In the summer of 1927, the residents of Washington, D.C. were newly reminded that the nation’s capital had been built upon swamp land. The air was humid and musky and the flies and mosquitoes were torturous. President Calvin Coolidge, never a man of great health, found himself looking north for his annual three week vacation, as the damp air of D.C. aggravated his bronchitis. It is not known exactly how the Black Hills of South Dakota lured him, but the promise of fresh mountain air, plenty of fishing and tennis, and, best of all, no insects to contend with, sealed the deal.
When the residents of the Black Hills got news that the President and First Lady were going to grace their land, local boosters, headed by Gov. Bulow, wanting to promote South Dakota as the ideal spot for fishermen, went into action to ensure the President never left the streams empty handed. Finding the most scenic of fishing spots, they netted the streams at the top and bottom of a two-mile run, and dumped in a ton of old, fat, flabby trout from the local hatchery.
Coolidge had not but stepped into the stream before the trout were practically jumping into his basket. As he reeled in one after the other, and the reporters captured the event, everything seemed to be going splendid.
As a small token of gratitude, the President invited Gov. Bulow over for a dinner of trout “that he had caught in the creek.” As Gov. Bulow later reported:
“From the first bite I took I could taste the liver and horsemeat on which that trout had lived for years.”
President Coolidge didn’t seem to mind the flavor, and extended his stay from three weeks to three months, regularly fishing in the same spot and regularly inviting the Governor over for dinner. Eventually, the governor had all the fattened trout he could stomach, told the President what happened, and took him to a South Dakota fishing hole that wasn’t rigged.
President Calvin Showing off his catch to First Lady Grace Coolidge after fishing in Black Hills, South Dakota
Governor Bulow and his men had the best of intentions: to set the President up with a failure-free fishing experience and win some tourism business for their state. What could go wrong? We often fall for the trap that ease is what we desire, when it is really a hard won victory that makes the occasional rest worthwhile.
When Theodore Roosevelt visited the Black Hills, back when the territory was simply called the “Dakotas”, he loved it because there was a fight in the wild that gave him purpose. The mistake Bulow made was forgetting that the fight, and our being tested by it, is what every man longs for; even if he is a quiet, slender fellow such as Coolidge.
If a man cannot come to love a land that does not readily give up its bounty but expects an effort in exchange, that man is not fit for those hills.
After President Coolidge began fishing in the genuine streams of the Black Hills, he found that the fish didn’t come as easily, but he also found that they tasted better and his guests were less hesitant to show up for dinner. We have to trust in the hard work of life to provide rewards beyond the material, else we will find ourselves taking shortcuts to hasten our ease and quicken our arrival to comfort. The easy road might give us our fill of fish, but that isn’t the same as being a fisherman.