“Presidential Visits to Kentucky: 1819-2017” by Wayne Onkst. Ashland: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 2018. 340 pages, $30 (hardbound).
Wayne Onkst is a retired state librarian and commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives, president of Friends of Kentucky Libraries and chairman of the Jesse Stuart Foundation board of directors. His book chronicles some 120 presidential visits to Kentucky from President James Monroe’s trip by horseback and carriage in 1819 to President Donald Trump’s in 2017. Although the author focuses on trips during a president’s term, he includes numerous examples of visits by future and former presidents. In the case of Monroe, his pre-presidential trips occurred in 1785, when he came to negotiate with Native Americans in the area of the Big Miami River near Cincinnati and, in 1808, when he came to inspect about 20,000 acres of property he briefly owned.
Monroe’s presidential visit in 1819 is one of the most interesting because its details will be unfamiliar to most readers. The president stayed at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville before entering Kentucky at Russellville, where he spent the night. Onkst notes that “Russellville was one of Kentucky’s largest cities and served as a bustling legal and commercial center.” The next day, Monroe’s party dined at the Shaker colony at South Union and was escorted by a group of prominent gentlemen to Bowling Green, where they dined at Benjamin Vance’s Hotel, which was at College and Main streets. The author goes on to describe Monroe’s journey to Louisville and Lexington and cites the president’s written response to the committee greeting him in the former, which claimed that “sectional prejudices are rapidly losing their influence” and that “the bitterness of party spirit has almost entirely ceased.” Onkst includes a photo of Liberty Hall in Frankfort, where Monroe dined with future Presidents Jackson and Zachary Taylor.
I was surprised to learn that Ulysses Grant lived with his family in the Galt House in Louisville for four months in 1863 during the Civil War, and that his parents lived in Covington during his presidency. The author includes photographs of the 33-room Gothic Revival Shinkle Mansion on Second Street in Covington, where Grant stopped for tea, and the home of his parents on Greenup Street, which still stands. The Shinkle Mansion later became the William Booth Memorial Hospital, the first Salvation Army general hospital in the U.S. He also provides a photograph of a large campaign button from 1900 with images of the ticket of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt surrounding one of John Yerkes, who was running for governor of Kentucky. This was the only election in the commonwealth when Kentuckians voted for president and governor in the same year, because William Goebel had just been assassinated.
Although Rutherford B. Hayes was born in central Ohio, he practiced law in Cincinnati and noted in his diary that he liked Kentucky and southern girls as “they are warmer of heart, more cordial in their manners, apt to be pretty, quick and graceful.” However, he married “Lemonade Lucy” Webb from Ohio, whose father was from Kentucky. When Hayes took his “reconciliation” southern tour in 1877 after withdrawing federal troops from the seceded states, he started in Louisville and brought with him his family, most of the members of his Cabinet and three governors.
Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville was the attraction for five presidential visits, starting with the centennial of his birth in 1909. Congress in the early years of the republic did not provide any funds for presidential travel and these journeys could become quite expensive as the size of the traveling parties grew substantially. Railroad companies contributed significantly by providing free transportation, but in 1906, Congress passed legislation to control rail rates and also forbid free transportation. There was a lot of conflict over supporting presidential travel with an annual budget of $25,000 and Kentucky congressman Ollie James argued that there was no constitutional need for a president to travel. However, the appropriation finally passed and Theodore Roosevelt visited every state and territory during his presidency. During Roosevelt’s stop in Louisville in 1905, he was greeted by an honor guard of both Union and Confederate veterans and serenaded by a choir of 1,500 boys and girls from Male High School, Manual Training School and the Female High School. When Onkst raises the security issue for presidents traveling, he states that “both President McKinley and President Garfield had been assassinated at railroad stations.” He is correct about Garfield, but McKinley was shot in the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, not at a train station.
Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Kentucky five times during his presidency, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt sometimes joined him and at other times came on her own. It was FDR’s third presidential visit in 1938 that demonstrated his ability to make clear his support for Alben Barkley’s reelection to the Senate while still maintaining a connection with Albert B. “Happy” Chandler, the incumbent governor, who was challenging Barkley in the Democratic primary. Chandler several times inserted himself between the president and Barkley, later claiming that FDR had told him to sit next to him and that “in Kentucky the governor ranks first within the state.” The president confided to Ed Prichard that Chandler’s behavior “took the prize for gall.” During a stop in Bowling Green at the L&N Depot, FDR referred to the success of his New Deal programs in combatting the Depression with the phrase: “We are still on our way.” This would soon become a national campaign slogan. Although the primary campaign was bitterly fought and even included claims, when Chandler fell ill, that Barkley had tried to poison his opponent, Barkley won by more than 70,000 votes.
In the month after World War II ended, Harry Truman traveled to Kentucky aboard the first presidential airplane, the Sacred Cow, which had taken FDR to the Yalta Conference. Before landing, the plane flew over the Kentucky Dam, which Truman had helped fund as a senator. When speaking in Kentucky, Truman often referred to his pioneer ancestry in Shelby County and the fact that all four of his grandparents were Kentuckians. During his whistlestop campaign in 1948, Truman spoke at the Armory in Louisville and the Democratic Party leadership took the unusual step of ordering that there would be “no segregation for the rally, so blacks and whites sat side by side in the audience.”
Onkst comments that Covington’s airport became a popular landing site for presidents because it offered access both to Northern Kentucky and to nearby Cincinnati. The author explains that Cincinnati’s first airport had suffered in the great 1937 flood and that the federal government recommended moving the airport above the flood plain. In 1941, the government offered funding to create landing sites for national defense, but when Cincinnati leaders could not agree on a suitable site for relocation, Barkley worked to construct the airport across the river in Kentucky. It was used during the war to train B-17 pilots, but in 1947 commercial flights began to serve the Greater Cincinnati area.
The author includes a full-page photograph of President Ronald Reagan holding a basketball with the wording WKU Bush-Quayle 1988 and about to shoot a basket in front of a full house at E.A. Diddle Arena in 1988. However, the book states that Michael Dukakis, who opposed George H.W. Bush in that campaign, “had spoken in the same arena a few weeks earlier,” when Dukakis’ speech actually occurred in Van Meter Hall. Although Onkst does mention that Bush visited Louisville, Owensboro and Northern Kentucky during that campaign, he does not mention Bush’s visit to Bowling Green where he sat down to interact with numerous students on the floor of the auxiliary gym at Diddle Arena. The author also omits George W. Bush’s speech at the Bowling Green airport during the 2000 campaign. In addition, there are several typographical errors in the text. However, these reservations are minor when one considers how much fascinating information Onkst documents in his catalog of presidential visits to Kentucky.
In addition to numerous excellent photographs, the author includes endnotes on his sources and an index. Readers taking the journey with 27 presidents to Kentucky will learn a lot about American history along the way because with each visit Onkst addresses political, social and economic issues connected with the trip. I recommend the book for anyone who enjoys reading about presidents, about political campaigns or about Kentucky’s history.
– Reviewed by Richard Weigel, Western Kentucky University History Department.
– The author will speak and sign copies of his book at the Warren County Public Library’s Bob Kirby Branch at 6 p.m. Thursday.