Our country celebrated the government’s highest office on Monday and with the election coming up it prompted me to wonder if any of our past presidents ever visited the Great Plains. Maybe Abilene’s Eisenhower or the Kansas City, Missouri native, Harry S. Truman? After a quick online search I was surprised to discover that not only did one of the twentieth century’s most notable presidents, Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) visit our area, but WaKeeney was one of the towns that welcomed the United States’ twenty-fifth president.
Traveling by rail from coast to coast, Roosevelt set out on a whistle-stop tour across America to win the hearts of voters during his reelection bid in 1903. With stump speeches that summarized the qualities of the American people, he reminded citizens of their common values and referenced the unwavering spirit of his countrymen when facing adversity. He also addressed the devastation caused by several natural disasters that had recently occurred throughout the country, saying, “all our troubles are temporary; that misfortunes, and we shall have, will be met and overcome, because in heart and hand and head the American citizen is able to win his way in the long run.” (From a speech in Denison, Iowa)
With only about 800 people living in Trego County in 1903, WaKeeney was still relatively new on the prairie when Roosevelt’s train rolled through town, but there was a beautiful limestone railroad depot and it provided the backdrop for his speech. He spoke to the crowd from a platform on the back of his private car, presumably with the legendary vigor he continues to be so well known for even over a century later. His speech was brief but his message was clear; he was a president who identified himself as a son of the West and he admired the changes he was witnessing since his last visit to Kansas, including the advancements in agriculture and the establishment of alfalfa as a new crop being cultivated on the prairie.
Today the Main Street Nature Trail weaves in and around the spot where the depot once stood. It’s a beautiful addition to WaKeeney’s downtown, filled with flowers and grasses that echo the vitality of the land Roosevelt saw on his tour through the Great Plains of Western Kansas.
I found a transcript of his speech in the online archives of the Theodore Roosevelt Center and have copied it for this post. Let us know what you think of his words in the comments below, and then plan a visit to the Main Street Nature Trail this spring to see where a president once greeted the citizens of WaKeeney, Kansas.
Remarks of President Roosevelt at WaKeeney, Kansas, May 2, 1903
By Fellow Citizens
It is a great pleasure to me to come out and greet you today. Since yesterday afternoon I have been traveling through Kansas from east to west. Now I am out into the short grass country, which I know of old, for in the old days I worked, myself, on the range. I have enjoyed meeting your people It has been a great pleasure to me to mark the extraordinary growth not merely in your industries and products, but in your methods of applying your industries. The change, for instance during the last twenty years when I first went into business on the plains, in the spread of alfalfa is alone often enough to make the exact difference between success and failure in a year in a given locality. So the change in your stock, as I see it from the car window, is marvelous. The older ones among you can remember well when the steer used to be almost all horns and tail. The same change has come in our knowledge of what we can do. It took quite a time in a good many of these states to learn that we could not always raise wheat where we could raise cattle, and the experience was not pleasant in learning it. Now most of those experiments have been tried and we have got pretty well to know what we can do and what we cannot do, and because of that there is a great future for the west, greater even than its great past, and most of all I believe it because I have confidence in the people here. I know them, I have worked with them, and here seen what they can do. I know their qualities, and they have in them the stuff out of which good citizenship is made, because they have in them the quality that makes a man wrest success from out of the adverse fortune in this life. The things that come easy are generally not worth having. I do not know of anything that there is lying around loose except advice. Almost everything else you have got to work for. If a man looks back to his past he will find that what he prizes is when he had to do a job that was worth doing when done.