In honor of Presidents’ Day tomorrow, we thought we would take a look back at presidential visits to McLean County over the years. It is believed that 18 presidents of the United States have visited McLean County, the first being Millard Fillmore, who became president after Zachary Taylor’s unexpected death in July 1850. Fillmore came to Bloomington while on a tour of the west in June 1854. He was a guest at the Pike House, formerly located on the southeast corner of Center and North (now Monroe) streets, in downtown Bloomington. Of course, the most well-known POTUS to visit McLean County was none other than Abraham Lincoln, who was a regular visitor of McLean County and Bloomington-Normal while a practicing lawyer on the Eighth Judicial Circuit (1837-1860). Lincoln also delivered more than a half-dozen political speeches, including what could be considered one of the most important speeches of his political career, at the State Convention of the Anti-Nebraska Party of Illinois (sometimes referred to as the “Lost Speech”). This speech (of which no complete transcript is known to exist) was delivered at Major’s Hall in downtown Bloomington on the evening of May 29, 1856.
Other presidents who stopped in McLean County include Ulysses S. Grant (who visited Bloomington three times, once for a Union veterans’ reunion sometime in the 1880s) and Theodore Roosevelt (who stopped in Bloomington twice, including a stay at the Illinois House while in town to deliver a speech at the Coliseum in downtown Bloomington in April 1912). Ronald Reagan was a regular visitor in the area, thanks in part to his football career at Eureka College. Eureka College played both Illinois State Normal University and Illinois Wesleyan University. Reagan also visited the area in October 1955 and stayed for two days at the Prairie Travelers Motel on Route 66 in Bloomington. Part of this trip included a visit to the General Electric plant due to his role as host of the TV program, “The General Electric Theater” (which he hosted from 1954-1962).
The earliest known photographic record of a presidential visit in McLean County is from when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Bloomington on Oct. 14, 1936, during a whistlestop speech when he was campaigning for re-election. His campaign via rail had taken Roosevelt throughout the Midwest and Great Plains, with appearances in Kansas, Minnesota, and Iowa. At 2:35 p.m. (five minutes behind schedule), an estimated 20,000 people heard President Roosevelt’s seven-minute speech at the Chicago & Alton Railroad station on Bloomington’s west side. Included in that crowd were about 5,000 public school students who received written permission from their parents to attend this once-in-a-lifetime event. After his speech, Roosevelt and his party spent an additional three minutes chatting with dignitaries, as well as those in the crowd nearest to the observation platform. Before the train left, the McLean County Democratic Women’s organization presented Eleanor Roosevelt with a bouquet of 75 dark red “Better Times” roses, and an armful of bronze chrysanthemums was given to Roosevelt’s daughter-in-law, Betsey, who was also with the delegation. At exactly 2:45 p.m., the president’s special train departed promptly, heading off to its next stop in Joliet.
List of known United States presidents who have visited McLean County, Illinois:
No. 13, Millard Fillmore, June 1854; 16, Abraham Lincoln, countless visits between 1836-1860; 17, Andrew Johnson, Sept. 8, 1866; 18, Ulysses S. Grant, Sept. 8, 1866, Oct. 16, 1874; ca. 1880s; 23, Benjamin Harrison, Oct. 7, 1890; 26, Theodore Roosevelt, June 3, 1903, April 6, 1912; 27, William Howard Taft, Oct. 30, 1915; 28, Woodrow Wilson, April 5, 1912; 32, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Oct. 14, 1936; 34, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Oct. 2, 1952; 35, John F. Kennedy, Oct. 24, 1959; 36, Lyndon B. Johnson, July 16, 1965; 38, Gerald Ford, Oct. 16, 1976; 40, Ronald Reagan, 1928-1931, Oct. 19-21, 1955, Jan. 20, 1961, Oct. 18, 1980; 41, George H.W. Bush, Sept. 28, 1988; 43, George W. Bush, Aug. 6, 2000; 44, Barack Obama, Aug. 2, Sept. 3, and Oct. 14, 2004, June 24 and Aug. 1, 2005; 45, Donald J. Trump, March 13, 2016.
A Piece From Our Past is a weekly column provided by the McLean County Museum of History.
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