I’m posting here an article I originally wrote for the March 2014 Kandiyohi County Historical Society newsletter. In it I tell the story of something that, growing up in Montevideo, I was vaguely aware of but knew nothing about. So, turning to the archives, I looked up the only time (as far as I’m aware) a U.S. President visited western Minnesota. The fact that it happened to be Teddy Roosevelt just as he was planning his political comeback should be no surprise. Two years later, in 1912, the state rewarded Roosevelt’s efforts with its 12 electoral votes.
Radical politics were nothing new to the western part of the state — in fact, the seventh district’s first congressman was a member of the Populist Party and, later, represented by the prohibitionist Andrew J. Volstead. (It’s forgotten now, but prohibition was a progressive movement that advocated for women’s suffrage and workers’ rights among other things). Because of this and the fact that the major rails to the Twin Cities ran through the region, it was not uncommon for satellite cities like Willmar to receive their fair share of speakers. Just in Willmar everyone from William Jennings Bryan (source) to Eugene V. Debs (source) and “Big Bill” Haywood (source) addressed packed auditoriums. Later, as I’ve written elsewhere, this same region was a hotbed for the Farmer-Labor Association, and it was Appleton that Farmer-Labor Party Governor Elmer Benson called home.
We’ve come a long way!
The Colonel Surrenders in Minnesota
When Teddy Roosevelt arrived in New York after a tour of Europe he returned to find the Republican Party in disarray. In the summer of 1910, by now in his second year out of office, disappointment was growing in his successor, William Howard Taft, and so as the midterm elections approached it was conventional wisdom that the party would suffer. If it was not the Democrats who would win seats, it would be the progressive wing of the Republican Party, which was growing increasingly antagonistic toward the Taft conservatives. It was a fissure Roosevelt himself created while in office, but it was Taft’s own policies – such as the 1909 Aldrich Tariff – that exacerbated the split.
Since the first days of the republic the debate over the tariff was one divided by ideological as well as economic and geographic lines. If the tax on imports was high, it protected domestic manufacturers but at the expense of the consumer. A low tariff, on the other hand, favored consumers but threatened industry. As the tariff increased under Taft those most vulnerable to its effects – including the agricultural classes of the Midwest – searched for an alternative. With progressive Republicans scattered across the country it was an open question who could lead this new faction and so all eyes were on Roosevelt when it was announced that he would soon embark on a “western tour.”
While upset that his party was trying to evict insurgent (read progressive) forces from its ranks Roosevelt was persuaded to stump for his fellow Republicans on a tour into “the heartland of the insurgency,” the Midwest. Under the auspices of traveling as a private citizen he announced that after seeing the palaces of Europe and the grasslands of Africa he would not feel “home” until he saw again the plains of his ranching youth. Receiving hundreds of invitations begging an appearance, many of these he declined wishing “to make it understood clearly that he could consider no further invitation” as he was “compelled to refuse that he would rather have accepted.” Still, this did not stop his admirers from trying or the newspapers from speculating that the Colonel had “undertaken a campaign for the presidential nomination in 1912.”
Setting out on August 25 he went as far west as Denver before circling up through Osawatomie, KS, where he gave his most important speech of the tour. On August 31, standing on a table and speaking over the sounds of the crowd gathered around him, for the first time he publicly distanced himself from the conservative Republican cause. In what came to be known as the “Osawatomie Speech” he outlined a “New Nationalism” where service to one’s community trumped property rights, fortunes were taxed for the common welfare, and campaign spending was transparent. In closing he called for a new citizen spirit, stating, “The prime problem of our nation is to get the right type of good citizenship, and, to get it, we must have progress, and our public men must be genuinely progressive.” This was anathema to the Taft conservatives and so as news of his speech spread the media accused him of being a “neo-Populist” or worse – a communist.
By the time Roosevelt reached Omaha he lost count of how many speeches he had given over the last week and so, exhausted by his morning-to-midnight schedule, on Sunday, September 4, he looked forward to rest. To guarantee this he “instructed his secretary to send telegrams to towns through which he was to pass today, saying that as it was Sunday, he would make no speeches whatever from the train.” Yet, as before, this did not stop his admirers from asking – including the Commercial Club of Willmar – or prevent rural newspapers from advertising his “visit.” In the Willmar Tribune, for example, top and center on its front page, it observed that even without the promise of seeing him “it is a safe prediction that an enormous crowd of citizens will be on hand … when Col. Roosevelt’s special pulls in.” When he left Sioux Falls for Fargo on a rail that passed through the western prairie of Minnesota these crowds, banners in hand, proved his telegrams were ignored.
Approaching the station in Marshall, the crowd that gathered chanted the president’s name, “Teddy! Teddy!” and demanded “Let’s see you!” Sitting in his railcar, the Colonel acquiesced by waving through the window, hoping to return to his reading. Met by loud cheers, the audience continued its pressure until at last he surrendered and stepped out to say a few words. This foreshadowed what was to come at each of the stations ahead including Hanley Falls, Morris, Campbell, and Breckenridge. This led one reporter to observe that “The colonel made more speeches today than on almost any other day since he began his trip.” It was in Willmar, though, where before a crowd of three to six thousand people he decided to give a Sunday afternoon “sermon.”
As Roosevelt rode into the station on the train’s rear platform, the Willmar crowd erupted into cheers. Quickly the crowd silenced, though, when the Colonel began speaking, saying it would be improper to give a formal speech on Sunday but that, instead, he would offer a brief sermon. Discussing the duties of citizenship, channeling the spirit of Osawatomie, he remarked that “he had no use for the citizen who talked much but did little to improve conditions.” In order for the nation to thrive citizens ought to live with honesty and courage, but also “the saving grace of common sense. If a man is a natural-born fool, you can’t do much with him.” And then,
Seeing an old soldier in the crowd [Roosevelt] gave a very complimentary reference to the defenders of the country, but then turning to a mother holding a child he said: “But I think you will agree with me when I place above all, even above the old soldier, the good mother.”
As he spoke a little girl was lifted upon her father’s shoulders so she could hand the Colonel a bouquet of asters, which pleased him. “That’s fine, fine!” he said of the gift. “You people listen to the sermon and I get the flowers.” While only ten minutes, it was his longest stop of the day, and so when the train started up again he waved his goodbye and “glided away over the glistening rails.”