Editor’s note: U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower visited Rutland County on June 22, 1955. The trip included a well-recorded trip to the state fair in Rutland City. Less known is a side-trip the fly-fishing afficianado Commander-in-Chief made to a popular fishing hole in Pittsford. Vermont Daily Chronicle reader and longtime Vermont journalist Bob Bennett sent us this account, which we’ve been saving for this anniversary of the 1955 visit.
By Bob Bennett
When Vice President Mike Pence caught fish last summer at Lake Hortonia in Hubbardton for the second year in a row an old guy remembered the one time President Dwight D. Eisenhower cast trout flies into Furnace Brook in Pittsford. That was the second day of summer in 1955.
The old guy and I had just spent a successful summer day on the Furnace. Not the limit of course, but half a dozen small brookies between us broiled over apple wood on his cast iron grill while we sipped a new Vermont gin with some out-of-state tonic. We were in his backyard, behind his old Victorian, across Grove Street from the Rutland Country Club.
The scene was set for a fish story.
“I’ve never told anybody all these years what I knew about Ike’s fishing trip,” he began, “but what the hay, we’ve been trout bums from way back, so take a listen.”
The old guy seldom said much, but now, it seemed to me, the gin might loosen his tongue.
“It was June twenty-second. Ike appeared at the Rutland Fairgrounds for a talk before the packed, rickety, old wooden grandstand on the occasion of June Dairy Month. Dairy ruled agriculture royally in Vermont back then and Republicans were in the vast majority all over the state. It was Eisenhower’s first trip to Vermont and his primary mission supposedly was to make a speech at the fairgrounds. His real reason for coming here, if truth be told, was to get in some trout fishing. That was his second favorite outdoor fun, right after his famous golfing.
“He thanked the assembled Vermonters for their several gifts and made special mention of a bamboo flyrod produced by the Orvis company in Manchester. I don’t know what that rod cost then, but you need a couple of grand or more to get one now.
“Then he climbed into an open car flanked by Secret Service agents on foot, preceded and followed by more of them in cars, plus two Rutland motorcycle cops. Two teenage boys raced out the main gate ahead of them, next to the Fairmont Restaurant, and when the president’s car turned north on South Main Street they stood all alone on the sidewalk and shouted, ‘Hi Ike.’ The presidential motorcade then made its way up to Mill Village and the East Pittsford Road, stopping only when it reached the Mountain Top Club and Inn in Chittenden. That’s where the president would spend the night after fishing the Furnace and dining with several Republican bigwigs. They included Judge Milford K. Smith, who would serve as Ike’s fishing guide. Judge Smith was well known for his popular outdoors column, ‘Stray Shots and Short Casts,’ in the Rutland Herald.
“At the gate Ike had smiled and hollered back, ‘Hi boys.’ One kid owned a $12.95 Montague eight-and-a-half-foot bamboo fly rod bought for a buck a week on the layaway plan at the Rutland Montgomery Ward store six years earlier with lawn mowing money. It had already caught a lot of trout in Rutland County brooks and creeks but its best day was yet to come.
“That spring on some nights the kid could be found in the newsroom of the Herald. In the winter he covered high school basketball games for the paper and now he was rewriting county correspondents’ dispatches, you know, ‘Mrs. Jones of Poultney and her family visited Mrs. Slayton in West Pawlet over the weekend.’ They don’t run those these days.
“In the newsroom three nights before Ike’s visit he overheard Judge Smith tell managing editor Bud Mattison of a plan to fill the presidential creel. The Holden federal fish hatchery above the Furnace held a lot of trophy trout in a display pool. These would stock an easily reached deep hole downstream the day before the president’s foray to the brook. They were fat brookies and big browns, some running over eighteen inches.
“The next evening, on the longest day of the year, the twenty-first, the boy slipped the three Montague sections and extra tip into their muslin bag. He filled his vest pockets with rabbit feed pellets because he knew the hatchery trout dined on similar fare. Years earlier he had watched the water in the display pool boil and swirl with voracious trout when hatchery personnel threw them their supper. In fact he had even tossed in a handful of gravel and got a similar response.
“Ordinarily he’d take his willow creel on trout trips but for this evening, which would remain light until nine or later, he strapped on his army surplus rucksack and hitchiked up Route 7 to Pittsford. Then he hiked upstream to a deep hole, just below the hatchery, doubtless the spot to dump in the trophy trout.
“He threw a handful of pellets into the hole and then cast his line with half a nightcrawler on the hook. Soon he realized all he needed to do was rebait and cast. In less than half an hour he filled the rucksack with his limit, twenty in those days. He could barely lift it but managed to strap it on, walked down to Route 7 and thumbed a ride to Rutland. He gave the driver two fat natives. Grove Street neighbors got some fish and the rest went into his mother’s freezer.
“So, the following day, after the fairgrounds speech and arrival at Mountain Top, Ike and Smith donned hip boots. Ike carried his new Orvis rod. After a quick tour of the hatchery, they walked a few yards downstream to a deep hole in the Furnace. They began to cast flies, the patterns of which were suggested by Judge Smith but which were not swallowed by any trout.
“They had departed the day before in the rucksack.
“After about an hour, with a red-faced Smith sweating, they quit. Here’s what the judge told Mattison a week later when delivering his latest column to the newsroom:
“The president was skunked.”
It all sounded logical, but after enjoying the broiled trout, foil-wrapped potatoes baked in the applewood embers and another couple of gin and tonics, I remained skeptical. After all, this was a fish story. On a hunch I sneaked a peek at the butt section of the old guy’s ancient bamboo flyrod. You could just barely find the faded brand name.
Yup, a Montague.
The author, now retired, was a longtime editor of the Rutland Herald.