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Deseret Morning News
President John F. Kennedy rides in the back of a convertible driving down South Temple near Main Street in September 1963.

Utah has no presidential birthplaces, libraries or tombs to visit on Presidents Day. But Utahns could still spend the holiday by following some presidential tracks left locally.

Most presidents since Ulysses S. Grant have visited the Beehive State. Some sites have been toured by almost all of them — such as Temple Square. Some presidents picked other out-of-the-way destinations, such as Flaming Gorge Dam or Zion National Park (before it was a park). Some hit the ski slopes or local golf courses.

Some visits were described as akin to Beatlemania, with Utahns going a little crazy trying to see their president. Then there were the Rough Riders, veterans of the Spanish American War, who came to see their old commander, Theodore Roosevelt, as he spoke at the City-County Building in Salt Lake City on May 29, 1903.

Deseret News reports at the time said many of them riding horses galloped toward the stand where Roosevelt was seated. The president rose and halted them saying, "Don't try to gallop boys, go slowly, you might hurt some of the children." When he was told some had come 300 miles to see him, he said, "By George, that's fine. The last time I was here, I was out riding with them."

For those who might like to imagine the ghosts of presidents past in Utah, the following are some of their old haunts:

The Tabernacle

Ulysses Grant went to see it on the first presidential visit to Utah in 1875. So did Rutherford Hayes a few years later. Choirs were waiting there to perform for Benjamin Harrison, but they were disappointed as he was kept busy and far away by some prominent non-Mormons during a visit in 1891.

Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to speak at the Tabernacle. Others who also did included William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Many other presidents visited it through the years, some enjoying concerts or organ recitals.

Joseph Smith Building

When it was the Hotel Utah, it hosted every president between Taft and Ronald Reagan at least once. They often dined there with presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Maybe the most interesting visit there was by Truman on June 26, 1945. Earlier in the day, he participated in the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco. In a last-minute decision, he chose to spend the night in Salt Lake City for what his daughter, Margaret, later said were sentimental reasons.

She wrote, "In those first months of his presidency, he often seemed to act out of a desire to put himself in touch with men and places from his past. Salt Lake City was a place that had deep meaning for him. It was associated in his memory of his grandfather," Solomon Young who led wagon trains and freight trains from Missouri to Utah. Truman credited Brigham Young for once saving his grandfather financially by helping him sell freight, and Truman was an admirer of Brigham.

Truman later praised Salt Lake City in a speech about civic planning. "There isn't a city in the United States that was properly planned to begin with. I know of only one whose streets were laid out in anticipation of the automobile, and that is Salt Lake City. The old man that laid out that city really had vision, in more ways than one," he said.

Church Administration Building

For visiting presidents (and presidential candidates), it became a tradition to trek to this building to pay respects to the LDS First Presidency. All recent presidents since at least Truman have visited it, according to archived newspaper photos, and likely several others before him.

North Temple/South Temple

Depending on the era, presidents would trek to downtown Salt Lake City either by parading down South Temple from railroad stations or down North Temple from the airport.

Grant was the first. South Temple was lined with children in their Sunday best throwing flowers in front of the presidential carriage.

Grant reportedly asked the territorial governor whose children they were. When Grant was told they were Mormon children, he reportedly muttered, "I have been deceived" about the loyalty of Mormons to the Union.

On Sept. 17, 1964, LBJ made a last-second decision to stop in Salt Lake City to visit LDS President David O. McKay, whom he considered a friend. Word spread fast, and tens of thousands of Utahns made their way to the airport and the roads between it and Hotel Utah. The Deseret News reported the scene was akin to the receptions the new rock group, the Beatles, had been receiving.

"There was the same wild cheering, the frantic, teary eyed cries of women, squeals of admiration, the thrusting forward of babies, the flushed faces of men," it said.

Photos of a trip by Kennedy from the airport down North Temple on Sept. 26, 1963, are eerie. It was just two months before Kennedy was assassinated. Pictures show him riding in Salt Lake City with the same sort of open-air limousine, waving to thick crowds as he did in his later ill-fated trip to Dallas.

Fun spots

Presidents had some fun when they visited Utah, too.

At least two went golfing at the Salt Lake Country Club. Taft, an avid golfer, taught Utah Sen. Reed Smoot how to swing a golf club on his visit there in 1909. Harding and LDS Church President Heber J. Grant played against the club's golf pros in 1923, and the two presidents won.

Bill Clinton and his wife, (and possible future president) Hillary, took their daughter, Chelsea, to Park City to ski for her 19th birthday in 1998. The president had a leg injury, so he did not ski. But he was mobbed by well-wishers when he ventured to downtown Park City.

Richard Nixon attended the Days of '47 Rodeo in the old Salt Palace arena in 1970.

In 1923, Harding explored what would become Zion National Park on horseback. He complained of exhaustion afterward — the first physical complaint he made on an extended trip to the West, during which he would later die.

Some presidents ventured to Saltair so they could see the Great Salt Lake. That included Teddy Roosevelt in 1903, Taft in 1909 and Wilson in 1919.

And George W. Bush attended the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics at Rice Eccles Stadium, where he sat among athletes and even talked to their surprised parents by cell phone.

Unusual spots

Presidents also visited some Utah spots that were a bit out of the ordinary.

Gerald Ford visited the Columbus Community Center in 1974, and worked alongside some mentally and physically handicapped people there. Ronald Reagan visited an LDS Church cannery and bishop's storehouse in Ogden in 1982 (hosted by two future LDS Church presidents, Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson).

Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to the Mount Olivet Cemetery in 1936 to help bury George Dern, his secretary of war who had also been a Utah governor.

LBJ traveled to the newly completed Flaming Gorge Dam. (JFK in an earlier trip pushed a button at the Salt Lake City International Airport that started the first electrical power generation from that dam.)


E-mail: lee@desnews.com