There are many truly classic moments of textbook Americana in the annals of Richland County history. These events and people are found mostly in books that have hardly any pictures — leaving it up to the reader to provide an image with their own imagination.
Too few of these scenes were actually captured in the moment with a photograph that does justice to the epic quality of the event.
Fortunately for us, there was a cameraman standing by in 1912 on the Square in Mansfield, and he was able to stop time for an instant so that we — more than 100 years later — can experience one of these quintessentially American moments.
It was the day Teddy Roosevelt came to town.
It is a rare era when, every few generations in American history, someone comes along who immortalizes the spirit of the age by embodying the conscience of the people. That was Theodore Roosevelt.
He was one of the most beloved men of the century, and he was larger than life because he evoked authentic change for the betterment of humanity. He fought to put an end to child labor, and he strove mightily for the working class.
When he was president he was unquestionably the most popular man in the country. Unfortunately in 1912 when he came to Mansfield he was no longer the president.
Roosevelt rose to national prominence in 1900 as vice president under William McKinley, and it was only upon McKinley’s assassination that he became chief executive. When he ran for reelection four years later he won by a landslide.
After his term expired in 1908, Roosevelt handed off the White House to his political ally and cohort William Taft.
By 1912, Roosevelt felt Taft had failed, so he wanted the oval office back again. The two friends ran against each other, and quickly became bitter rivals.
The campaign of 1912 turned into a political brawl. Actually it was more like a prizefight, and Mansfield had the opportunity to be one of the arenas where it was staged. The canvas for their action was the Square, and the first boxer into the ring was William Taft.
In This Corner…
Taft came to town on May 15, a week before the Ohio Primary. He arrived on the B&O after making a series of very quick whistle stops on the way from Mount Vernon, so folks in Fredericktown, Butler, Bellville and Lexington could wave at the president.
By the time he got to the Square there was a brass band already playing, and the giddy crowd was singing “Get on the Raft with Taft, boys, get on the Raft with Taft!”
The assembled throng numbered anywhere from 2,000 to 6,000 people, depending on which newspaper you read, and the people were either “enthralled,” according to the Mansfield News (Republican), or “walking away after the band stopped,” as reported by the Daily Shield (Democrat.)
Before the president climbed up the steps of the gazebo he delivered a short sermon to the children in the front row, vainly hoping that by paying them some attention he might keep them quiet during the main oration.
President Taft spoke for 40 minutes. He spoke of his accomplishments with strong words, and attacked his opponent with indignant anger. The kids were polite as long as they could stand it.
Another crowd gathered at the Union depot to see Taft off, and as the Erie special pulled away toward Marion they all broke into song again — this time it was “Deal Gently With Us, Lord,” the President’s favorite hymn.
Anyone in the crowd reading the paper, standing there on the railroad platform waving goodbye to Billy Possum, couldn’t have missed the advance publicity for Mansfield’s next main event: the imminent arrival of Teddy Bear.
In This Corner…
It was only three days later when Theodore Roosevelt came to town to have the last word. He spoke from the balcony of the Southern Hotel, which stood on the southwest corner of the Square.
Between bouts of wild cheering the Square fell dead silent so Mr. Roosevelt’s words echoed back from North Park Street. He spoke of his accomplishments with strong words, and attacked his opponent with scornful anger.
As with the Taft event, partisan newspaper coverage varied widely in detail. The estimated size of the crowd differed between reporters, but everyone agreed it was a much larger mass of highly energized people.
Taft supporters were quick to quibble that Mr. Roosevelt arrived on a Saturday, when all the farmers were in town, which accounted for the huge discrepancy in audience numbers. The actual election polling results in Richland County three days later tend to suggest otherwise.
Put quite simply by one who was there, "Mr. Taft was only a President, but Mr. Roosevelt was a legend."
In any event, Mansfield Police reported that after each politician left town there were the exact same number of pickpocket crimes reported from the crowds.
Another Presidential year
What they said about the presidential election campaign of 1912 is what can be said about every election season every four years: it was a hard fought and angry battle.
All that passion and anger however, was not without its humor.
Take, for example, this photo captured by someone who brought their camera to the Square in 1912. They caught their hero, Theodore Roosevelt, on film. The event was staged however, so that the photograph contained, in the same frame, the giant political banners next door where letters, nearly as tall as the candidate, spell out the name of the man running against him.
Like he was posing in a colossal ad for his opponent.