A full house at Washington’s Hatchet House on a Saturday night in February usually means “basketball,” especially when someone mentions the largest crowd ever to fill the Hatchet House. But on Feb. 10, 1968, not just the Hatchets’ fans, or the State of Indiana, but the entire country had its eyes and ears focused on the events at Washington’s famed basketball venue.
The campaign for President of the United States was just underway, and just a few days before former Vice-President, Richard M. Nixon, had declared his candidacy for President. Nixon was beginning a political comeback, after losing the 1960 Presidential race to John F. Kennedy, and the governorship of California in 1962.
But by February 1968, Nixon was back on top, and ready to challenge former Governor George Romney of Michigan, U.S. Senator Charles Pearcy of Illinois, and the newly-elected Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, for the Republican nomination.
Months earlier, Indiana’s State Treasurer, John K. Snyder, a Washington, Indiana, resident, had pushed to get Nixon, a favorite of Indiana Republicans, to be the keynote speaker at the Daviess County Republican’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner. Snyder had his eye on Washington’s new (then) 8000-seat gymnasium as the venue. Tickets for the evening were $2.50, $10, $50, and $100 per person.
The previous week, Nixon had officially declared his candidacy, heading into the early New Hampshire primary. His appearance at the Hatchet House, would be his first public appearance and speech since his announcement. For all practical purposes, Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign for the White House began on a platform under the south basket of the Hatchet House.
Nixon arrived flew into the Vincennes-Lawrenceville airport around 4:30 on the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 10. He was met by around 500 people led by the mayors of Lawrenceville and Vincennes and other local Republican leaders. Nixon’s driver for the day was Vincennes University student, Roger Allen, a 1966 Washington High School graduate. Allen, who now lives in Ft. Myers, Florida, says, “I did not get to talk to him too much since I was concentrating on driving. You have to remember, I was a young kid and pretty excited about the whole thing.”
Allen says he does remember driving through Washington at 60 miles an hour and not getting a ticket. As for what he remembers about Nixon, Allen says that Nixon was interested in his background and asked about his plans for school. Allen says that Nixon was aware of Vincennes University, and also, Indiana University, where Allen would transfer after completing courses at VU. Allen says that Nixon was interested in the IU football, and mentioned IU’s star quarterback, Harry Gonso. Allen says he did not get to hear Nixon’s speech because he was required to stay with the car along with members of the security detail.
Nixon’s motorcade stopped briefly at the Twilight Motel (now the Budget Inn at the corner of SR 57 and South Street) before going to the gym.The Nixon party arrived at what the Times-Herald report says was a “jam-packed” WHS cafeteria, slightly behind schedule for the 6:30 p.m. reception. There was only a narrow corridor for those attending the reception to greet Nixon and his wife, Pat.
The pre-speech activities began at the Hatchet House at 6:10 p.m. for everyone who did not have the special tickets to attend the reception. Those waiting in the gymnasium were entertained by 110-piece Washington High School band, along with songs by the Washington High School and Washington Catholic High School choruses. An adult chorus called the Melo-Aires also performed.
The audience was crowded with Republican leaders from across Indiana. Former Senator William Jenner, U.S. Congressmen William Bray, John Myers, and Roger Zion were in attendance. Also part of the crowd were Indiana’s Secretary of State Edgar Whitcomb, State Treasurer John K. Snyder, State Auditor John Gallagher and State School Superintendent Richard Wells. Also attending were most of the judges of Indiana’s Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, and most of the Republican members of the General Assembly, including future Governor Otis Bowen, who was serving as Speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives. The only major Hoosier Republican figure not in attendance was Washington native, former U.S. Senator Homer Capehart, who was on the East Coast attending to duties as chairman of the USO. Capehart did send a telegram, which was read to the crowded gymnasium by his son, Earl.
By 8 p.m. the Hatchet House was packed, with both upper and lower roll-out bleachers deployed, and nearly 800 seats set up on the gym floor. Estimates are there were well over 8,000 people in the gymnasium when Washington resident and State Treasurer John K. Snyder, introduced Nixon to the crowded Hatchet House.
Before program began, the podium was removed from the platform and Nixon spoke without notes. During his speech Nixon criticized the economic, domestic, diplomatic, and war policies of the Johnson Administration. Nixon, told the crowd that their vote in 1968 would answer the question of shall we continue to follow Johnson’s policies…or “is it time for a new beginning.”
After the speech, Nixon and his party attended a reception at the Washington Country Club. The Nixons the returned to the airport and boarded the plane for their flight home.
Nixon also made an impression on one small girl. When I asked if people remembered the Nixon visit, Jana Earl wrote this: “Yes, I do! I was 7 years old and was standing out in front of my Uncle Arts gas station when his limo drove by. My dad and mom rushed us to the motel up the street. Mom ran us close to him and a reporter stepped on my foot for I was that close and President Nixon stopped and moved them over and took hold of me and ask me if I was ok? Never forget that day. Of course my mom said yes, she’s OK. We were excited to be that close and to get to meet him.”
The speech Nixon gave at the Hatchet House and the warm welcome he received in Washington, Indiana, was the start of a successful campaign. In November 1968, Richard M. Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey. The following January he was inaugurated as the 37th President of the United States.