VALDOSTA — EDITOR'S NOTE: Catch the coming October issue of Valdosta Scene magazine for a more in-depth look at First Lady visits to Valdosta.
One could think that, in a campaign year, Valdosta might see a visit from a presidential candidate. Of course, the campaign season isn’t over yet. But don’t bet on it.
The last time, and that was a rare time, that Valdosta hosted a presidential candidate was Bill Clinton in the early 1990s, who visited with future presidential candidates, wife Hillary Clinton and running mate Al Gore.
Yet, through the years, Valdosta-Lowndes County has had a few candidates, First Ladies, past-Presidents, future Presidents, and sitting Presidents visit the area.
Based on part speculation and part deduction, the earliest presidential visit was possibly President William McKinley, according to the Lowndes County Historical Society. There is no record of McKinley being in Valdosta, but there are records of him visiting Thomasville during his presidency, which capped the end of the 19th century. At that time, the most common train route to Thomasville would have taken McKinley through Valdosta.
One of the most well-known president-related visits was that of one of the nation’s most well-known past First Ladies. Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She visited Valdosta shortly after the start of her husband’s unprecedented third term as President.
She visited Valdosta, or more specifically Georgia State Woman’s College, which would eventually become Valdosta State University, in March 1941.
Thomasville’s golf courses and splendor have apparently made Valdosta’s neighboring South Georgia city an attractive spot for American Presidents. The Lowndes County Historical Society has a tale of another President who may well have visited Valdosta on his way to Thomasville.
There is no solid evidence, but the Historical Society has noted that it is likely Dwight D. Eisenhower flew into Moody Air Force Base on his way to play golf in Thomasville during his presidency in the 1950s. Still, there is a much more colorful story connecting two Valdostans with Eisenhower.
Young college students Marsha Paulk and Lucy Henderson had served as big Eisenhower supporters in his initial 1952 run for the presidency, according to the Lowndes County Historical Society.
Such support was rare at the time because “Ike,” Eisenhower’s nickname, was a Republican, and Georgia, along with the rest of the South, had been a Democratic stronghold since the years following the post-Civil War Reconstruction.
Having word that Eisenhower planned to play golf in Thomasville, Paulk and Henderson’s friends played a prank on them. The plot included a faked invitation from “Ike” for Paulk and Henderson to visit him in Thomasville so he could thank them. As they prepared to make the trip to Thomasville, the friends surprised Paulk and Henderson with their “April Fools. Everybody laughed about it, but the girls were still disappointed, according to the tales
Charlie Barnes, an ardent area GOP supporter of the era, heard of the prank and worked to make the presidential invitation a reality. Barnes arranged for Henderson and Paulk to meet Eisenhower in Thomasville.