by Paul R. Spitzzeri
We’ve had occasion to spotlight presidential visits in this blog, including those of Rutherford Hayes in 1880, William McKinley just over two decades later and not long before his assassination, William Howard Taft in 1911, and Woodrow Wilson eight years after that and while he basked (temporarily) in the glow of America’s prime role in bringing an end to the First World War. Warren G. Harding was slated to come to Los Angeles on 2 August 1923, but became seriously ill at San Francisco and died there on that date.
Today, we feature another one of the forays of the chief executive in greater Los Angeles, this being the visit of McKinley’s successor after that president’s death in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt (who, incidentally, remains the youngest person to become president, having acceeded to that office at age 42, a year younger than John F. Kennedy was when he won election in 1960). Our highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is a stereoscopic photograph (a pair of identical, but slightly offset, images of the same subject that, when viewed through a stereopticon, gives a three-dimensional effect) of Roosevelt addressing a crowd at Pomona College in Claremont on 8 May 1903.
The president was on an eight-week swing through twenty-five states and, as his predecessor had done, came to this region when Los Angeles was celebrating its La Fiesta de las Flores (known in the 1890s as La Fiesta de Los Angeles and given its new moniker the year of McKinley’s visit). Having come in by train from the east along the Santa Fe route, Roosevelt and his entourage paid a short visit in Claremont and his address to the crowd at the college before proceeding to the Angel City.
For folks in the college town and surrounding communities, the presidential stop was, naturally, an event of significant historic proportions. Founded in 1887 and established in one of those railroad hotels that usually had few, if any, paying guests in Claremont, despite its name, the institution still had just 172 students (though there were over sixty in the music school, eight in the art and design program, and just above 130 in the college prep school) and two dozen faculty. Tuition had just risen ten dollars to $70 a term for the college students, while the prep school went up from $45 to $50.
The college’s president George Gates invited Roosevelt to speak on the campus, hoping that an appearance would boost the fortunes of the institution and it certainly did bring attention to the college when the president accepted. The Pomona Progress of 7 May gushed “as the great occasion of the President’s visit draws near Claremont is donning such holiday attire as she never dreamed of possessing.” On one side of a campus structure, the crimson color scheme and school yell of Harvard, from which Roosevelt graduated in 1880, were displayed along with Pomona’s blue and white.
The paper added that “the large platform constructed just to the right of the steps to Pearsons hall will present a most pleasing sight to the Presidential party.” It noted that it was ten feet high “and the front and sides will be a mass of pepper boughs sprinkled with rose buds.” The hall was festooned with flags, including the City of Pomona’s official one and another given to that city’s Board of Trade by the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad recently built through town—both unveiled publicly for the first time, draped over the entrance to the building.
The Progress also reported that “at the windows of Holmes hall and Pearsons hall about 200 seats have been reserved.” Students assembled at the campus chapel from where they marched “to a place reserved for them between the two buildings.” A dozen carriages comprised a convoy conveying the chief executive, Gates, William Marston of the trustees, federal officials and dignitaries, members of the press, and others to the school from the nearby train station.
Early on the morning of the 8th, recorded the Pomona Review, people made their way to the college in wagons and carriages, by horse and bicycle, and on foot. In addition to the students of the institution, there was a contingent of members of the Grand Army of the Republic, being veterans of the Civil War, then almost forty years in the past, as well as school children from such neighboring cities as Chino, La Verne, Ontario, Pomona, and San Dimas.
The Progress calling the event “Roosevelt Day at the College,” opened its coverage by observing, “the President has come and gone, the multitudes have dispersed, the flags and bunting are being taken down and once again the attractive little village of Claremont, seat of Pomona College, has assumed the regularity of student life.” Reflecting on the visit of the president, the paper opined “it was certainly a great day, the most notable in point of importance and popular visitation in the history of Claremont to which all roads seem to lead for the time being.”
At 9 a.m., the train arrived at the Santa Fe station, just south of the campus, and the presidential party, which included such prominent Los Angeles figures as Charles F. Lummis and Los Angeles Times publisher and stalwart Republican Harrison Gray Otis, made its way to the college as the youngsters and their teachers lined the route holding roses and flags with many of the flowers thrown in the street before the carriages passed in procession.
As the president ascended the speakers’ platform, there was a special “Roosevelt yell” followed by those of Harvard and Pomona, before Gates introduced the chief executive. There was also a rendering of the college song, “Ghost Dance Upon the Indian Hill,” written by a professor and purportedly based on a song of the Cahuilla Indians, who lived east toward Palm Springs.
While the two Pomona papers professed to paraphrase the president’s prepared remarks, while the Times seemed to offer a verbatim transcript. Roosevelt began by acknowledging the veterans, crediting for laying the groundwork for America’s marked rise in economic and political power during the last part of the previous century and the first years of the current one.
The president also praised the rapid development of Pomona College and of California broadly before addressing the critical need for citizens to have a sound body and mind, the latter, of course, leading to remarks about higher education. Here, the Progress quoted Roosevelt as telling the crowd,
every college should add to the sum of the productive scholarship of the nation; and I trust that this college, and all the colleges of this great new [well, fifty-three years new!] state will add to the purely American type of productive scholarship . . . and every college should strive to have its students do good original work.
The highlighted Underwood and Underwood photo has a caption reading “American Scholarship—capacity to do good original work,” which is a paraphrase of the remarks above. president then turned toward character, morality and patriotism and his point was that the role of higher education was to develop the mind so that all of these qualities combined to create “the proper type of American citizenship.” He ended his remarks by declaiming “I prize the chance of meeting and being met by such a gathering as this, becuase it augurs well for the Republic to see in this distinctly Western state, the things of the body and the things of the soul equally cared for.”
For its part, the Times reported that “the little town of Claremont, with the big institution of Pomona College, was famous.” It noted that the president was regretful at having to leave after so short a visit and told Gates, “I like to talk to a colleg audience” because “it is a pleasure to develop a theme and lay it bare to such an immense crowd of appreciative listeners as spread before me today.” The paper added that one enthusiastic person on the street tossed a floral bouquet with such force that it knocked Roosevelt’s silk top hat into the college president’s lap and that “the President was greatly delighted” by this.
Unlike its Pomona contemporaries, the Times, reflective of Otis’ conservatism, as well as striking given the domestic terrorist bombing of the paper’s headquarters seven years later, placed particular emphasis on a portion of the President’s remarks that it set in bold type. It also happens to be an especially lengthy sentence:
So in civil life, the abler a man is in business, in politics, in social leadership, the worse he is if he is a scoundrel, whether his scoundrelism takes the form of corruption is business, corruption in politics, or that most sinister of all forms, the effort to rise by inciting class hatred, by inciting lawlessness, by exciting the spirit of evil, the spirit of jealousy and envy as between man and man, and that spirit is equally base, whether it takes the form of arrogance on the part of the well-to-do toward those less well-to-do, or of mean and base envy and jealousy on the part of those not well-to-do, for those who are better off. [Applause.] It is equally evil against the principles of our government in one case as in the other.
Estimates for the size of the crowd present in Claremont that morning as being as high as 10,000, according to the Progress and the president and his entourage proceeded to Pasadena, where he made some brief remarks and visited the widow of President James Garfield, who was assassinated in 1881, before proceeding to Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Record heralded the president’s entry into the city by stating “as showers of beautiful flowers fell upon him, tossed by the hands of fair women, and the hearty cheers of an admiring and patriotic people resounded in his ears, President Theodore Roosevelt realized today what it is to be not only the chief of the nation, but a man beloved of the people.” The paper claimed that, with the enthusiastic greeting rendered by the denizens of the Angel City, “the president looked the happiest man on earth, as he probably was.”
The paper added that, during the La Fiesta parade, “when the Chinese section drew up, with its beautiful but outlandish costumes, its ferocious-looking dragon and its noise called music, the president looked puzzled; then he smiled broadly, and, yelling across to the ‘Terrors,’ on the opposite side of the street, asked: ‘What is it?’. But he clapped his hands as the dragon went by.” It was reported, though, that Roosevelt beamed when a German contingent sang a tune called “High He Lives.”
The chief executive, after a lunch at the Westminster Hotel, gave a speech at Central Park, renamed Pershing Square about fifteen years later after the conclusion of World War One in honor of General John J “Black Jack” Pershing. The Record included a drawing of Roosevelt in western garb and carrying a suitcase with stickers of such itinerary stops as Kansas City, St, Louis and Yosemite National Park, which appears to be the setting, while a poem by “cowboy poet” Earl A. Brininstool was published with the image and which partially reads:
Sound the tocsin; toot the tooter
Beat the tom-tom; shoot the shooter
Loosen up your lungs a spell,
And the mighty chorus swell,
If you fell like yellin’, yell
In an editorial, “What Our Stupendous President Typifies,” the Times adjudged that Roosevelt was emblematic of “the vigor, the strength, the earnestness, the high purpose, and the unconquerable will of American manhood.” This meant, the paper continued, that “no wage-earner in the nation works harder or more continuously than he.” Because he was enthusiastic to a significant degree, but also possessed the common sense and judgement of a mature individual, it was adjudged that “the President is, indeed, an ideal type of American manhood” and “a type toward which all of us may aspire, with profit to ourselves and with benefit to the land we love.”
The editorial did wonder if Roosevelt might “preach the strenuous life somewhat too insistently,” suggesting Americans did not need the spur so much as the brake because they stod accused, with some reason, “of being too eager in the pursuit of material success.” It claimed, though, that the chief executive “does not typify the strenuous life of the dollar-worshiper.” He advocated having time for leisure, but “the trouble with most Americans is that they do not play enough, and that they work too constantly.”
The ideal was to balance action with thought and, in this, the president personified the even keel of the two. The Times noted “the people of Los Angeles, of California, and of the whole golden slope of the Pacific, are glad to receive and entertain their distinguished guest . . . they love him, they honor him, without much regard to varying shades of political belief.” They did so, not just because he was the chief executive, but because of the man who was brave and of honor and “because he is of pure life and righteous mind.”
Finally, the piece concluded, “he believes firmly in American prestige and American destiny” and “is a man among men, and a fit leader in the councils of the great nation of which he is at present the Chief Executive.” With this, the Times saluted Roosevelt by proclaiming, “And so, Mr. President, Los Angeles bids you hail and farewell.”