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Summer White House on the Brule

Wisconsin Historical Society

The President of the United States endures a demanding schedule.  But it wasn’t always this way. In today’s History Afield writer Bob Willging tells the story of the summer of 1928 when President Calvin Coolidge moved the center of American politics to the quiet shores of northwest Wisconsin’s most famous of trout waters, the Brule River.

Calvin Coolidge served as President of the United States from 1923 to 1929.   Coolidge, known as “Silent Cal” for his minimalist use of words, held that government, including the Office of the President, should interfere as little as possible in the lives of its citizens.  So it was really not out of character for Coolidge to pack up his belongings, gather his staff and temporarily move the “White House,” and thus the center of American politics, to a fishing lodge on the remote Brule River, a few miles south of the small northern Wisconsin town of Brule in Douglas County, for the summer of 1928.

The precedent for a summer White House had already been set by Coolidge the year before when he and his wife Grace spent an entire month in the Black Hills of South Dakota, staying at the state game lodge there.  It was from the Black Hills that he issued the famous statement, “I do not choose to run for President in 1928.”  Without the tedium of a campaign to worry about, Coolidge made plans to spend nearly the entire summer on the Brule - fishing, relaxing, and sometimes tending to the affairs of the United States.

Coolidge would pass the summer in northwoods comfort at Cedar Island, the very private estate of the late Henry Clay Pierce.  He arrived at Brule in mid-June, accompanied by no less than 60 soldiers, 14 house servants, 10 secret service agents, and about 75 reporters.  

The arrival of the President of the United States and his entourage was the most exciting event to ever hit rural northwest Wisconsin. For weeks prior to Coolidge’s arrival local and state officials, businessmen, and the general citizenry scrambled to prepare for the President.

As the Associated Press wrote at the time:

“ ‘Well,’ said the citizens of Brule, all 200 of them, ‘We must dress the place up a bit.’  They cast a reflective eye down the five streets and over the three town pumps.

The “dressing up” included what the Associated Press described as “wooden arches of native rough timber” erected over the main road through town for which Brule citizens themselves had to “chip in” since Brule had no local government. Since it was well known that silent Cal and his wife Grace were staunch churchgoers, the Congregational Church there received a fresh coat of paint as well as a new roof.

Outside of town preparations were made as well, and in a big way.  While Coolidge planned to spend most of his time at Cedar Island, he was still President of the United States, and had the affairs of the country to manage. Superior Central High School about 30 miles by road from Cedar Island, became a hub of activity as the location where Coolidge would conduct business, receive official guests and communicate with Washington. The school library became Coolidge’s personal office.  The high school was transformed into a communications nerve center, albeit 1920s style.

While Coolidge’s decision not to run for reelection was national news, locally the most talked about issue focused  on Coolidge and his fishing intentions.  As it still is today, trout fishing was serious business on Wisconsin’s most famous of trout waters. Speculation about silent Cal ran through Douglas County like wildfire.

To quote press articles of the time, “Recollections of reports from the Black Hills of South Dakota last summer, that Mr. Coolidge went for trout with worms as bait, had aroused serious sporting misapprehensions in all devout anglers here,” The press reminded folks that the late Henry Clay Pierce reportedly “…never allowed anyone ever to set foot on the estate who indulged in anything but fly fishing.”

Calvin Coolidge was not known for his outdoor abilities. He did however develop a latent interest in fishing while vacationing in New York’s Adirondack State Park in 1926.  Coolidge intended to take full advantage of the incredible fishing opportunities the Brule offered.

And for this he needed a competent guide.  John LaRock, one of the most experienced and highly respected guides on the river was recommended. Coolidge accepted the recommendation and hired LaRock to be his primary guide for the summer, inadvertently thrusting the man into the limelight.

As Albert Marshall, author of Brule Country wrote, “John LaRock, the Indian guide who filled most of the President’s guiding assignment became overnight the undisputed dean of the rivermen.  The passage continues, “His views on the President and on his ability with rod and fly were eagerly sought after.”

LaRock, confident, stalwart, photogenic and like Coolidge not one to waste words, was the perfect choice.  Photos of the man often referred to simply as “Coolidge’s guide” frequented local and state newspapers, and the press closely followed his activities. When LaRock sprained his back while cranking an automobile, the newspapers ran the headline: “Guide Injured, President Tries Trap Shooting.”

LaRock was paid $2.00 per day to guide the President, and the two spent a considerable amount of time together on the dark waters of the Brule, although probably most of it in peaceful silence.  Coolidge took easily to the almost daily routine of climbing into his favorite Cedar Island canoe, with LaRock in the stern and Coolidge’s white collie “Rob Roy” ever present in the center, to ply the Brule’s secret trout holes.

From the very first reports of Coolidge’s fishing activity the ever important worm question was close at hand.  Anxious to get some fishing in, Coolidge broke out his fishing pole within hours of his arrival at Cedar Island.   It also was reported that he had asked for worms.

But several days later reports began to surface seemingly designed to put the worm issue to bed.  Perhaps after catching wind of the importance of Coolidge not to be perceived as a worm man, White House staff or the press itself tamped down Coolidge’s reputation as a bait fisherman with firm reports that the president was not using worms to catch trout on the Brule.

A press report stated: “The fishing community of Douglas County – and this comprises about three-fourths of the men, women and children within its borders – heave a great sigh of relief today to discover that President Coolidge has maintained inviolate the immemorial tradition of the Brule River of never having any of its trout caught except by dry fly fishing.”

Coolidge clearly reveled in fishing the Brule, and he did so as often as possible. Some voiced concern that he was ignoring his Presidential duties, infrequently venturing to his office in Superior.  

“Paddling a canoe up the Brule river is more interesting to President Coolidge than the Democratic national convention which opened at Houston today,” reported the Duluth Herald after Coolidge mostly ignored the event.  The article continued, “Attention to business routine and recreation are again on the schedule today, with the president more anxious to master the paddling of a canoe against the Brule rapids than in learning what is going on at the … convention.”

The President departed northern Wisconsin on September 10th, after a brief farewell address in Superior.

There is little doubt that Coolidge was deeply touched by the magic of the  Brule River during the summer of 1928, the summer when he learned to fly fish for trout and paddle a birch bark canoe.

He told the crowd that he would like to come back to Cedar Island but it never was to be. After his term expired Coolidge largely withdrew from public life. He died of a massive heart attack at age 60 in January 1933, a little over four years after the summer of the White House on the Brule.

Perhaps some recollections of those carefree days spent on a river in Wisconsin were passing through Coolidge’s mind when shortly before his death he remarked to a friend: “I feel I no longer fit in with these times.”

Bob Willging is a freelance outdoor writer who specializes in writing about Wisconsin's tremendous outdoor and sporting heritage. He has written two books: "History Afield: Stories From the Golden Age of Wisconsin Sporting Life " and "On the Hunt: A History of Deer Hunting in Wisconsin." Willging lives in Rhinelander.
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