The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

February 17, 2014

Clinton and the Oval Office

Historical Society preserves evidence of visits by Commanders in Chief

By Brenden West
Assistant Editor

CLINTON — Look no further than the Clinton Historical Society for evidence that the Commander in Chief was here.

The proof exists among the artifacts: Barack Obama hugs locals during the 2008 campaign; a black and white 1923 steam engine passes Clinton by rail bearing the casket of Warren G. Harding; a 1988 version of Gov. Terry Branstad smiles and waves from a car, passing a campaigning George H.W. Bush during RiverBoat Days.

But for a good story on the presidential seal, look no further than society volunteers.

Joan Turner remembers when her grandmother took her to see Harry S. Truman waving from the back of a train in the mid-1940s, just as World War II was ending. Jan Hansen was at the Clinton County Courthouse in 2000 when Vice President Al Gore, a presidential hopeful, celebrated his wife’s birthday.

To find multiple presidential connections, talk to Bob Soesbe.

“I was there when Roosevelt came through on a train,” said the 87-year-old. “That’s how they used to campaign. Dad took my brother and I down and there was a huge crowd.

“I can’t really say that I saw him, but he was there. And it was exciting to have the president come through Clinton.”

Soesbe’s presidential happenings span more than 70 years and 19 terms. The first happened when he was 10 and his dad took him to see Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was there again for H.W. and he’s in the picture with Obama.

On that day, he may have observed more than one president – the occasion was attended by anticipated 2016 candidate Hilary Clinton. Soesbe estimated nearly every presidential candidate over the last 20 years has rolled through town.

“We’ve really become a major stop for Chicago on west,” Soesbe said.

Clinton has a something of a penchant for commemorating presidential deaths. There was the Harding casket in 1923. In 1964, following the death of Iowa native Herbert Hoover, the local National Guard sent a contingent to West Branch to honor the 31st president’s burial.

Following James A. Garfield’s 1881 assassination, the community held a special memorial at the Davis Opera House. One of the Historical Society’s prized artifacts is a clipping from that event, calling Garfield a “guiding star of a whole brave nation.”

The city also has a knack for hosting candidates. There was Gore, H.W. Bush, Obama and Hilary Clinton.

But the earliest rumored visit happened back before Clinton even became a city. According to a 1994 article written by Everett Streit, a young, beardless Abraham Lincoln visited the town as a property assessor during the 1840s.

“The story is he did some surveying here in Clinton County,” Hansen said. “I don’t know what way there is to verify that, though.”

The Historical Society’s main focus is to collect what made Clinton County what it is now. If a record of a young Abe Lincoln exists, its within the thousands upon thousands of pages the society has maintained through the years, Hansen said.

“We’re basically all preservationists at heart,” she said. “If it has to do with Clinton County, we’re interested. While we have a narrow scope, we have evidence of several presidents when they’ve come.”