Presidential Mothers: Ida Eisenhower ran house like a ‘drill sergeant’

Published 2:11 pm Saturday, May 6, 2023

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By  Betty Etchison West

For the Enterprise

When thinking of Ida Stover Eisenhower, the words drill sergeant or commanding officer come to mind.

Why would one even think of such words when thinking of the mother of Dwight David Eisenhower, who became the 34h President of the United States?

The reason is that Ida Stover Eisenhower was the mother of six sons, actually seven, but one died when he was 10 months old of diphtheria. With six growing sons in the household, someone had to have control or there would have been complete chaos.

Ida’s husband had little to do with his sons’ upbringing so the boys’ mother was the one in charge. As the person in charge, Ida did a superior job, whether you think of her as a mother, a drill sergeant, or a commanding officer.

Ida Stover was born May 1, 1862, right in the middle of the Civil War in Mount Sidney, Va. Her parents were Elizabeth Ida Judah Kirk Stover and Simon P. Stover. Ida’s parents were members of a religious group, the River Brethren, who were strong pacificists. Her father paid a thousand dollars for a substitute to join the Army in his place. Later he was drafted a second time and he left his wife with eight children and went north into the Union territory.  Confederate soldiers then stormed the farm looking for any sons that were old enough to be soldiers.

It was all just more than Ida’s mother could take. She died when Ida was 6 and the father sent the children to live with relatives.

Ida was sent to live with her strict maternal grandparents where she had to work as no child should ever have had to do. She was told that she could not expect to go to school.

Ida made a plan which she carried out. She decided that when she was a bit older, she would go to Staunton, get a room, get a job as a mother’s helper, bake pies and cakes for sale, and put her herself though school. She did all of that, and then she went back and taught at the little school that she had scarcely been able to attend.

When Ida was 21, she inherited a good sum of money from her father, and she decided to join a group of homesteaders who were headed to Kansas. Before she left Virginia, she did something surprising.  She spent $600 for a piano, the finest piano in the store—a Boston-made Hallett and Cumston. That piano, an item which Ida would never give up, was put on the train with other items that belonged to the group headed for Kansas.

Ida found Kansas to be a different place from the beautiful Virginia countryside where she grew up, but she “accepted the differences with the equanimity that was programmed into her spirit” according to Bonnie Angelo in her book, “First Mothers, The Women Who Shaped the Presidents.”

Ida’s brothers had arranged for her to go to Land University, which was an institution run by the River Brethren. Ida was happy there. She studied literature, history and the subject that she liked best, music.

Many words have been used to describe Ida.  In Bonnie Angelo’s book she said that Ida had unaffected grace imprinted on every feature of her amiable countenance, brow unfurrowed, hazel eyes alight with interest and open to the world around her. Angelo also said that Ida had a smile, bright as a prairie sunrise.

That is the lovely Land University girl who met fellow student, David Eisenhower, whose personality was completely opposite that of the young lady who had moved from Virginia to Kansas.

David was described by Angelo as a somber man who rarely smiled. Evidently the “old saw” opposites attract is a true statement.  It certainly was true in the case of Ida Stover and David Eisenhower.

Ida was more than attracted to this tall, serious man who was given to dark moods and that somewhat strange young man was really attracted to Ida. They got married on Sept. 25, 1885 when David was 23.

David’s father gave his son 160 acres of land and $2,000 when he got married. David did not want to farm so he mortgaged the land and opened a store, a business for which he was not suited because of his dour personality. It worked for a while, and, then, the farmers were hit by bad weather, etc. and could not buy the merchandise. The store went bankrupt.   

David got work in Denison, Texas. He worked on the railroad making $10 a week.  David finally moved his family to Denison, and it was there that Ida gave birth to her third son on Oct. 14, 1890. That was the son who would become President of the United States.

David felt he was a failure, and, as such, he retreated more into himself and spent his time when he was not working reading the Bible, written in Greek, and studying charts that related stars to the Pyramids of Egypt. It seemed that as David became weaker, Ida became stronger—she really did not have a choice because someone had to care for that growing family.

The Eisenhowers were called back to Abilene, Kansas. The religious group called the Brethren or the River Brethren had a creamery. They offered David a job there. Ida was so happy to move back to Abilene. They were back in Abilene, but in a tiny, 818 square foot house on the wrong side of the tracks.

After about eight years in that tiny house with a growing family, David’s brother offered them a much larger house on South East Fourth Street for a modest sum if Ida would care for her father-in-law.  The deal was completed and Ida was thrilled.  At last, she had a home with a parlor. She at last had a home for her piano.

The house at South East Fourth Street was set on three acres, which was wonderful for the growing Eisenhower family. This is when Ida really became the commanding officer.

Each of the boys was assigned one or more chores.  Some of those chores were:  milking the cows, feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, caring for the horses, working in the garden to produce vegetables for the family’s table, and selling vegetables to the townspeople.

The little money received from selling vegetables helped because money was always in short supply.  Ida also needed help in the house. It is believed that Dwight may have been assigned to help with the cooking because he liked to cook and entertain guests all of his life. Things operated fairly smoothly in the Eisenhower home because of Ida’s ability to organize. It was understood that her husband was head of the household, but he did little to help with the growing sons.

Religion played a significant part in Ida Eisenhower’s life. Early on she was a member of the River Brethren, an offshoot of the Mennonites. They were pacifists. There is some information that says that Ida later joined the Jehovah’s Witness, which was also a pacifist group, so Ida was a pacifist all of her life.

When Dwight told his mother that he was going to West Point and become a military officer, Ida was disturbed but she did not feel that she should do anything to stop him. She felt that each individual must chart his own course.

The day he left to go to West Point, Ida saw him off. She then went to her room and sobbed. Her sons said that that was the first time they had ever seen her cry.

The following quotation from the Angelo book explains Ida’s feeling about the course her son Dwight chose. “My highest hope is that Dwight may be an instrument in bringing peace to this troubled world.  Looking at it that way, she saw his military role as a plan ordained by God.”

Ida Stover Eisenhower died on Sept. 11, 1946, seven years before her son was inaugurated as President.  She was buried in the Abilene Kansas Cemetery, which is in the same town, but not the same area where her son, Dwight, and his wife, Mamie, are buried.

Bonnie Angelo quoted David Dwight Eisenhower words about his mother, “She steered her sons safely through trying times, curbed their wayward inclinations, inspired them to succeed, instilled in them her own true principles. She was content.”

The following was spoken by the former President concerning his mother in Bonnie Angelo’s book: “Late in his own life, Dwight spoke lovingly of her sincerity, her open smile, her gentleness with all, her tolerance of their ways, and for her sons, privileged to spend a boyhood in her company, the memories that were indelible. Mother was by far the greatest personal influence in our lives.”