Reminisce: Lima’s history with Ohio presidents

LIMA — A dozen men served as presidents of the United States between 1869 and 1923 and seven of them were born in Ohio. An eighth president, William Henry Harrison, who parlayed fame fighting Indians in the old Northwest Territory into the presidency and died just 31 days into his term in 1841, was born in Virginia but was living in Ohio at the time he was elected.

The contributions of eight Ohio presidents will be highlighted in an exhibition titled “The Ohio Presidents: Surprising Legacies,” which opens to the public Saturday at the Allen County Museum.

Of the eight presidents Ohio claims – Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, Benjamin Harrison (William Henry Harrison’s grandson), William McKinley, William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding – at least five visited Lima to campaign or, because the railroads put Lima on the way to a lot of places, just to wave on their way through.

Grant, who was born in Point Pleasant and served two terms as president from 1869 to 1877, was one of the first to visit, although by the time he got around to it he had been out of office for more than a year and a half. Like all Ohio’s presidents, except William Henry Harrison, Grant was a Republican and, like Hayes, Garfield, and McKinley, served during the Civil War. Of all of them, none gained more fame in the war than Grant, who led the Union Army to victory in 1865.

So, when the Allen County Democrat reported on Dec. 11, 1879, that “The General” would pass through Lima on Christmas Eve, everyone knew who was being referred to. Grant, the newspaper wrote, “is compelled to stop over a few hours to make connections. He has telegraphed his intentions to visit, during his short stay in our city, the Photograph Gallery of S.K. Krauss, northeast corner Public Square, and obtain of himself photographs of all sizes, and have them framed for Christmas presents to the members of his family.”

In the same edition of the Democrat was an article railing against an idea being circulated at the time that Grant should seek a third term in 1881. “All of us remember who rendered possible the inauguration of Hayes, the first fraudulent President, despite the fact that Samuel J. Tilden was legally elected,” the Democrat wrote.

Hayes, a native of Delaware, Ohio, and former governor and U.S. representative from Ohio, followed Grant into the presidency in 1877 after one of the most fiercely disputed elections in U.S. history. Hayes ultimately defeated Tilden, New York’s governor, by a single electoral vote, although he lost the popular vote.

About two months before Grant’s visit, Hayes had been in Lima. Beneath the headline “His Royal Highness,” the Democrat wrote on Sept. 18, 1879, “On Saturday morning last, the startling intelligence was announced that the real genuine and only R.B. Hayes, President of the Great United States of America, would, with his suite, be at the depot from 1:35 to 2:00 p.m. This simple announcement was sufficient to bring together about five hundred people, of all shades, sexes and politics, and all with the sole ambition of gazing on a live president.”

The “royal party,” which included the First Lady, Lucy Hayes, and Gen. William T. Sherman, “were immediately conducted into the French House, where Charley Phinney had already prepared dinner for his distinguished guest …” Illustrating the importance of rail transportation at the time, the French House occupied a site at the intersection of the city’s main north-south and east-west railroads.

Following dinner, Hayes made a short speech in which, the Democrat wrote, “he referred to politics in only a left-handed manner” after which Sherman was called on to speak. However, the speech by Grant’s former right-hand man during the Civil War, “was cut short by a number of old veterans crowding to the front and shaking hands with the old ‘war horse,’ intent on recalling reminiscences of the ‘march to the sea,” according to the newspaper, which noted that, as the president’s train was departing for Fremont, Mrs. Hayes received three cheers and responded by “bowing her acknowledgment to the crowd.”

It is unclear if Garfield, who was born in Moreland Hills near Cleveland and was elected president in 1881, or Harrison, who was born in North Bend near Cincinnati, ever visited Lima. On July 2, 1881, Garfield, who served nine terms in the U.S. House, was shot by an assassin less than four months into his term as president. He died of his wounds on Sept. 19, 1881.

Harrison was represented by a log cabin constructed by local Republicans in the Public Square in September 1888 to “try to attach to Benj. Harrison and his campaign some of the individuality of his distinguished ancestor (William Henry Harrison),” Lima’s Daily Democratic Times wrote Sept. 24, 1888. It must have worked; Harrison was elected president and served from 1889 to 1893.

McKinley was born in Niles and served in an Ohio regiment commanded by Hayes during the Civil War. A former Ohio governor, he defeated William Jennings Bryan for the presidency in November 1896 and won re-election by defeating Bryan again in 1900.

In May 1901, McKinley stopped in Lima, but did not stay long because his wife, Ida, was ill. The stop drew a crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 people to the Pennsylvania Railroad station, the Allen County Republican-Gazette wrote May 31, 1901. “Out of respect to the health of Mrs. McKinley, the crowd restrained all boisterous demonstrations but when the president appeared at the platform there was an enthusiastic cheer and calls for a speech,” the newspaper noted. “He smiled and shook his head while he descended the steps and shook hands with all who could get near enough.” McKinley was cut down by an assassin while shaking hands during an appearance at the World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York, on Sept. 6, 1901, and died Sept. 14, 1901.

Taft, a native of Cincinnati, served as president from 1909 to 1913. He passed through Lima by rail several times before stopping long enough in May 1912 to address a large crowd. Once, in 1911, his train passed through so swiftly the guardsmen assigned to watch the railway and bridges in Lima couldn’t reach their posts in time. In October 1911, “Pauline,” described by the Republican-Gazette, as “President Taft’s favorite cow,” got a glimpse of Lima. “Pauline, snugly wrapped in costly blankets, looked from the express car with a bored expression when the train stopped at the Pennsylvania depot,” the newspaper wrote. Pauline had been on exhibition at a stock show at Minneapolis and was “en route to the presidential cowshed at the White House,” the Republican-Gazette explained.

In a battle for re-election with his one-time mentor, former Republican President Theodore Roosevelt running as a Progressive, and Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Taft hopped off a train in Lima on May 18, 1912. “Lima this afternoon paid tribute to President William Howard Taft, the first time a nation’s executive has delivered an address in the city,” the Lima News wrote. “And it was a royal welcome that could not be misunderstood.” With Taft and Roosevelt dividing the Republican vote, Wilson was elected president in 1913. Taft would go on to become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Harding was born near Blooming Grove in Morrow County and served as president from 1921 until his death in office on August 2, 1923. As a young man he bought the Marion Star and built it into a successful newspaper. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914.

On April 22, 1920, while seeking the Republican nomination for president, Harding arrived in Lima after a car trip through Indiana and checked into the Norval Hotel at the corner of Main and North streets before speaking to a large crowd at Memorial Hall. “My visit is chiefly one of cheer and greetings, with more thought about a Republican victory next November than somebody’s personal triumph at Chicago in June,” he said, according to the Lima Times-Democrat. He was nominated for president on the 10th ballot at the Chicago convention and won in a landslide over fellow Ohioan, Democrat James M. Cox, owner of the Dayton Daily News, in the November election.