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Lady Bird Flies Though 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.

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