Harmon’s Histories: It’s been a while (64 years) since a president (Eisenhower) visited Missoula

Smokejumpers Fred Brauer of Missoula and Wayne Webb of McCall, Idaho, presented the president with a plaque and his own smokejumper helmet. (USFS)

The Columbine touched down at 5:29 p.m., 16 minutes ahead of schedule.

Police estimated 30,000 people were on hand at Missoula County Airport to welcome President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Missoula. It was said to be the largest crowd for any event, ever, in Missoula.

To appreciate the size of the crowd, the total population of Missoula was only slightly more than 35,000!

Highway 10 West was clogged all day. The traffic jam of bumper-to-bumper cars was estimated at 7,500 vehicles – a nightmare for local police.

It was September 22, 1954.

“Ike” was on a tour of the West to promote Republican congressional candidates, although rarely naming the candidates or locking arms with them as is common today. At most, he would just promote his administration’s policy.

There will be both self-promotion and arm-locking with GOP candidates this Thursday evening when President Donald Trump’s Air Force One touches down in Missoula for a rally at Minuteman Aviation. It will be Missoula’s first eye-to-eye meeting with a sitting president since Eisenhower’s visit 64 years ago.

Although both 1st District Democratic Congressman Lee Metcalf and his Republican challenger Winfield Page were on hand to greet Eisenhower that sunny September afternoon in 1954, the president’s specific reason for stopping in Missoula was to dedicate the new Aerial Fire Depot.

“The Northern Rockies Interagency Support Cache was built in 1954 as part of the Aerial Fire Depot to house firefighting supplies and equipment,” according to the Forest Service. “The original warehouse was 30,450 square feet.”

Smokejumpers Fred Brauer of Missoula and Wayne Webb of McCall, Idaho, presented the president with a plaque and his own smokejumper helmet. The president was also inducted as an honorary smokejumper.

President Eisenhower’s September 1954 visit to Missoula was intended to dedicate the Aerial Fire Depot. (USFS)

The U.S. Forest Service. had grown substantially under the Eisenhower administration, which heavily promoted conservation.

In remarks that have an eerily contemporary ring, Eisenhower told the crowd, “Every citizen has a part to play in making the country great,” adding, “The citizens are not wards of a central system. The people can help themselves better than some bureaucrat in Washington.”

Unlike some of today’s politicians, though, Eisenhower spoke for only 15 minutes.

For days after the presidential visit, “throngs of persons” were still lining up to visit the Aerial Fire Depot.

Herb Jensen, who ran the Florence Hotel, was one of many Missoulians who helped prepare for the presidential visit.

After the event, he took out a large ad in the local paper thanking “the many organizations and individuals who so wholeheartedly assisted in making President Eisenhower’s visit to Missoula a signal success.”

From Missoula, the president continued on to Walla Walla. When Trump leaves the Garden City after Thursday night’s rally, he’ll be bound for a Friday campaign event in Mesa, Arizona.

Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at harmonshistories@gmail.com.