Few small towns the size of Hot Springs have had visits from seven different U.S. presidents. Hot Springs has been a frequent destination for both sitting and retired presidents. This is a look back at the visits to Hot Springs by seven presidents of the United States over the last 110 years since 1910.
The first presidential visit to Hot Springs was by former President Theodore Roosevelt on Oct. 10, 1910. The Hot Springs community rolled out the red carpet for Roosevelt, who arrived by special train. The one-day visit included a motorcade to Oaklawn Park, which was then the site of the annual Arkansas State Fair.
At the State Fair, Roosevelt was welcomed by a crowd of thousands. Fifteen hundred school children serenaded the popular former president with "Dixie." The most spectacular feature of the ceremony was the formation of a giant American flag by 2,000 school children who were dressed in red, white, and blue outfits and stood on stage risers in a colorful tribute.
In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt together with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt traveled to Hot Springs arriving on a special presidential train. The city hosted an elaborate welcome for the distinguished visitors. Mayor McLaughlin ordered that the city celebrate the visit with a half-day business holiday. At Arlington Lawn, a 75-piece Marine Band played "Hail to the Chief."
During their brief stay, Mrs. Roosevelt was honored with a reception attended by over 500 women at the Arlington Hotel. President Roosevelt toured the Fordyce Bath House and met with several children who were receiving treatment for polio. The Roosevelts were guests at a barbecue luncheon that afternoon hosted by Arkansas Power and Light Company founder and board chairman Harvey Couch at his Lake Catherine summer home, Couchwood.
In 1956, former President Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, actually drove the 400-mile trip to Hot Springs by themselves from their home in Independence, Mo. This was obviously a much safer time, as the Trumans were not accompanied by any entourage of Secret Service nor any staff. They stayed at the Arlington Hotel for a week and patronized the thermal bathing facilities located inside the hotel.
Throughout President Clinton's eight-year term of office from 1993 to 2001, he made numerous trips to Hot Springs for visits with friends and family. In 1997, President and Mrs. Clinton attended the launch of the successful campaign to convert the old Hot Springs High School on Oak Street into a new residential and cultural facility. Since 2001, former President Clinton has frequently returned to Hot Springs to visit his family and also to attend high school reunion functions and play in local golf tournaments.
In addition to visits by sitting and retired presidents, there are several instances of prospective presidential officeholders visiting Hot Springs in years prior to their election. They included Herbert Hoover, who traveled Hot Springs in 1927 to work with the Tri State Flood Control Committee on its efforts to deal with the historic Mississippi River flood of that year.
In 1957, then-Sen. John F. Kennedy came to Hot Springs to address the Arkansas Bar Association annual meeting. Later that year, all of the state's lawyers received a Christmas card from Sen. Kennedy that gave an indication that he had aspirations to higher office. In 1969, Ronald Reagan traveled to Hot Springs to speak at the Republican Governors meeting held at the Arlington Hotel.
In summary, there are thousands of smaller cities throughout the United States that have never had a visit from a U.S. President. It is a tribute to the national reputation of Hot Springs and its national park that our small town would have frequent visits from the leader of our country, and indeed the leader of the free world.
Retired local attorney Clay Farrar writes a monthly column about Hot Springs history. Email [email protected] with questions or comments.