With Monday being President’s Day, it seemed a good time to reflect back to July 9,1938 when 32nd President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt, aboard his special train car “Marco Polo,” visited Wister, McAlester, (Holdenville) Shawnee, Oklahoma City and Purcell.
Assuming the presidency at the depth of the Great Depression, FDR helped the American people regain faith in themselves. He brought hope as he promised prompt, vigorous action, and asserted in his Inaugural Address “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
He entered public service through politics, but unlike his fifth cousin, 26th President Theodore Roosevelt, as a Democrat. He won election to the New York Senate in 1910. President Wilson appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and he was the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1920.
In the summer of 1921, when he was 39, disaster hit as he was stricken with poliomyelitis. Demonstrating indomitable courage, he fought to regain the use of his legs, particularly through swimming. At the 1924 Democratic Convention he dramatically appeared on crutches to nominate Alfred E. Smith as “the Happy Warrior.” In 1928 Roosevelt became governor of New York and in November 1932, he was elected president to the first of four terms.
President Roosevelt’s July 1938 trip across the country began on June 30 at the start of construction of the U.S. Building at the New York World’s Fair in New York City, followed by an address to the National Education Association. His train then stopped in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Marietta, Ohio; Covington, Louisville; Bowling Green and Russellville, Kentucky. And finally, a short stop in Booneville, Arkansas before stopping in Oklahoma just after noon on July 9.
The first stop in what was described as “a crowd which seemed to cover the surrounding hills was waiting for President Roosevelt” at Wister, Oklahoma. Third District U.S. Congressman Wilburn Wright met the train at Wister and presented the president. FDR spoke chiefly about the Wister Dam project, a flood control project on the Poteau River that had been authorized in a bill he had signed only a few days earlier.
From the rear platform of this special train, President Roosevelt shared, “I am glad to come to Wister. I have never been in this part of the state before. I have been reading a great deal about the Wister Dam and I am glad that the national government, with your help, is going ahead with it.”
And it was at this stop at the Wister Depot where we get some comical insight into the ultimate mission and destination of this particular trip.
“I wish I could see this particular project. One of my jobs in Washington is to study maps and reports, and on this particular little cruise that I am going to take in the Pacific and back through the Panama Canal. I have two great big boxes of papers, reports of all kinds that I, in my spare moments when I am not fishing, am going to study and try to get familiar with at first hand.”
He closed with, “Some day perhaps I will be able to come back here and see the Wister Dam when it is finished. In the meantime, good luck to you.”
The Wister Dam and Lake project was authorized by the 1938 Flood Control Act. It was not completed until 1949, fours years after President Roosevelt’s death.
At 12:50 p.m., Roosevelt’s train rolled into McAlester and the president was introduced by Oklahoma U.S. Senator Elmer Thomas.
“This is a familiar scene. I am glad to be back in McAlester and some day I hope to be able to get off the train and see something of this town. I had never come through the eastern part of the state before and I have been much interested in all that I have seen. I am glad to be here with your congressman and my two old friends, senators from Oklahoma.
“As you know, I have been tremendously interested in the past six years, or longer than that, in the development and the protection of our natural resources.
“It may be interesting to you, who once mined coal in this section, to hear a little story that was told to me by one of the greatest power engineers in the United States. I said to him, ‘Of course we are developing our oil, we are developing our water power, but isn’t it true that the use of power all over the country is increasing with great rapidity? Are we going to have enough natural resources for the future?’ And he said something to me that I had not known before, that the use of electrical power will probably double once every eight or nine years, in other words, that the average citizen, the average household, is going to use power of one kind or another much more greatly not only in the cities but on the farms, and also, of course in the growing number of industries and factories. I said to him, ‘Well, where are we going to get it from?’
“He said, ‘Do you realize that in some parts of the United States, southeastern Kansas, eastern Oklahoma, corner of Texas, there are great underlying beds of coal under the ground, enough tonnage there to last the population of the United States for half a thousand years to come?’ And, he said, inevitably, when we come to it, we will produce from those natural resources that are not being tapped today. I could not help but think of that it in coming through a part of the United States that has great undeveloped coal beds and undoubtedly some of you young people may live to see the day when this coal is being turned into power. I hope to see that day myself.”
Following the McAlester stop, Roosevelt’s train must have slowed considerably (there is some oral history of a stop in Holdenville) for the official itinerary and speech files pick up next at 4:15 p.m. with a Shawnee stop, where records share that about 3,000 people were in the audience. It is at this stop that we learn the fourth of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s six children son Elliott was along on the trip.
From Shawnee, “I am in the middle of a very distinguished gathering on this car platform, the Governor of the State and both of the United States Senators and a flock of Congressman and last, but not least, my small boy Elliott. (Elliott was 28 at the time.) Elliott and I have an inferiority complex because we are the runts of the Roosevelt family. I am only six feet one and a half and he is only six feet two, but all the others are a lot taller than that.”
At the time, Elliott Roosevelt was married to a Texas socialite and was living in the Fort Worth, Texas area. He had been vice president for sales at KTSA in San Antonio when Hearst Radio bought the radio station in 1935. Taking his cue from the new owner, he came with the idea of putting together a chain of Lone Star broadcasters that is still in business today – Texas State Network.
The final Oklahoma stop was in Oklahoma City where prior to the 6 p.m. speech at the fairgrounds President Roosevelt departed the train with an oral history sharing of his, “handicap well hidden.” Having been stricken with polio in 1921, he had learned to manage himself so his handicap was not obvious. The train stopped so that the rear platform of his car, was only a few feet from where a seven-passenger open auto, brought from Kansas City for FDR’s use was parked. From the baggage car a ramp with chromium handrails was brought and quickly put in place between the platform of the observation car and the ground beside the automobile. By holding onto the rail of the ramp, Roosevelt was able to reach the ground without the infirmity being noticeable. National Guardsmen warned photographers that no pictures were to be taken while FDR descended the ramp.
Roosevelt greeted the Oklahoma City audience with the following, “Your great State will always have a certain distinction in my memory, because it is the only part of the forty-eight states which when I, as a small boy, started to study Geography bore a different name. I am fortunate in being old enough to be able to remember it as Indian Territory and to remember also the enormous interest in every part of the country when the prospective settlers lined up at the borders and, at the blow of a bugle, rushed forward to establish new home and new communities in this delightful part of earth.”
“Since those days you good people have gone far. A splendid future lies before you and you can rest assured that your National Government knows very definitely that you are on the map.”
Roosevelt also spoke in Oklahoma City about natural resources, oil resources of the Nation, and the use of land and water. He particularly called out the Oklahoma Grand River Dam Project and to the unfortunate fact of unemployment and the necessity for giving help to “many of our people” in order to assist communities in the erection of much-needed public improvement projects-Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration.
“I am told that the Works Progress program in Oklahoma is leaving permanent monuments all of the State, monuments that will last to the time of our great grandchildren. Just one item in this State the matter of new and improved schoolhouses alone in cooperation with the WPA the State has made a greater record than any other State in the Union.”
Roosevelt wrapped up his time in Oklahoma with the following, “During these past six years the people of this Nation have definitely said ‘yes’ to the old biblical question- ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ In these six years I sense a growing devotion to the teachings of the Scriptures, to the quickening of religion, to a greater willingness on the part of the individual to help his neighbor and to live less unto and for himself alone. It is in this spirit that, in consideration of every new problem, our first question is ‘What makes for the greatest good of the greatest number?’ America calls for a government with a soul.”
President Theodore Roosevelt made his two McAlester visits in 1905 and 1912, the first in route to the “Rough Riders/ Abernathy” fox hunt in southwest Oklahoma, and the second while campaigning for president for his unsuccessful third term as a Bull Moose. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was in the area in 1937, just a few months ahead of her husband FDR, when she delivered a speech and spent the night on the campus of Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant.
It is unclear about FDR’s opening statement in McAlester in July of 1938 if he had previously visited McAlester.
It is known that FDR’s only other state speech was in 1936 at Vinita (where his train had to stop because a city ordinance made it unlawful for any train carrying the President of the United States to pass through without stopping for at least 10 minutes. A crowd of 5,000 heard the president give a three-minute talk that day.
On other trips, FDR’s train stopped at El Reno and Muskogee long enough for an aide to walk his dog, Fala. And in 1943 a secret wartime trip was made to Tulsa to inspect production of war planes at the Douglas Aircraft Co. plant there. Roosevelt was driven through the bomber plant and had spent the previous night at Camp Gruber near Braggs, OK. These stops were unannounced and the public only learned of them after they occurred.