What does picking corn have to do with politics? Quite a bit, at least on Oct. 17, 1958, when both the sitting president — and the man who would become the next president — stopped by for the national cornpicking contest in Linn County.
The contest was held at the Lumir Dostal farm northeast of Marion on a bright, sunny day, with a makeshift stage set up in a field. Linn County Sheriff Jim Smith estimated the crowd at 80,000, though others thought it was much larger.
The crowd continued to watch the cornpicking contests in nearby fields — featuring contests for one-row and two-row mechanical corn pickers — even as the speakers took the stage.
A bit of politics preceded the arrival of President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the Cedar Rapids airport at 10:45 that morning.
Iowa’s Democratic Gov. Herschel Loveless refused to stand with Ike on the same platform as William G. Murray, the Republican candidate for governor.
Instead, Loveless and his wife, Amelia, greeted the president at the airport, presented him with a Grant Wood lithograph, titled “December Afternoon,” and then left for Des Moines.
An Army helicopter then took the president to the Dostal farm, while Mamie Doud Eisenhower, an Iowa native, visited Jackson School, where she’d been a student in 1903.
Though Eisenhower missed a speech by Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who was beginning his campaign for president, the two men met briefly on the contest grounds. Kennedy said he asked the president what he was doing “way out here” in Iowa. “He asked me the same thing,” Kennedy said.
Both politicians made a point of complimenting the other and the crowd.
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Eisenhower told contest chairman Bob Jones, “This is the most polite and most attentive audience I’ve ever spoken before outdoors.”
And Kennedy, at a news conference, said, “I appreciate the president lending us his crowd. It is the largest crowd I’ve ever addressed. The people are wonderful. Even the Republicans were friendly to me.”
When the plans were made for Kennedy to appear at the event, his wife, Jacqueline, was expected to be with him. But campaigning had tired her out and she stayed home, The Gazette reported.
Also, the helicopter that was supposed to ferry Kennedy from the airport to the Dostal farm has a problem with its insurance. So a Wathan Flying Service plane flew the senator from the airport to the Flying Farmers’ strip 3 miles north of the contest site. A Highway Patrol trooper drove the senator to the Dostal far, but the detour made him 10 minutes late. He arrived at exactly the time he was scheduled to speak.
Undaunted, Kennedy bounded up the platform steps.
He was introduced by Leonard Wolf, the Democratic 2nd Congressional District candidate, at about 10:30 a.m. Kennedy’s brief message hit hard at Eisenhower’s AG Secretary Ezra Taft Benson’s policies but also focused on the interdependence of agriculture and industry.
“We in Massachusetts can sell you shirts and fish and washing machines when you have the farm income to pay for them,” he said. “We can prosper in our factories only when you prosper on your farms.”
Kennedy stayed to listen to Eisenhower, following along from a prepared text, until he realized Eisenhower was speaking extemporaneously. Kennedy stuck his copy in his pocket and listened through occasional interruptions by autograph seekers.
Eisenhower started his 15-minute speech by saying, “Political speeches won’t pick corn, so I won’t talk long.”
“The national cornpicking contest, I am told, draws larger crowds than any athletic event in the country,” Eisenhower continued. “And well it should, for it is a sort of agricultural world series with a bit of frolic thrown in for good measure.”
He concluded by saying, “I am grateful for the good harvest. I am grateful for the improvement in farm income. Above all, I am grateful that you are still running the farms and haven’t turned the job over to the federal government.”
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Eisenhower had a quick lunch and watched the corn-picking contest. He left for the airport at 1:20 p.m. and was on his way to Abilene, Kan., his hometown, by 1:40 p.m.
Kennedy stayed on the grounds a while longer before leaving with local Democrats for the Sheraton-Montrose hotel. A reception was held at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at 6 p.m., followed by a $10-a-plate fundraising dinner.
Kennedy finally broke away from an autograph-and-hand-shaking session to catch a chartered plane at 10 p.m. for a flight to Boston.
The Gazette published this anecdote from the event:
“James Mollenhauer, friend of Darlene Dostal, 19-year-old daughter of the owner of the cornpicking site, was invited to lunch with Eisenhower, but had no coat. He borrowed a sport coat from Gazette photographer Tom Merryman. James and Darlene were introduced to the president as he toured the contest site. Eisenhower put his arm around the two of them and said ‘Let’s get a picture of these farmers.’ Mollenhauer chuckled as he told about it afterward. He works for a bank, and she works for a radio supply firm in Cedar Rapids.”
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