Ike and Irene

The brothers Eisenhower look over a body of water during a visit to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Pictured from left are Milton, Edgar, Earl and former U.S. President Dwight. (Image courtesy of Janet Wolfe)

By Larry Chabot

Ike is coming! Ike is coming! The people in the little town of Watersmeet had been tipped off that Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, the former president and World War II hero, was heading their way on vacation, six months after leaving office. The first public notice was a July 16, 1961, Associated Press story, datelined Watersmeet: “Eisenhower, Brothers Vacation in Peninsula.” By the time the story saw print, Ike was already there.

He and his brothers Milton, Edgar and Earl would fish, golf and relax in Gogebic County just north of the Michigan-Wisconsin state line. On Sunday, July 16, 1961, Eisenhower flew by private plane from his Pennsylvania farm to Baltimore to pick up Milton for the flight to the Land O’Lakes airfield, where he was cheered by 100 excited spectators, posed for photographs, then rode to the Lawrence Fisher lodge on Snap Jack Lake. (Fisher, whose Fisher Body Company was a General Motors subsidiary, died five weeks after the visit). Ike’s brothers Edgar and Earl arrived later that day.

At Land O’Lakes airport, which was also a scheduled summer stop for North Central Airlines, private planes could taxi right up to the King’s Gateway Lodge’s dining room so passengers had a short hop to the dinner table. Gateway’s one-of-a-kind golf course was split in two by the Michigan-Wisconsin state line. Rumor has it that ‘state lines’ were painted on the floors of some Gateway buildings.

This strikingly beautiful area, now part of the Ottawa National Forest, was the site of a five-bedroom lodge on Clark Lake, built by a Wisconsin lumberman as a private hunting and fishing retreat for wealthy vacationers. Several cabins and lodges went up—one with 16 bedrooms. Among the celebrities enjoying the amenities were band leader Lawrence Welk (who helped out in the kitchen), comedians Bob Hope and Abbott and Costello, Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell after his aborted moon landing, and crooner Bing Crosby, who sang with the choir in the Watersmeet Catholic Church.

Although the visit was supposed to be a secret, area residents knew he was coming, but not when. Local officials wouldn’t comment for reporters, who were banned from the lodge. However, Mrs. Carli Giese, wife of the lodge caretaker, did speak to an Associated Press reporter.

“Mr. Eisenhower is in retreat and did not want to be bothered,” she said. “He might issue a statement later but he did not want to meet with reporters personally.”

Ontonagon Herald editor Irene Wolfe would change all that.

Meanwhile, Ike and the boys fished through a light rain on Monday, their first full day on site. They didn’t need licenses to fish on private lakes. Fisher’s lodge had been renovated before their arrival, the lakes were loaded with fish, and armed security guards regularly patrolled the grounds. It wasn’t known if security was beefed up for Ike. Other than Mrs. Geise, no one was talking.

Still no media

Eisenhower answers questions from the press during a visit to the Upper Peninsula. His brothers Edgar and Earl are on his left and right respectively. (Image courtesy of Janet Wolfe)

On Thursday of the first week, the media freeze was still on. “Eisenhower Avoids Press At Watersmeet Vacation Retreat” read a headline. He golfed nine holes on Tuesday and “quietly slipped back to his retreat,” according to the Associated Press. Gateway golf pro Bob Fretland said Eisenhower shot a “pretty good score” but lodge officials continued to protect his privacy. He was hidden behind a wall of secrecy with the press kept outside the gate. The only chance to see him was on the golf course.

The Michigan-Wisconsin border region was a favorite vacation spot for the Eisenhowers. Ike reportedly visited Wisconsin every year from 1946 through 1949. His presidential library recorded a 1957 visit to Rhinelander and Land O’Lakes to scope out fishing, golfing and residential spots. His brother Earl spoke at a $100-a-plate “Dinner With Ike” at Ishpeming’s Mather Inn in 1960, and brother Milton rented a cottage at the Gateway for 12 years. Ike’s grandson, David Eisenhower, often fished with Milton, who was embroiled in a controversy in 1958.

The Chicago Tribune accused Milton of wasting taxpayer money when Ike, as president, recalled him from a fishing trip to make a goodwill tour of Central America. The Tribune claimed two government aircraft waited overnight at Land O’Lakes to carry Milton, his daughter, their baggage, and their fish to Wausau, Wisconsin, where they boarded an Air Force plane for Washington. The paper demanded that Milton repay the government for the cost of fuel ($1,400). The outcome is unknown.

Irene cracks the curtain

While the media blackout continued, the Upper Peninsula Association of Weekly Newspaper Publishers was meeting in Iron River, 30 miles east of Watersmeet. One member was editor Irene Wolfe, who did not take kindly to the silence. In a bold move for the ages, she overcame her growing excitement, placed a person-to-person telephone call to Ike at the Fisher Lodge, and was amazed when he came to the phone. Would he hold a news conference for her group? Surprisingly, he agreed. Her colleagues were stunned when informed that they were going to Snap Jack Lake on Saturday to meet with Ike and his brothers. The national media had to be jealous that a small town editor pulled off the impossible.

Former President Dwight Eisenhower holds up his catch from Lake Snap Jack.

Irene’s daughter Jan remembers that her mother “did some quick talking to arrange the interview, because his people stressed that he was here to take a break and they were reluctant to bring in the press. After she got the go-ahead, she and my dad brainstormed what kind of gift would represent the area before deciding on a copper tray that they bought at Kempen’s Jewelry in Ontonagon. She was very excited and pleased to have the opportunity to meet—and, better yet, interview—the president of the United States. Mom was a Republican to the core. This would be like meeting the pope for her.”

A 45-minute conference on July 22 on the shore of Snap Jack Lake had news people from 10 weekly and three daily U.P. newspapers. Among those present were Ed and Irene Wolfe of the Ontonagon Herald, Tom and Dick Pellow of the Negaunee Iron Herald, Ken Lowe of the Marquette Mining Journal, and probably the Wakefield News. Brushing aside clouds of mosquitoes, the brothers fielded a barrage of questions, most of them directed at the ex-president.

The brothers signed autographs, even signed a golf bag, and posed for photos. Ike said he golfed 18 holes that morning and would fish for walleyes that evening. He called the U.P. “a wonderful spot. The fishing has been fine, but my golf has been very, very bad.” Ken Lowe found him genial and in good health. Conference over, the Eisenhowers strolled down the gravel driveway and disappeared among the trees. The reporters devoted the rest of their Iron River meeting to marveling at their good fortune.

The Mining Journal was impressed with the look and performance of the only U.S. president to come here on vacation, who spent more time in the U.P. than any other president.

“The people of the U.P. are justifiably proud that a man of [his] stature selected their part of the nation for his vacation,” wrote the paper, “which has helped greatly to advertise the region as a fine fishing and vacation area. He generously interrupted his vacation to hold a press conference, giving U.P. newsmen an opportunity to question and photograph him on their own grounds. We hope it won’t be his last visit here.”

But it was. The former president stayed until July 29 before leaving for his Pennsylvania home. The news conference was his only public event on the trip. Irene 1, national media 0.

MM

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