This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
The special train carrying President Theodore Roosevelt to a Rough Riders reunion rolled across the Red River bridge on Apr. 5, 1905.
The eternal optimist expected an enthusiastic reception, but his aides feared a chilly reception in the staunchly Democratic state. How much could Texans have changed in the five months since casting 78 percent of their ballots against the Republican visitor?
But the White House worrywarts underestimated Teddy’s tremendous personal appeal. He was the youngest Oval Office occupant ever, a mere 42 when he replaced his assassinated predecessor, and a vigorous outdoorsman who had punched cattle in the Dakota Territory. Regardless of party affiliation, most Texans respected Roosevelt’s personal credentials as well as his trust-busting reforms and “big stick” foreign policy.
The first stop on the morning of Apr. 5 was Denison. Several thousand well-wishers were waiting at the train station to present the 26th president of the United States with a huge floral arrangement in the distinctive shape of the Lone Star State.
A few miles down the track, Sherman resembled a human sardine can with 30,000 spectators squeezed into a town built for 11,000. The carriage route from the depot to the courthouse square was all decked out with flags, bunting and blown-up photographs of the famous guest.
Roosevelt scored points by tipping his hat to the Confederate monument and reminding the multitude that his mother was a southern belle from Georgia. He tactfully omitted any reference to the fortieth anniversary of the Appomattox surrender, which would be celebrated up north in four days.
Following an afternoon parade through downtown Dallas, T.R. was toasted at a lavish banquet in the Oriental Hotel. Ex-governor Jim Hogg hailed him as “the hero of Panama,” where the decade-long dredging of the canal had begun the previous year.
After a ten-minute stop the next morning at Hillsboro, where the New York Times reported “the entire population turned out” to see a chief executive in the flesh, the train sped south. Taking advantage of discount fares, thousands of Central Texans had made their way to Waco by rail for an open-air rally.
“I like your men, yet I put your women a little bit above them,” Roosevelt said to the sea of 40,000 faces. “They are God’s noblest gift to mankind and really are the governing spirit of our great country.” However, he stopped short of advocating the right to vote for the disenfranchised gender.
Temple was not on the itinerary until the city council passed “an emergency ordinance requiring all presidential trains to stop ten minutes.” Teddy obeyed the tongue-in-cheek law provoking a rare sour-grapes reaction for a local editor, who rebuked his readers for kowtowing to “King Theo II, a misfit mad for power and adoration.”
Roosevelt made every minute count on his whirlwind tour of Austin, the second visit to the capital by a sitting president. A formal address to the legislature was followed by extemporaneous remarks to an overflow crowd on the capitol grounds. Then it was onto the University of Texas, where the president gave the students stern instructions to present “a splendid spectacle of the most orderly discipline.”
Five thousand were on hand in San Marcos to cheer the real-life “teddy bear.” Roosevelt again resorted to flattery by remarking, “I can see that this town has more than its share of pretty girls.” Twenty young women wearing Rough Rider costumes inspired a similar comment in neighboring New Braunfels.
Reaching San Antonio well after dark, the president spent the night in his private railcar. Apr. 7 was a full day with the obligatory parade, traditional tribute to the Alamo martyrs in a speech outside the shrine, a noisy get-together with eight thousand schoolchildren and a review of the troops at Fort Sam Houston.
By nightfall the weary celebrity was ready to renew acquaintances with the Rough Riders, the colorful contingent he organized in 1898 for the invasion of Cuba. Also attending the invitation-only affair was Pat Garrett, whose murder five years later in the New Mexico desert would go unsolved.
Leaving San Antonio at midnight, the presidential express completed the long trip to Fort Worth in nine and a half hours. The boisterous Cow Town welcome was the biggest of the final day, but the folks in Rhome, Decatur, Bowie, Henrietta, Wichita Falls and Vernon also did their best to give Roosevelt a rousing send-off on his Oklahoma wolf hunt.
“I always wondered why God made wolves,” declared the smooth-talking mayor of Vernon, who hastened to add he had found the answer. “It was so we might have the glorious opportunity of seeing, hearing and paying homage to the world’s most eminent wolf hunter, whether it be the lobo of our western plains or the ravenous wolves of finance and commerce.”
Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549.