Lady Bird Flies Though Portsmouth
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Ladybird Johnson in New Hampshire 1967 (c) Strawbery Banke Museum on SeacoastNH.comLADY BIRD JOHNSON (1912 – 2007)

The mayor made it official. June 10, 1957 was declared Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson Day in Portsmouth. Four decades later "Lady Bird" Johnson died at age 94. SeacoastNH.com recalls the details in this footnote to history. A year later, her husband chose not to run for office at the height of the Viet Nam War.

 

 

 

Footnote to History June 10, 1967

Sitting Presidents starting with George Washington have found their way to New Hampshire’s only seaport -- Madison, Polk, Harrison, Pierce, Grant, Arthur, Taft, Roosevelt, and more. When the roar of a large low-flying helicopter interrupted the dedication of the new Carter Collection Center building at Strawbery Banke recently, guest speaker Jane Nylander looked skyward and said, "Is it the President?" That’s because two Presidents named George Bush have used the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth as a jumping-off point to the Bush summer compound at Kennebunkport, Maine. But in 1967 President Lyndon Johnson sent his wife instead.

Lady Bird dedicates Dunaway Store June 10, 1967 (c) Strawbery Banke Collection/ Photo gift of Portsmouth Herald on SeacoastNh.com"Her brief visit should be of untold value in national publicity for Strawbery Banke" The Portsmouth Herald announced days before the arrival of "Lady Bird" Johnson. Mrs. Johnson had declined to become an Overseer at the Portsmouth historic restoration project, but did agree to dedicate the museum’s new gift shop. The Herald editorial was more blunt, calling the event the biggest "break" for the museum since it opened in 1965. In anticipation, city officials passed a resolution proclaiming June 10, 1967 to be Lady Bird Johnson Day, although according to another report, the title was Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson Day.

At 10:30 am on a sweltering morning in New Hampshire, First Lady Claudia Alta Taylor Johnson touched down at Pease AFB. Johnson was accompanied by NH Governor John King, state Senator Thomas McIntyre and Secretary of the Interior Morris Udall. Johnson stepped onto a red carpet that, according to the Herald, was actually pink and decorated with small crowns and strips of ermine, having reportedly been used by Queen Elizabeth on a state visit to Canada. Mrs. Johnson lost her balance while exiting the plane, but quickly regained her composure and greeted 300 well-wishers and local dignitaries on the runway. Her four-day good will visit included historic sites and recreation areas in Massachusetts and Vermont and was dubbed the "New England, Then and Now" tour by White House press agents. The First Lady was scheduled to spend a single hour in Portsmouth.

With the national media in tow, a motorcade whisked Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson through downtown Portsmouth to the spot, according to the press accounts, where "those English pilgrims" had landed 337 years before." The reference, obscure even to many Portsmouth residents, was to the Great House, built on the waterfront at Puddle Dock in 1630, near where Strawbery Banke Museum now stands. Johnson had come to dedicate the new Dunaway General Store – currently a restaurant -- built a few hundred yards from the site of the long-lost 17th-century plantation operated by the city’s first European settlers. In the intervening three centuries the Portsmouth waterfront had gone from a bustling seaport to a low-income ethnic neighborhood that was cleared out by urban renewal in the early 1960s and adapted into an outdoor history museum campus.

Johnson said the Dunaway Store reminded her of her father’s country store in Karnack, Texas where she favored crunchy peanut bars, striped peppermint sticks and lemon drops.. A gathering of about 1,000 invited guests stood by as Johnson, dressed in a three-piece lime green suit, became the first paying customer of the country store and souvenir shop.

CONTINUE Lady Bird Johnson in Portsmouth 

MRS. LYNDON JOHNSON IN NEW HAMPSHIRE (continued)

Lady Bird Johnson tours Strawbery Banke with Exec. dir. Carl A. Johnson on June 10, 1967 (c) Strawbery Banke Archives courtesy of Portsmouth Herald on SeacoastNh.com

"This weekend I am having the pleasure of seeing the beauty of your springtime," the First Lady said of her New England visit. " Your white church steeples always looked so rain washed, your covered bridges so enticing."

Politics was not on the agenda. With the Viet Nam war raging, violence in the Middle East and controversy over Civil Rights, Mrs. Johnson kept her remarks brief and uncontroversial. Looking down the "charming streets" one could almost "sense the fragrance" of the strawberries that had lured the first settlers to Portsmouth, Mrs. Johnson said, borrowing the sentiment almost word for word from a Strawbery Banke brochure.

Inside the store Mrs. Johnson purchased three spools of thread—beige, white and red,—a piece of penny candy and two Victorian children’s books, for a total of $2.31. She handed her payment to Judson Dunaway, who had donated the funds to build the store. Dunaway rang up the first official purchase on an 1860s-era cash register. Then Mrs. Johnson sent a letter to a friend in Texas that was cancelled with a strawberry-shaped stamp by Assistant Postmaster General William McMillen who gave a short speech. Portsmouth Mayor Timothy J. Connors also spoke briefly and presented the obligatory plaque.

"Captain" Carl Johnson, then the only full time museum staff member showed the First Lady a three-dimensional model of the Puddle Dock "project" as it would look when completed. When the work was done, Lady Bird noted, she hoped to return to Portsmouth with her husband and her grandchildren. Librarian Dorothy Vaughan, who had helped inspire the Strawbery Banke project exactly 10 years earlier was introduced to the First Lady.

Then accompanied closely by Secretary Morris Udall and a phalanx of local dignitaries and secret servicemen, Johnson visited the restored Wheelwright House (1780) nearby, also rehabilitated with funds from Mr. Dunaway, and stopped at the partially restored Sherburne House (1695). Fewer than half a dozen of more than 30 museum buildings were restored by 1967 and many were in poor repair, their windows boarded up. Johnson stopped to chat with 13 Strawbery Banke "belles" dressed in strawberry-print "colonial" dresses. Museum president Donald Margeson, who lived just up the street and ran a local furniture store, presented the First Lady with an honorary ten-dollar stock certificate to Strawbery Banke Inc. The item, Lady Bird said, would be added to her husband’s presidential library. Best known for her efforts to beautify American highways with wildflowers, Lady Bird seemed most pleased when given a bouquet of purple lilacs, the New Hampshire state flower.

"What a wonderful day for history lovers," Johnson said, before re-entering her limousine and moving quickly on to Maine for a lobster dinner, then back to Washington, DC. Like so many whistle-stop presidential visits before and since, the day was, at best, a footnote to local history. That same month President Lyndon Johnson appeared on the cover of Time magazine with Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin, delivered a major address on the Six Day War in the Middle East and named Thurgood Marshall as the first African American to serve on the US Supreme Court. But he never came to Portsmouth to see the restored Strawbery Banke. The following year Johnson announced he would not run for re-election, but would instead dedicate himself to "the quest for peace" as a private citizen. He died in 1973, but Lady Bird lived on at their Texas ranch until June 2007 and died there at age 94.

Copyright © 2007 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserve by SeacoastNH.com. This article is adapted from Robinson’s upcoming book Strawbery Banke: A Seaport Museum 400 Years in the Making, scheduled for publication late in 2007. Photos from the Strawbery Banke Collection include candid color images and black and white photos, a gift of the Portsmouth Herald.