been filled with events, starting with an open house at the smokejumper base, with music furnished by the Missoula City Band and others from schools in western Montana.
An air show began at 3 p.m. when a giant C124 Globemaster transport passed over the airfield twice at 500 feet. Then came six Sabrejets whipping across at more than 500 mph.
“The windup came with three earth-shaking passes at 500 feet by a B36, 10-engine intercontinental bomber with a 230-foot wingspread,” the newspaper account said. “On the final pass the crew shut off one of the six pusher piston engines and the huge plane climbed away to the west on the remaining five piston engines and the four jets.”
An artificial forest of 500 trees was set up in the open fields of the base, and the plan was to drop smokejumpers on it to demonstrate how they put fires out. Eisenhower wasn’t there yet, but two Johnson Flying Service airplanes dropped three jumpers. Fifteen others couldn’t make the jump because of a stiff breeze that kicked up. One who did, Max Allen, accidentally pulled the ripcord of his white auxiliary chute. Both it and his orange and white main chute billowed out before him as he descended. All was well when he hit the ground.
There was no word if the staged forest fire was doused, or even lit.
The president stepped down the stairs of Air Force One in a gray suit and gray Homburg hat, and was greeted by Gov. J. Hugo Aronson. The band played ”Ruffles and Flourishes” as he set foot on the runway and proceeded through the greeting line to a platform built at the east end of the taxiway leading to the Aerial Fire Depot.
“That was as close as the President got to the new buildings of the Depot, which include a dormitory, parachute loft, warehouse and auxiliary structure,” the Missoulian reported.
Myra Shults, a Missoula attorney now, was 13 years old when Ike came to town. She went with her parents, Ed and Louise Shults, avowed Republicans, and probably her younger brother Phil. In her memory it was a hot and dusty ceremony.
“I remember (Eisenhower) being really far away and there was a huge crowd,” Shults said Friday. “Of course the airport wasn’t developed as it is now. I just remember a huge empty field."
Prominent in the Missoulian’s account and familiar to those who tried to get to the Trump rally Thursday were the traffic headaches. In the days before Interstate 90, Highway 10 was the only artery west of Missoula.
Glenn Shultz, supervisor of the Montana Highway Patrol, provided the estimate of 30,000 attendees, at a time when the population of the county was between 35,000 (1950 census) and 44,000 (1960).
“Other estimates ranged down to 20,000, but one thing was certain — the estimated 7,500 cars caused one of the worst traffic jams ever recorded in this area,” the newspaper said.
Twenty Highway Patrol officers and a contingent of National Guardsmen parked cars, which began piling up in a double line from the city at noon and continued for the next five hours. The scene was repeated when everyone returned to Missoula, the slow procession taking an hour either way to cover the six miles.
The city had 25 policemen at the airport, and Sheriff R.D. MacLean said he had 16 regular and special deputies, along with 22 members of the mounted Sheriff’s Posse. The horsemen, MacLean said, were especially useful in crowd control.
Eisenhower’s 15-minute speech was off the cuff. He made no direct reference to politics, other than referring to Republican U.S. Rep. Wesley A. D’Ewart as “my good friend Wes.” D’Ewart was locked in a heated and ultimately unsuccessful battle with Democrat incumbent James Murray for Murray’s U.S. Senate seat.
The federal government won’t desert any state or locality in need of help, Eisenhower said, “But the government will never step across the line with unwarranted intrusion in your lives.”
Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Western Europe during World War II, Eisenhower said he’d first heard of smokejumpers in those years, when the Forest Service helped train paratroopers for service.
“The Forest Service is saving priceless assets of the United States,” Ike said. “We can help by avoiding any of the careless acts which sometimes set fires. We cannot fail to think more objectively what the good Lord has given us in the way of priceless resources.
“When we preserve these resources we are helping save them for others.”
Donald J. Trump, Oct. 18, 2018: Frank Bretz was on the outside looking in when Eisenhower came to town all those years ago.
He was 28 years old, a salesman for Motor Supply Co. Bretz and Viola, his bride of a year, joined the slow line of traffic to the airport in his ’53 Chevy. Parking, as he recalled, was along the highway and the crowd rivaled a Griz football game crowd these days.
“We were, oh, man, I would guess 200 or 300 feet back from him in ’54,” Bretz said.
Things were different Thursday night. The founder in 1967 of Bretz RV and Marine, Bretz and his family had VIP seating near the mouth of the airport hangar to see Trump in action.
Eisenhower and Trump were and are presidents Bretz greatly admires, Bretz said, even though he grew up a staunch Democrat. Ike helped change that.
The airport venue, snarled traffic, warm evenings, Republican presidents, Air Force One — there are similarities to the last two visits by presidents to Missoula.
But for Bretz, still an active man at 92, they’re outweighed by the differences.
For one, Trump didn’t wrestle on a smokejumper helmet or even make mention of the Forest Service base within eyeshot of his stage.
For another, the president didn’t shake Bretz’s hand in 1954.
“I didn’t get anywhere close to Eisenhower,” he said.
After Trump’s speech, Bretz and dozens of others stood in line to greet the president in a tent set up behind their seating area.
“We spoke for just a minute,” he said. “There were lots more people behind me so I didn’t want to take up his time. I congratulated him and told him I was very happy with the progress he had made. He seemed just as down-to-earth as an old farmer.”
The president said thank you.
There was no gunplay, as some anticipated, and few if any hints of opposition to Trump’s message at the Minuteman hangar.
But anti-Trump protests were staged around town and on the mountainsides.
“It was an altogether different atmosphere in 1954,” Bretz recalled. “It was a totally friendly situation. Eisenhower was here to dedicate the smokejump center, and it was well-accepted community relations.”
The Trump rally, like those before it in Great Falls and Billings, was expressly for political reasons, to help boost Republican candidates into national offices. Trump, U.S. Senate candidate Matt Rosendale and incumbent House candidate Greg Gianforte were blistering in their criticism of Democrats in general and their opponents in particular.
“The people who were at the meeting last night were also very concerned and very much in favor of Trump’s programs,” Bretz said. “I know there are people in our area and nationwide who don’t agree with him, but in my own mind it’s absolutely hard to imagine how one man’s leadership has brought our country from the virtual place of disaster that we had been in the previous eight years.”
Bretz said he voted for Truman in 1952, and probably would have gone to see him at the Missoula train station in 1950 had he not lived elsewhere.
Eisenhower defeated Truman in ’52 and “it was about that time when I started putting two and two together, saying wait a minute, we can’t just be giving everything away," Bretz said. "People have to work for what they get, and we can’t even be giving it away to other nations. There has to be some give and take there.”