Candy-colored and small, with wicker furniture lining the wraparound porch, the house looks more fairy tale than first family. Yet by both its name and heritage, the cottage, one of Oak Bluffs’ celebrated gingerbread cottages, tells the history of the island’s presidential visits.
Once the vacation home of Ulysses S. Grant, the first sitting president to vacation on the island while in office, the cottage is located on Clinton Avenue, which shares its name with Bill Clinton, the most recent chief executive to land on Vineyard shores.
President Barack Obama won’t stay at the cottage when he vacations on the Vineyard later this month. But his very presence will add another chapter to the island’s presidential lore.
When Obama touches down on the Vineyard, he’ll join Grant and Clinton as the third sitting president to vacation on the island while in office. And he’s already become the 10th chief executive, dating back to John Adams in 1760, to touch down on the island or in its waters either before, during or after his time in office, records show.
“Each president has a different reason for coming,” Keith Gorman, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, said last week. “For some, it’s the beauty of it. There’s certainly a privacy to it.
“And then for others, there are people and supporters you can reach out to and have events and all that,” he said. “There’s something different for everyone here. … For whatever reason, presidents just find it a wonderful place to be.”
Here’s a rundown of the history of presidential visits to Martha’s Vineyard.
In 1760, John Adams, who would go on to become the country’s second president, visited the island 21 years before the birth of the United States, according to Adams’ personal papers. Little is known about this visit except that he visited with a friend, Jonathan Allen, in Chilmark.
More than a century later, Grant, a Civil War hero and then president, made the first official presidential visit to the Vineyard in August of 1874. Grant spent three days at the Vineyard’s Camp Meeting Association, likely as a guest of his minister in Washington, D.C., who traveled to the island, according to Gorman.
“Today has been a notable day in the history of Martha’s Vineyard,” the island newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette, noted at the time. “The President of the Republic has landed upon our shore, has partaken of our hospitality, and has received in person the salutations of our people.”
Grant spent his days off-island, making trips to Nantucket and Cape Cod. But in the evenings he returned to Martha’s Vineyard to great crowds who serenaded him at night as he tried to sleep, Gorman said. And on the final day, Grant joined residents for a celebration at the Sea View House.
“There are some estimates that there might have been tens of thousands of people turning up just to see Grant walking around,” Gorman said. “It was a big, formal event for a small island.”
Chester A. Arthur, the nation’s 21st president, never officially touched down on Vineyard shores, but he made use of the island waters, according to Gazette archives. The paper reported that in September 1882, Arthur enjoyed a fishing trip off Menemsha on the island’s east end.
The president, fresh off a trip to Woods Hole, traveled to the island with officials from the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, and reportedly sent state documents ashore to be mailed, though that report “lacks confirmation,” the Gazette wrote at the time.
President Grover Cleveland, who kept a summer home in Bourne, is believed to have journeyed to the Vineyard on several occasions for bass fishing, though the dates and details of the trips are not confirmed, records show.
Both before and after his time in the Oval Office, Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president, was no stranger to the Vineyard. As lieutenant governor and eventually governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge made regular trips for both formal and informal events, according to Gorman. Between 1915, when he was elected lieutenant governor, and 1920, when he ended his term as governor and was nominated as vice president of the United States, he made nearly annual trips to the Vineyard, attending the Oak Bluffs Camp Ground and other campaign events.
“This was local politics,” Gorman said. “He could get out there and meet the voters.”
Coolidge also returned to the island for several day trips after he left the presidency in 1929.
Over 16 years in office, President Franklin Roosevelt made two boat trips to the Vineyard, though he never stepped foot on land, according to news reports of the time.
In June 1933, a storm required Roosevelt, en route in a ship to Nantucket, to make port in Edgartown for the night, The New York Times reported in an article titled “Skipper Roosevelt Forced by Squall into Edgartown Harbor.”
Despite many offers, Roosevelt never debarked, spending the night on the boat. He departed the next day.
Eight years later, Roosevelt reportedly entered Vineyard waters again, though witnesses at the time weren’t aware of his presence.
The Vineyard Gazette reported on Aug. 5, 1941, that Menemsha residents were bewildered as six warships appeared in the waters off shore. It came to be known later that Roosevelt, aboard one of the ships, debarked one of the ships and moved on to a nearby flagship, which took him to Newfoundland where he met for the first time with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It is believed that the two discussed possible United States’ involvement in World War II.
Like President Coolidge, John F. Kennedy, a Massachusetts native who spent his summers in Hyannisport, made many trips to the Vineyard through his childhood and adult life for both formal events and informal visits, often sailing his boat to the island.
Among Kennedy’s more memorable early visits was one in the summer of 1941, when the future president showed up at Oak Bluffs’ Ocean View Hotel.
Kennedy, then 24, and his older brother, Joe, had torn their sail coming over for the Edgartown Yacht Club regatta, state Rep. Joseph Sylvia, the hotel’s former proprietor, told the Gazette at the time.
“They were as soaking wet as if they had been dropped overboard, their sail was also soaking wet and torn, they had no spare clothing nor even underwear, and explained rather piteously that they had come from the mainland, bound for Edgartown to race.”
A quiet Saturday morning in Edgartown was quickly set abuzz in September 1980 when former President Richard Nixon made an unannounced visit to the island.
More than six years had passed since Nixon, the country’s 37th president, had resigned, and there was no signs of any ill will as he spoke with residents in downtown Edgartown, the Gazette reported at the time. Nixon spent one night on the island, his boat moored near Walter Cronkite’s home. And he spent the following day walking Main Street and lounging at the yacht club, according to the Gazette report.
“The former President was friendly and outgoing in his chatty exchanges with dozens of onlookers near the yacht club,” the paper reported at the time. “He was relaxed and accommodating of all questions and comments from the public.”
Starting in 1993, President Bill Clinton transformed the Vineyard from a site for presidential day trips to an executive vacation destination.
In celebration of his 47th birthday, Clinton, his wife Hillary, and their daughter, Chelsea, spent 11 days on the Vineyard — the first of four trips over his eight years in office.
During their time on the island, the first family enjoyed the island’s treasures. They went canoeing, played miniature golf, browsed local bookstores and attended the Vineyard fair, according to Cape Cod Times archives. “Of course, he met with some of the local movers and shakers,” said Gorman. “But he really enjoyed the island, too. He made a point of going to every town. He did touristy things.”
Clinton has returned to the Vineyard several times since he left office for various events and fund raisers, and rumors abound that Chelsea has plans to hold her wedding on the island this summer.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him back here,” Gorman said. “He really loves the island. … I think he really appreciates what we have to offer.”
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Copyright (c) 2009, Cape Cod Times, Hyannis, Mass.
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