The surprising first jobs of 17 US presidents

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The road to the White House isn't always glamorous.

Sure, most US presidents throughout our history have had experience in law, politics, or the military — or some combination thereof.

But many future presidents had rather unconventional first gigs— from plucking chickens to working at a circus to selling comic books at a grocery store.

It's definitely encouraging for anyone who suffered through a weird start to their career.

Here are the surprising first jobs held by Washington, Lincoln, Obama, and 14 other US presidents:

Natalie Walters contributed to a previous version of this article.

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First jobs of US presidents
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First jobs of US presidents

George Washington started working as a surveyor in Shenandoah Valley at age 16. 

When Washington, the first US president, was 16, Lord Thomas Fairfax gave him his first job surveying Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and West Virginia, according to the official site of Historic Kenmore, his sister's plantation.

Surveyors measure land, airspace, and water, and explain what it looks like and how much there is for legal records.

The next year, at age 17, Washington was appointed the official surveyor of Culpeper County. By the time he was 21, he owned more than 1,500 acres of land, according to American Studies department at UVA.

(Wikimedia Commons)

John Adams was a schoolmaster

After graduating from a class of 24 students, Adams took his first job as as a schoolmaster in Worcester, Massachusetts, according to the University of Groningen's biography of the second US president.

However, the career was not fulfilling for Adams and he was often filled with self doubt, as evidenced by the personal entries in his famous journal, which the Massachusetts Historical Society has posted online. To keep up with his own reading and writing, Adams would sometimes ask the smartest student to lead class.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas Jefferson was a lawyer

Before he became the third president of the US, Jefferson handled 900 matters while specializing in land cases as a lawyer in the General Court in Williamsburg, Virginia, according to Encyclopedia Virginia.

Influenced by his political ideology, Jefferson served clients from all classes. As he wrote in his "Autobiography" in 1821, he wanted to create a "system by which every fibre would be eradicated of ancient or future aristocracy; and a foundation laid for a government truly republican."

(Wikimedia Commons)

Andrew Jackson was a courier during the Revolution

The turbulent, controversial seventh president of the US was actually the last head of state to serve in the Revolutionary War. Andrew Jackson joined the fighting at the age of thirteen and served as a courier, according to a report from CNN.

His position with the local militia was informal, but that didn't stop the British from imprisoning the teenager, along with his brother Robert. Some accounts say that when Jackson refused to clean an officer's boots, the enemy soldier slashed his face with a sword, leaving a permanent scar.

Abraham Lincoln worked as a clerk in a general store

Lincoln's first job was as a clerk in a general store in New Salem, Illinois, according to Miller Center.

This may seem like a menial job, but it actually worked to Lincoln's advantage. The store acted as an unofficial town meeting spot. Lincoln, who would later become the 16th president of the US, was able to build relationships with nearly everyone in town.

He quickly became known as a friendly and intelligent man around town and six months later he launched his first political campaign for a seat in the Illinois state legislature.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Andrew Johnson was an apprentice tailor for his mom

Johnson — who was vice president at the time of Abraham Lincoln's assassination, and became the country's 17th president as a result — started off as an apprentice tailor for his mother while he was still a teen, according to CNN. Later, he moved up to a tailoring position in South Carolina and Tennessee.

(Wikimedia Commons)

James Garfield tended to mules

James Garfield's tenure as the 20th president of the US was cut short by an assassin's bullet in 1881. His presidency was so brief that most historians exclude him from presidential rankings.

However, there was a time when Garfield's career was on the rise. According to the "Erie Canal" by Ralph Andrist, the "Ohio farm boy" got his start working for his cousin who owned a canal boat. Garfield made $8 a month driving the boat's mules.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Benjamin Harrison yelled for a living

In 1888, Benjamin Harrison was elected as the 23rd president of the US — following in the footsteps of his grandfather, William Harrison.

Years earlier, when he had yet to establish a law career, Harrison began a rather archaic side hustle — working as a court crier for $2.50 a day, according to his official presidential website.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Herbert Hoover worked in the geology and mining field

Hoover — the 31st president of the US — worked as a geologist and mining engineer to pay for his living while he explored the Western Australian gold fields in the late 1890s, according to CNN.

At the tender age of 23, he was promoted to mine manager and worked in various gold fields until taking a well-earned less physical job as an independent mining consultant.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Franklin D. Roosevelt was an apprentice lawyer at a respected firm

At the age of 25, Roosevelt became an apprentice lawyer with Wall Street firm Carter, Ledyard and Milburn, according to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum website.

Although it was a prestigious firm, it was the custom to not receive a salary for the first year.

Roosevelt would later become the 32nd president of the US.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Lyndon B. Johnson worked as a shoe shiner and a goat herder

When Johnson was just 9, he shined shoes during summer vacation for extra pocket change and later used these skills to buff shoes in high school, as well, according to The Week. Later, the 36th president of the US worked as a goat herder on his uncle's farm.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Richard Nixon worked as a chicken plucker and ran a game booth

While visiting family in Prescott, Arizona, in 1928 and 1929, Nixon — the 37th president of the US — plucked and dressed chickens for a local butcher, according to The Week. Later, he worked a "Wheel of Fortune" gaming booth at the Slippery Gulch carnival and said it was his favorite job.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Gerald Ford was a park ranger

The 38th president of the US said working as a park ranger at Yellowstone National Park was "one of the greatest summer of my life," according to the Yellowstone Park Foundation

The feeling is mutual: his supervisor at the park, Canyon District Ranger Frank Anderson, said Ford was "a darned good ranger."

His most dangerous duty was working as an armed guard on the truck that fed the bears in the park. This high-risk job later became fodder for impressive stories to share with his kids. 

(Wikimedia Commons)

Ronald Reagan was a circus worker and a superstar lifeguard

At age 14, Reagan briefly worked for the Ringling Brothers circus as an unskilled laborer for $0.25 an hour, according to The Week. 

A year later, he took a summer job as a lifeguard at Rock River outside of Dixon, Illinois, according to PBS. There he worked 12 hour-days, seven days a week, for seven summers.

The "lean, tall, and tan" teenager became somewhat of a hero here after pulling 77 people from the danger of the swift river over the course of those seven summers, according to Heritage.

In 1981, he became the 40th president of the US at age 69.

(Wikimedia Commons)

Bill Clinton was a grocer and a comic book salesman

At age 13, Clinton started working as a grocer in Arkansas, according to Convenience Store News. Ever the businessman, he persuaded his boss to let him sell comic books at the store, too, and was able to rake in an extra $100 for his tenacity.

In 1993, Clinton became the 42nd US president.

(Wikimedia Commons)

George W. Bush was a landman in the oil industry

After graduating with his MBA from Harvard, George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the US, took a job as a landman for an oil company, in which he scouted potential sites to drill for oil, according to the Miller Center

It wasn't glamourous, according to The Week: "It was hard, hot work," he said. "I unloaded enough of those heavy mud sacks to know that was not what I wanted to do with my life."

(Wikimedia Commons)

Barack Obama was an ice cream scooper

Life used to be a lot simpler for the 44th president of the US.

President Obama told New York Magazine that he used to be an ice cream scooper for a Honolulu Baskin-Robbins. But not every job is as easy as it seems. "Chocolate ice cream gets real hard," he told the magazine. "Your wrists hurt."

Although the current president has been photographed eating ice cream many times over his two terms, he insists that he ate too much of it during this first summer job to really like it anymore.

(Wikimedia Commons)

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