Berkshires Once Notable For Presidential Visits
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Washington may never have slept here, but a number of the nation's later chief executives have stopped by for a spell over the last couple of centuries. One nearly died here, another died en route here; one was fined for over-fishing one of the region's beloved trout brooks, another was stranded at one its premiere postcard locales.
A larger-than-life statue of William McKinley can't be missed where it resides by the Adams Free Library, but not all passing Route 8 motorists know that McKinley twice visited this Berkshire town, and on his second visit in 1897 laid the cornerstone for said library. The statue beside it was created to honor him following his assassination in 1903.
McKinley made appearances elsewhere hereabouts while in office. He was a friend of the Plunketts, founders of the Berkshire Cotton Manufacturing Co., and generally to the textile industry, which was once such a driving force in this area.
A recovered photo of McKinley on an unidentified Pittsfield porch, along with what appears to be Secretary of War Russel Alger, surfaced on an auction site a few years back.
McKinley also stayed at Stockbridge's Red Lion Inn, along with Grover Cleveland, both Roosevelts, and Calvin Coolidge, though not all as presidents. Coolidge, while running for lieutenant governor in 1915, was briefly stranded there when his party accidentally left him behind from his own campaign tour. Finally Congressman Allen T. Treadway, then owner of the inn, noticed him missing and they returned to find the future president calmly smoking a cigar on the historic front porch.
"I thought you would come back for me," the laconic statesman, sometimes called 'Silent Cal,' is said to have remarked mildly.
James Garfield spent perhaps the most total time in the Berkshires of any president, though most of it long before taking that office. Garfield was educated at Williams College from 1854-56, and afterward taught for a while just over the border in Pownal, Vt. Garfield was, in fact, en route to the Berkshires on the day that he died. The Williams alum was about to board a train for his 25th college reunion on July 2, 1881, when he was shot at the station leaving Washington. He would linger nearly three months before succumbing to his injuries.
By far, though, the most legendary and unexpectedly vivid presidential visit to this county was that of Theodore Roosevelt on Sept. 3, 1902. Setting out to Lenox after a powerful speech at Pittsfield's Park Square and a quick visit to the Elm Street residence of Sen. Henry Dawes, the president's carriage was struck full force by an errant trolley car. William Craig, the president's security, became the first Secret Service agent (and one of the only) to lose his life in the duty of protecting the president.
The president was hurled from his carriage some distance (accounts vary) through the air, but survived with only superficial cuts and bruises. Roosevelt was furious, and it was said "nearly came to blows" with the trolley driver, Euclid Madden, right in the middle of South Street. Madden later received a six-month sentence for manslaughter.
Apparently unperturbed by his predecessor's mishap, William Taft saw fit to risk Pittsfield a few years later, in September 1909. Much less eventful, the newly elected Republican's visit was a brief stop between Springfield and Albany, N.Y., while on a train tour. His unremarkable tour must have come as some relief to his traveling companion that day, Sen. Winthrop Murray Crane of Dalton, who was also aboard Roosevelt's stricken carriage eight years earlier.
The last sitting American president to visit the Berkshires as far I know (corrections welcome) was Oct. 27, 1948, when Harry S. Truman buzzed through on a campaign stop in his tough race against New York Gov. Thomas Dewey. Among the Democrats there to greet him were then-Congressman John F. Kennedy, along with Pittsfield Mayor Robert Capeless, who admitted to locals later he was skeptical of the controversial president's chances against Dewey.
(Kennedy made a number of trips to the Berkshires as U.S. senator and during his presidential campaign.)
In his early morning stump speech at Union Station, Truman made comments demonstrating at least a passing familiarity with Berkshire politics of the time, as well as pointing to its distinguished liberal history: "It was always here in Western Massachusetts that the real progressive movement began in this country, and it began right after the Revolutionary War."
More than 70 years later, perhaps we are due another presidential visit here in the Berkshires.
Editor's Note: Following up on some of the comments on this story for 2013:
Taft would return four more times to the Berkshires, the last shortly after becoming chief justice of the Supreme Court. On one trip to speak at Williams College, his chauffeur took a wrong turn and wound up at the corner of Eagle and River streets in North Adams. In 1912, during his presidential campaign, the portly POTUS stopped in Adams, North Adams and Williamstown, and drove through Clarksburg and Stamford and Readsboro, Vt., on his way to Brattleboro. That's possibly the only time a president has passed through those small towns.
Woodrow Wilson visited his daughter and son-in-law in Williamstown in 1916. According to the North Adams Transcript's memorial to Taft in 1930, five of the presidents preceding Herbert Hoover had stopped in Northern Berkshire. The holdout: Warren G. Harding.
Garfield taught at a schoolhouse in North Pownal, Vt., after graduating from Williams College. Three years earlier, future President Chester A. Arthur, vice president under Garfield, had taught at the same school.
FDR twice stopped in Williamstown in the final days of the 1932 campaign. According to "Williamstown: The First Two Hundred Years," his car was thronged at the Pownal/Williamstown line and was led to Main and Spring streets where residents "were non-plussed when the Roosevelt car slid through the leaf-littered street without stopping." He did end up at Consumption Hill and spoke to the crowd - despite boos and cries of "Hoover" from Williams students.
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