BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — The yellow corrugated metal building and four grain silos still stand among the pine trees at 9246 Dutch Rd., but the two-story farmhouse – where President Jimmy Carter once sat chatting with Don Schaller and his family – has been gone for years.
That October 25, 1980 campaign stop was the only time a president ever stopped in Waterville Township. While Carter’s visit lasted just 40 minutes, it took days of preparation and left a lifetime of memories for Don and his daughter, Lisa Schaller.
In a partnership with his dad, Paul, Don farmed about 700 acres in the area, planting corn, soybeans and grain. In 1980, farmers were feeling the effects of a grain embargo against Russia, which had invaded Afghanistan that year.
“The focus of Carter’s ag policy dictated that the farmer hold grain off the market until prices improved,” Don said.
Ohio farmers had also been expressing concerns about increasing urban encroachment and suburbanization of land, according to a brief that was provided to Carter in advance of his visit.
Carter, a Democrat elected in 1976, was running for re-election against Republican Ronald Reagan, and was scheduled to stop by Start High School that Saturday, October 25. At the last minute, someone on his campaign suggested a detour to visit farmers.
Active in the Lucas County Farm Bureau, Don’s name was suggested, since he had grain silos, standing corn and a barn where the president could stand inside with the doors open to a crowd outside.
“The Farm Bureau called us on Wednesday night, and we were sitting down to dinner,” he said. “I told them I’d think about it and call back in a half-hour.”
His family agreed that it would be an honor. Lisa, a senior, and David, a freshman at Anthony Wayne High School, were told not to say a word. It didn’t matter. By noon the next day, Secret Service pulled them out of school because the media got word of the visit.
At noon on Thursday, the advance team arrived to make sure the site was suitable. Don warned the team leader that sometimes planes flew overhead.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Schaller, I can assure you that if the president of the United States is here on Saturday, there will be no airplanes flying anywhere near this place.”
At 2:00 p.m., the Schallers had a funeral to attend, and by the time they drove home two hours later, the phone company was already trenching along Dutch Road to lay phone lines. In the driveway were the FBI, the Secret Service, Ohio Highway Patrol, Lucas County Sheriff’s Office, Waterville Township police and Whitehouse police.
“I stepped out of the car, and I was bombarded with questions,” Don said.
By midnight, all the phone lines were in. Placed inside the house were two phones: a black one with a dial and a red one without. He could use the black one, Don was told. The red one was not to be touched: It was the hotline to Russia.
“They also had a man in the basement with a battery-powered backup phone. This was just prior to satellite communications,” Don explained.
He later learned that 40 antennas had been placed between Dutch Road and Start High School to improve reception, so the White House could always contact the president.
On Friday and Saturday, final preparations were underway. A big flatbed trailer was pulled in for the national press corps. The barn was cleaned up and surrounding fields were searched. On Saturday morning, Dutch Road was closed so the postal carrier had to run her route backward and – Don later learned – she had a Secret Service agent crouched in the back of her truck the entire time.
“It’s hard to fathom how much goes into background preparation for an event like this,” Don said.
A TV reporter asked for permission to sit with Don as he watched the president’s speech from Start High School on TV.
“I was wearing jeans, a T-shirt and socks, and there was a knock on the door. It was Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland and his small staff. They had just flown in from Chicago and the weather was getting cool and cloudy. He was going to go in the barn and give a press conference, but they weren’t dressed for the weather, so I gave each one a jacket. I don’t recall getting those back,” he chuckled.
Don remained in the house, having coffee with a Secret Service agent, whose dog, Jake, was on the floor between them. As he finished his coffee, the agent pulled a dog collar from his pocket and told Jake, “It’s time to get to work.” The dog practically lunged into the collar, and they searched every building, top to bottom, including the doghouse.
In the meantime, Secret Service officers had walked through the unharvested corn in the field but were astonished when a high school student drove a tractor from his home on Stitt Road through the harvested portion of the field and pulled up behind the barn. He was cleared to stay for the presidential visit.
Just before noon, the presidential motorcade arrived. As Carter stepped out, Lisa made an observation.
“He’s wearing a lot of makeup for the cameras,” she told her dad, who told her not to say that.
Before heading to the barn for his speech, Carter came into the house, where Don presented a gift: an Asgrow Seed vest and cap. The president put the vest on under his trench coat.
“He said it would come in handy when he was cross country skiing at Camp David,” Don said.
By the time Carter stepped outside, the crowd of 600 was assembled, bused in from Anthony Wayne High School. Several prominent Democrats were there, including Sen. Howard Metzenbaum and Sen. John Glenn, the retired astronaut, who introduced the president.
Carter spoke for less than 20 minutes and then went back into the farmhouse, where he and the two senators spent an additional 20 minutes speaking with Don.
“I heard it was unusual for him to stay after a speech. The Secret Service was trying to push him along to get on the way to the airport,” he said. “We talked about farming, and I expressed my views with him.”
As Carter began descending the three steps to leave the house, he stopped and said, “I still haven’t met your dad.” So, while someone went to look for Paul Schaller, the 5-foot, 9-inch Carter stood on the step with 6-foot-2 Don standing behind him.
“I didn’t think that was the best place for me to be,” Don recalled. “The president was probably thinking, ‘Having this guy behind me makes me look small,’ so he stepped on a rock to the side.”
That rock, which Lisa dubbed the Presidential Rock, now sits at her house.
Before he left, Carter invited Don to visit if he ever came to Georgia. Over a decade later, when David was an adult, he had tickets for the family to see the Final Four tournament in Atlanta. Don called the president’s scheduling secretary at the Carter Center in Atlanta.
“She called back the next day and said, ‘The president remembers you.’ We were invited to Easter Sunday services and he said he would treat us to lunch afterward.”
A traffic jam caused the Schallers to arrive 20 minutes late, but pews were cordoned off and ready for the family. After church, Carter was busy greeting people, so the Secret Service agent nearby suggested that the Schallers go ahead to the restaurant and wait. Seated at a long table with the president and first lady later, Don noticed that Jimmy and Rosalynn drank their customary buttermilk. When the meal was finished, the Carters went to another table to say hello to their son – leaving Don to pay the bill.
“I thought he was showing dissatisfaction with us being late to church,” Don said. “But I found out later that he was notorious with sticking people with the bill, so I didn’t take it so personally.”
Don, 83, always thought about writing a book about the experience. Instead, he contacted the Waterville Historical Society and The Mirror, asking to share his memories and photos for the record.
The 98-year-old Carter entered hospice care on February 18. He’s known as the longest-living president in history.
As for the farm where Carter visited, it is now owned by Anthony Wayne Local Schools, but farmed by Keith Hannewald. When he’s in town, Don likes to stop by to check out the old farm that the farming partnership bought in 1962. The 1890s home was burned as part of a training exercise for the Ohio State Fire School in 2007.