April 29 is anniversary of presidential visit to Louisiana
Editor’s note: The following story is adapted from the book ‘They Call Us Pikers’ by author, historian and public relations professional Brent Engel of Louisiana.
Few politicians have had the ability to hold an audience as spellbound as President Theodore Roosevelt.
Pike County got a taste of the Republican’s unflappable intensity and energy on Wednesday, April 29, 1903. Though he was from the other political party, even the normally talkative Champ Clark was practically silenced.
The nation was much different then. Missouri had almost three times more people than California, there was no federal income tax, the Union had 45 states and there were fewer than 150 miles of paved roads across the country. Most significantly, the economy was bustling under Roosevelt’s ideas.
A crowd estimated at 7,000 to 10,000 stood in the spring sunshine as the President’s six-car train pulled into the depot along the Louisiana riverfront just after 1:30 p.m. The travelers were a few minutes late, but no one seemed to mind.
“The citizens of Louisiana and Pike county certainly have good cause to feel proud of the enthusiastic reception given President Roosevelt,” the Pike County News said.
The “vast crowd surged to and fro and filled every available space and even the roofs of the buildings were filled with spectators,” added the Louisiana Press.
In addition to warm conditions, there was enough of a “sufficient breeze to cause the striped folds of Old Glory to ripple and tremble with delight in the soft atmosphere,” the Press noted.
More than 1,000 children waved flags and sang “America” to the accompaniment of the Louisiana town band in what the Press called a “picture ... not soon to be forgotten.”
Roosevelt disembarked in a Prince Albert coat with steel gray pants, a black tie and a silk hat. When he reached a special platform that had been built for the occasion, eight children offered a greeting along with American Beauty roses and a basket of Pike County lilacs. The children were Theresa Weed, Hazel Fry, Linda Crewdson, Louis Henshaw, Dan Flagg, Paul Stark, Luis Irwin and Glenn Rule.
Clark was well known for his speaking abilities, but on this day, he kept it short and simple. The Pike County lawyer and Democrat congressman, who in eight years would become speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced the Republican president “in a half a dozen words,” the Press said. Roosevelt “looked as happy as a bridegroom as he smiled and showed the teeth that (have) made many a cartoonist wealthy in the past few years.”
Roosevelt spoke for eight minutes, and it was obvious he knew something about the location in which he stood.
“He said he was glad to visit the historic county of Pike which had furnished so many distinguished sons to the nation, and he seemed especially pleased at the reception given him by the children, who he said seemed to be all right both in quality and quantity,” the Press reported. “He addressed a few strenuous comments to them, and advised them that whatever they did, to do it hard. When they play, play hard, and when they work, don’t play at all.”
Roosevelt “was frequently cheered and applauded,” the News added. “He made a good speech and fully met the expectations of the people.” Topics included American greatness and World’s Fair preparations in St. Louis. Roosevelt was scheduled to participate in dedication ceremonies the next day for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
“He said that the true way for a people to achieve greatness was to establish a right ideal and work to it, and that the only permanent foundation for a government was character,” the Press wrote.
Unlike with presidential appearances in the 21st century, there were no protestors to disrupt or disrespect Roosevelt.
“The good order which prevailed throughout the day was another feature of which we feel proud,” the Press said. “Not a disturbance occurred and not an accident happened to mar the harmony and pleasure of the occasion and not a partial of partisan feeling was exhibited. The people recognized the president as their chief servant and honored him therefor.”
The newspaper noted one slight bit of disappointment. Teddy apparently didn’t get his shoes dirty. “It cannot be said that the president touched the soil of Old Pike for he walked upon an elegant Brussels carpet which Wald Bros. furnished for the occasion,” it said.
Roosevelt acted as if he didn’t want to leave. Handlers had to tell him it was time to move on. The President told Louisiana Business Association representative Bert S. Carrick that he appreciated the “hearty good will” he had been shown.
“Good bye and good luck,” Roosevelt said as the train lurched south from the station.
Others accompanying the President in addition to Clark and Carrick included former Pike County lawyer and Rep. David Patterson Dyer, who would be appointed a federal judge by Roosevelt in 1907; former Louisiana city attorney, Pike County prosecutor and Missouri State Sen. David A. Ball, a law partner of Clark’s who would run unsuccessfully for governor in 1908; and attorney, bank president and La Crosse Lumber Co. executive Charles G. Buffum.
The reception committee included Louisiana Mayor John Cole and 90 other residents of the city, along with dozens of people from other Pike County towns. There were also committees on decorations, grounds and platform, music, advertising and guard of honor.
In a letter to Carrick the next day, Dyer thanked “the people of Pike county for the splendid reception accorded the President” and offered appreciation to the reception volunteers.
“Your appointments were splendidly arranged and executed, and the members of your several committees performed their duties with great care and dignity,” Dyer said. Roosevelt was “greatly pleased (and so expressed himself on the train) with the splendid reception accorded him at Louisiana. The hospitality for which Pike county is noted was never better illustrated than it was yesterday. The loyalty of all our people to the government and their respect for the President without regard to party, is the surest guarantee of the perpetuity of our free institutions.”
The Press said the day “will long be remembered if we may use an expression that has been used once or twice before.” Sadly, no photos apparently remain of the visit.
Roosevelt was succeeded after the 1908 election by William Howard Taft, who campaigned in Louisiana that year and would have faced Clark in 1912 had New Jersey Gov. Woodrow Wilson not won the Democrat nomination.