Maine History

A presidential visit

Remembering JFK's 1962 trip to John's Island
Wed, 08/15/2012 - 9:30am

In 1962, Sid Davis and a few dozen other members of the press followed President John F. Kennedy to the Boothbay peninsula. Although that trip excited the region and remains a source of pride, gossip and tall tales, for Davis it was an introduction to a place he would return to for the next 35 years.

As a White House correspondent and former vice president of NBC News, Davis has seen much of the country and was there for some of the defining moments of the middle 20th century. He was in the motorcade when Kennedy was assassinated. He was one of three correspondents on Air Force One when President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in.

On August 10, 1962, Kennedy landed on Air Force One at Brunswick Naval Air Station. “It looked like a good way to spend a weekend and Kennedy would look for good weekends,” Davis said. He thinks Kennedy may have been mending fences, or trying to pull both parties together with the trip.

“The town was so excited to see a president; no one was a Democrat or a Republican that day,” said Bob Grover, then-chairman of the Boothbay Harbor Board of Selectmen. Grover was among the locals invited to meet Kennedy on his arrival in Brunswick.

“I think I was the first to greet him,” Grover said. “I was designated to welcome him to the Boothbay Region.” What impressed Grover, who owned Grover's Hardware, was the president's clothes. “He was a handsome guy anyway, but his clothes fit him to a tee.”

The August 9, 1962, issue of the Boothbay Register quoted Press Secretary Pierre Salinger as saying, “The president would make a brief address at the airport then board a helicopter for the journey north to John’s Island. The island, located in John’s Bay and owned by one-time heavy-weight boxing champion Gene Tunney, is four miles from the Boothbay Region.”

Kennedy disappeared to the island, where he spent the weekend. For Davis and the rest of the press, that meant limited access to the president.

Davis said this was nothing new. There was not enough room for all of the press to be close to the president on Air Force One and in the motorcade, so they established a pool of five people: one each of print, radio, TV and two wire service reporters. Except for the wire services, the others would rotate with each trip. Those in the pool had to share what they got with the rest of the press before they could file for themselves. 

On the trip to John's Island, Kennedy spent a lot of time on the water and a few members of the press were allowed on a Coast Guard boat with access to the president. Davis was not among them. Like everyone else, Davis spent the weekend waiting to hear news about the president's vacation.

The only time Kennedy spent on the peninsula during that weekend was church on Sunday morning. About 2,500 people gathered to greet him when Kennedy attended mass at Our Lady Queen of Peace in Boothbay Harbor.

Barbara Fossett was the first woman police officer in the harbor. Police Chief Leighton Davis chose her and officer Fred Davis to help the Secret Service prepare for the president’s visit. “The Secret Service wanted to know where places around the church had attics and also when the tide came in so that a larger boat might bring the president in,” Fossett said. “I was also supposed to ask the priest to shorten the mass and to report which door would be easiest to enter since the president had a bad back.”

Owner of Brown Brothers restaurant and wharf Kenneth Brown was on his dock when the vessel carrying the president came into the harbor. “JFK, he came here in a P.T. boat. Someone had fixed one up for him just like the one the Japanese had blown him up on.”

When Kennedy arrived, his boat sped through the harbor, crashing into Brown's dock, he said. “They broke four pilings. Someone in his group gave me their card and told me to send them the damages and said they’d write back with a check. They did.”

“My daughter Connie took him a pound of lobster meat and he smiled. He was pleased,” Brown said.

While Kennedy was on John’s Island, a full calendar of events had been arranged for the 70 members visiting press. One of these events was a lobster bake at Charlie Wade's on Indian Island. At the clambake, Philip Dodd from the Chicago Tribune fell onto the rocks and was seriously injured.

Davis remembers that clambake and the fall. “They wanted the best picture of the press and stood us on the rocks,” Davis said. “We were standing about 15 to 20 feet above the ocean, which was lapping at the shore below us, and the photographer kept bunching us together and telling us to back up a bit. The guy from the Chicago Tribune fell off.”

Like many well-told tales, everyone remembers that clambake a little differently.

“There was a clambake for the press, a member of the press got drunk and fell over and broke his back,” Bob Grover said.

“I’m the one who discovered him,” artist Lonnie Sisson, then a Boothbay Harbor resident, said. “I saw him standing there, and the next time that I looked back he wasn’t there. I had a heart sick feeling that something was terribly wrong. I went over and he had fallen about 12 feet down on the rocks.”

Dodd was brought to St. Andrews and then to a hospital in Brunswick. Unable to stand, he was offered a ride on Air Force One. Despite his own back problems, Kennedy gave Dodd his bed on the plane.

Davis was in the pool to ride with Kennedy back to Washington, D.C., on Air Force One and remembers the president joking with Dodd. “The interesting part of this was, the paper that he reported for, the Chicago Tribune, was very conservative and its columnists hated Kennedy’s guts. On board the plane, there were lots of jokes about it.”

That first trip to Boothbay Harbor left an impression on Davis, and he returned with his family every summer for the next 35 years.

He remembers breakfast at Robin's Luncheonette. “Robin and his wife, we got to know them well, because we ate there every morning,” Davis said. “A blueberry muffin the size of a loaf of bread was 15 cents and the coffee was great. They kept pouring you coffee, and the whole town would come in, and we liked to mingle with them.”

Davis has fond memories of Brud's hot dog cart, too. “Brud had that electric cart, driving around selling hot dogs. He’d ask, 'ketchup, mustard...yes or no.' We got a big kick out of that.”

As his children got older, the kids' time in Maine shortened to just a few days, but the family always loved to spend days in Pemaquid and at Reid State Park. “We'd sit on the rocks and the kids would catch starfish and crabs,” he said. “There were no amusement parks nearby, no roller coasters, no cars to drive around – the vacations were largely spent on the beach. We just had a wonderful time.”

JFK's visit as told by those who were here:

Ronnie Spofford, former North Star Motel owner
I was mowing the lawn; I knew he'd come here. There were loads of police cars going by on a Sunday morning, all going to the catholic church. I said to Jane, let's take the kids down to see the president.

Joan Rittall, Boothbay resident
I remember seeing the motorcade coming down Pear Street. It was very exciting.

Bob Grover, hardware store owner and chairman of the Boothbay Harbor Board of Selectmen
The envelope containing the invitation (to greet the president) was addressed to “The Boothbay Harbor Selectman Chairman.” When he got off the plane, he was carrying a felt hat in his hand. He never put it on his head, and when he got to the bottom of the stairs, he handed the hat to an aide.

Ken Brown, Brown Brother's Restaurant owner
(When Kennedy arrived in the Harbor for mass, he used Brown's dock. Brown said the boat came in so fast they broke several pilings.) I'm not sure who was driving the boat when they came. My boat attendant, after Kennedy's boat had broken the pilings, he said, “I don't care who's on there, I'm going to board the boat and tell 'em.” I told him don't go near there.

Barbara Fossett, first woman police officer in Boothbay Harbor
There were three officers stationed on either side of the church door outside (Our Lady Queen of Peace in Boothbay Harbor for when Kennedy attended Sunday mass). When he came in he shook my hand and game me a P.T. 109 pin; because he ran one of those boats when he was in the Navy in World War II. 

During that time I couldn't even tell my own mother where the mass was. Everyone thought it was going to be held at St. Patrick's in Newcastle, but I knew that the president was going to come to Our Lady Queen of Peace here in the harbor.

Lonnie Sisson, Boothbay Harbor artist, invited to press clambake
There were only about seven Democrats in the region at the time. 

Charlie Wade had a cottage or log cabin on Indian Island. And we organized a cocktail and lobster bake. I helped organize it. Arnie (Arnold Brewer, Democratic Committee chairman) didn't have many people behind him. I went out there, and they had an old piano. Pierre Salinger was a very erudite man; I joined him for duets after a drink or two. His phone rang while we were playing together. It was an emergency, and he was called out. I always wondered about this – since it was only a day or two later that the bay of pigs incident happened, if Pierre had to leave to address this.

An anonymous Pemaquid Harbor lobsterman
The security was so tight at the time that the lobstermen were told they couldn't haul their traps around (John's Island, where the president stayed while he was here). And the rocks and muddy areas around John's Island was a great place for lobsters back then. The lobstermen had to fish so many feet off shore of John's Island, and while they were fishing the secret service were on the beach watching them.