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Descendants of US Presidents Flock to the Ozarks for Marshfield Festival

A gathering of some pretty impressive DNA took place in Marshfield’s historic town square over the weekend. KSMU’s Jennifer Moore has the details on this year’s Marshfield Cherry Blossom Festival.

The annual three day event includes the usual lineup for a small Ozarks town festival: booths, antiques, arts and crafts, great food, and of course, a pie baking contest.

But what’s unusual is who’s on the guest list: descendants of American presidents are invited to come share their stories. And year after year, you know what? They do.I met up with several of them in Marshfield this time.

“I am the grandson of Grover Cleveland,” says George Cleveland, who resembles his grandfather.

He says some people have difficulty fathoming that Cleveland’s grandchild would still be living, since he was president in 1885. But if you ask him for an explanation on how that could be, he’ll give you one.

“He was born in 1837. He married my grandmother in 1886. He was 49; she was 21. My father was born in 1897. He met my mother when she was teaching his children from his first marriage. So we ‘dropped’ two generations,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland traveled from New Hamshire to be here.

“There are things that happen here at the Cherry Blossom Festival that have never happened before. To see things like the direct descendant of Jefferson Davis with his arm around the direct descendant of Dred Scott—that’s goosebumpy,” Cleveland said.Then, there was Merrill Eisenhower Atwater, great-grandson of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

“A lot of people don’t realize that my great-grandfather actually developed blood poisoning at the age of nine as a boy and they wanted to amputate his leg. He locked himself into a bathroom for several days and allowed for the blood poisoning to come through, because he didn’t want to be an amputee. If that would have happened, it would have changed—could have changed the world and the dynamics of World War II by itself,” Atwater said.

Also while in Marshfield, I was introduced to a man by the name of Tom Washington…yes, as in that Washingon.

“President Washington had no direct descendants, because George Washington had no children. What I am a descendant from is, I’m descended from John Augustine Washington, who was George’s full brother,” Washington said.

Washington traveled to Marshfield from Texas, where he works within the Republican Party.

Washington: “Most of us tend to be conservative out of the Founder’s families, but not all. The Adams are still liberal Democrats, to the core. In fact, there are Adams here, there are Jeffersons—both white and black. There are Madisons, there are Monroes at the Cherry Blossom Festival. So, this is fascinating, and for us, the founding of America is personal.”

Moore:” You obviously have done a lot of research on President Washington, George Washington. Based on what you know, what do you think he would think of America today?”

Washington: “You know, President George Washington was the first president to actually take up arms against the citizens of this country. And they had a little thing called a “Whiskey Rebellion,” early in Washington’s first presidency. And he got on a horse and strapped on a sword and went out and put down a riot, personally. I personally thing that George Washington would probably strap on a sword, get on his horse, and ride into Washington, D.C. and clean up town the old-fashioned way,” Washington said.

Also at the Marshfield Cherry Blossom Festival over the weekend were people with other ties to American government. Congressman Ken Hechler from West Virginia is 97, and made the trip from his home state to be here. Some of his favorite memories are working for a Missourian, in the Harry S. Truman White House.

“I was a speechwriter, and liaison with the Cabinet and with Congress, and also research director. Whenever any big study wanted to be made, I was responsible for making that study,” Hechler said.

He said Truman invited his staff member to vacation with him, and Hechler recalls developing a crush on Truman’s daughter, Margaret.

“And she used to tell her father that the Truman campaign train was the only campaign train that carried its own ‘Hechler’ right aboard,” he said, laughing.

Hechler said Truman will always stand out in his mind for his character.

“I think the high point of what I would emphasize about Truman which made him great was he would never allow anyone to take a poll to ascertain where he should stand on an issue. Because he always told us polls are only a temporary snapshot of perhaps misinformed public opinion. But they don’t tell you the difference between right and wrong, justice and injustice. And that one word, ‘justice,’ was his moral compass,” Hechler said.

Organizers say the descendants and relatives of almost 30 presidents were represented this year at the Marshfield Cherry Blossom Festival, including Franklin D. Roosevelt’s great-grandson, who came from France, and President Nixon’s great-nephew, who flew in from China.

The festival is held the last weekend in April.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.