John F. Kennedy Visits Rhinelander
1959 was a busy year for John F. Kennedy. Although the young senator wouldn’t announce his official campaign for President until 1960, he began laying the groundwork by visiting communities across the nation.
John and Jackie had been traversing the country in a Convair 240 prop plane named “The Caroline”. On the morning of September 26th, 1959, JFK and his campaign team boarded five smaller planes in Eau Claire to make stops in Rice Lake, Wisconsin, and then onto Rhinelander for the day before meeting back up with “Caroline” in Duluth.
Landing at the Rhinelander Airport, Kennedy was met by Northwoods leaders of the Democrat Party. During a short press conference at the airport, members of the local press continually asked if he was running for president. Kennedy would not confirm his ambitions, but the silent message in his visit was clear.
Kennedy was then shuttled to the Labor Temple, formerly on the corner of Anderson and Pelham Streets, also known as the Eagles Club.
Chairman of the Democrat Party of Oneida County Henry Berquist was the toastmaster at a luncheon at the Labor Temple, where he presented John and Jackie with a box of “scented moss”, based on a gag perpetrated by Gene Shepard, creator of the Hodag, some years before.
A great number of Northwoods business owners and professionals from all political walks attended the gathering, anxious to meet the young Senator from out east. 225 people were in the audience when Kennedy gave his speech after the meal. He focused on the challenges of American Farmers and rural communities. Oneida County had some 200 registered farms at the time. Four Rhinelander Highschool students were given the opportunity to interview Kennedy after his address.
Before the delegation made its way back to the airport, John and Jackie were given a miniature Hodag statue as a memento of their visit to Rhinelander. In a letter to Mr. Berquist a year later, following Kennedy’s nomination for President, John mentioned the Hodag graced his desk, and made a “provocative conversation piece” for visitors, saying; “we are delighted to have so interesting a souvenir of our visit to Rhinelander.”
John F. Kennedy would of course go on to win the Presidency, holding office until his assassination in 1963. When news struck the Rhinelander community of Kennedy’s death, schools were let out early, and many businesses closed for the day as they grieved the loss of the president with the rest of the country.
The John F. Kennedy presidential library contains a number of items from his visit to Rhinelander in 1959, including pamphlets given to him about the history of the Hodag.
Source: Rhinelander Daily News Articles 1959, 1960. JFK Presidential Library