History Thursday: When the 1912 presidential election ran through one Ohio town

Teddy Roosevelt is pictured campaigning in Bellevue, Ohio in 1912. Photo courtesy Bill Oddo's book, "Stories of Old Bellevue."

The travelers came into town on horse-drawn wagons, each person elegantly dressed for a stately presidential campaign stop.

Then the barrels of hard cider were brought out, and the whole town got drunk.

Indeed, nobody threw a party like the campaign of William Henry Harrison. The year was 1840, and hundreds of Bellevue residents reveled with shouts of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” Occasionally a tipsy Democrat would give a cheer for Martin Van Buren, eliciting angry looks from the fellow partiers.

Harrison’s caravan left town the next morning on the government road headed west toward Toledo. The Bellevue community band performed at his crowded rally at Fort Meigs, but most other residents stayed home. (Many suffered from quite a hangover.)

That government road would later become U.S. Route 20 through Northern Ohio. President Donald Trump recently visited a Whirlpool factory on Route 20 in Clyde, a neighboring city to Bellevue.

In doing so, Trump became the first sitting president to visit Sandusky County since William Howard Taft did so in 1912. 

Taft’s visit capped off a whirlwind week in Bellevue, in which three of the most famous American politicians visited the small city in a span of eight days. The details here are courtesy Bill Oddo’s book, “Stories of Old Bellevue.”

The first was William Jennings Bryan on May 9. Bryan had been the Democratic presidential nominee three times in the previous two decades.  

He lost to Ohioans all three times: William McKinley in 1896 and 1900, then William Howard Taft in 1908. 

Bryan was not a candidate in 1912, but he continued to travel the country giving his famous orations. He arrived in Bellevue that morning and gave a 10-minute speech from the platform of his private train car, then took off again.

Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Bellevue on May 15. He’d previously visited the city as a vice presidential candidate under McKinley in 1900. After McKinley’s assassination the following year, Roosevelt served nearly two full terms as president. 

He left office for four years, then campaigned again for president under a third party known as “Bull Moose.” A thousand Bellevue residents greeted Teddy at the train station. The local mayor gave the formal introduction, then Roosevelt spoke for about 15 minutes.

Afterward, Roosevelt, his private secretary, the mayor and two other distinguished citizens took a leisurely drive around the city. The reports say women happily greeted Roosevelt as he drove past their porches. 

Just two days later came President Taft. The Cincinnati native was supposed to give a speech at the town square, but rain forced the proceedings indoors to a gymnasium. (The building is now an auto repair shop off of Chapman Avenue. Growing up, I was told this was named for Johnny Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed.)

The schools and businesses were closed that day to give everyone an opportunity to see the president, who rode through town in a procession with journalists, supporters and Secret Service agents. 

As it turns out, Bryan got the upper hand. He ended up throwing his support behind the eventual Democratic Party nominee and presidential winner in 1912, Woodrow Wilson. Taft was voted out of office and would later serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Roosevelt never ran for office again and died in 1919. 

Ronald Reagan is seen visiting Bellevue in 1960 while serving as a spokesperson for General Electric. He would be elected president two decades later. Photo courtesy Bill Oddo’s book, “Stories of Old Bellevue.”

Bellevue has yet to have another sitting president return to town after that flurry of activity in May 1912. Ronald Reagan spent the night there in 1960 while he served as a celebrity spokesman for General Electric. He visited with employees of the local “Lamp Plant.” Warren Harding, another future president and native of nearby Marion, is also reported to have visited prior to his political career. 

Here’s hoping the city won’t have to wait another century for a president to stop by again.