Friday, December 14, 2012

Woodrow Wilson’s Birthday Celebration – Staunton Honors a Distinguished Son

During December 1912 in Staunton, many children anxiously waited for Christmas and many adults anxiously prepared for the visit of President-elect Woodrow Wilson to begin on December 27. The occasion for Wilson’s visit was to celebrate his 56th birthday on December 28th at the place of his birth in the Presbyterian Manse on Coalter Street.

On Election Day, Tuesday, November 5, 1912, Rockingham County cast 3,195 votes for president of which fifty-five percent went to Wilson. On November 18th the local newspaper reported that plans were well underway for a “mammoth celebration” for Woodrow Wilson in Staunton on December 28th. The visit was planned to be a sentimental and non-political journey. Speculation centered on whether Wilson would come to the Valley by way of Harpers Ferry or Washington. [1]

Just before the expected visit, newspapers reported that the President-elect had a cold; this caused anxiety among the local planners. Mrs. Wilson told the press that this “exaggeration of his indisposition” annoyed Wilson.[2] Nonetheless, many knew Wilson for being a bit of a hypochondriac.

The President-elect reached Staunton at 7:10 pm via the C&O Railway. Some forty newspapers and news gathering associations arrived in Staunton to cover the Wilson celebration, including the Rockingham Daily Record, other Virginia newspapers, many New York newspapers, and members of the Associated Press. The event organizers provided the reporters with communications equipment, work rooms, a continuous luncheon buffet, and a smoking room.[3]

From the train station Wilson and his wife went to the First Presbyterian Manse, the place of his birth and where he spent his nights on this visit.[4] Along his parade route Wilson saw many public buildings in Staunton decorated with bunting, hundreds of electric lights shining, and a huge ornamental arch and columns had been erected on the route.[5]

A Staunton newspaper interviewed the sixty-eight year old “Uncle Frank” Ware, a former slave who had been a companion to the young “Tommy” Wilson fifty-six years ago. (Wilson’s full name was Thomas Woodrow Wilson.) At the meeting between the two in 1912, “the Governor” [6] greeted his former nurse: “Hello, Frank, I’m so glad to see you….” “My, my, Marster Tommy is this really you?” was the old slave’s response.” (This conversation sounds a bit fabricated because Wilson only lived in Staunton for the first year of his life!) Ware also gave an account of the time he took the future president for a wheelbarrow ride to meet his mother and he upset the barrow causing “Tommy a bloody nose.” [7]

The day long celebration on December 28 began at 8 am – the appointed time for Wilson to wake and to ready for a ten o’clock reception for city and visiting officials and newspaper men at the Manse. At noon Wilson and Governor Mann of Virginia reviewed the military and civic parade. After the parade, the President-elect gave an address in front of the Mary Baldwin Seminary followed by a public reception. In his speech, Wilson promised not to be a sectional president, took note of fortune-making activities that in the past decades consisted of getting something for nothing, and objected to thinking that led to unquestioning views on isolation and monopoly. Mrs. Wilson was honored at an afternoon reception by the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the Confederacy. [8]

With a delicious sounding menu, the day-long celebration concluded at the Staunton Military Academy with a banquet attended by about 350 people. Entrees were Terrapin a la Baltimore and Saddle of Southdown Mutton Soubise with Aspic of foie gras Strasbourgeoise and Chiffonade Salad along with other delicacies. The President-elect’s remarks at the banquet took note, “without rancor,” of the failure of the Virginia delegation at the Baltimore Democratic Convention to support him for the presidency.[9]

On Sunday, December 29th, the presidential party left on a special train for Princeton. A photograph of Wilson parading about town in an open horse-drawn carriage and a photograph of Wilson leaving for the station in an open automobile provided an interesting commentary on the time period. The estimate of the number of people that attended the events in Staunton that weekend was 20,000. The population of the city in 1910 was only 10,604. The honor of Wilson’s visit involved the larger population of the Valley. 

In Harrisonburg the Rockingham Daily Record covered the preparations and the event provided “local sidelights on the big Wilson day.” The Daily News Band participated in the parade and received “a large share of applause.” However, not enough men from Woodrow Wilson Club of Harrisonburg showed up to march in the parade-- to the disappointment of the Club’s Marshall Lee D. Patterson. Former Senator George B. Keezell did meet with Wilson on Saturday and Irvine S. McNeill was a member of the welcoming committee. [10]

You can celebrate the centennial of this visit and Wilson’s 156th birthday at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library at an open house on December 28 from 11 am to 3 pm. Admission to the museum and a tour of the Manse will be free. There will be punch and cookies and a Wilson re-enacter, Judd Bankert will be on site.[11]

[1] Rockingham News Record. November 18, 1912.
[2]  Ibid.  December 27, 1912.
[3]  Ibid.
[4] The Manse was built in 1846 for John Fifer.
[5]  Ibid.
[6]  Wilson was Governor of New Jersey when he was elected President.
[7]  Scrapbook Collection.  Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library.  Staunton, Virginia.
[8]  Rockingham News Record.  December 30, 1912.
[9]  Ibid.  Scrapbook Collection.
[10] Ibid.
[11] The author thanks Peggy Dillard, Director and Archivist of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library for her time  and making the Wilson materials available for this article.  The illustrations for this article are from the Scrapbook Collection at the WWPL.

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