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Teddy Comes To Allentown

By Frank Whelan
Published On: Sep 23 2011 02:52:34 PM CDT
Updated On: Jun 10 2011 10:03:41 AM CDT

Then as now, there were a lot of politicians in America 100 years ago. And then there was Theodore Roosevelt.

Known to friend and foe alike as Teddy, he was a force of nature that swept through the cobwebs of national politics like a tornado. And on the beautiful spring afternoon of April 11, 1912, he came barnstorming into the Lehigh Valley in search of victory in the Pennsylvania primary for the Republican nomination for president.

Roosevelt in 1912 had already served two terms as president from the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley to 1904, and a full term on his own to 1908. He stepped down after two terms and supported the nomination of his former Secretary of War William Howard Taft.

After Taft's election Teddy ran off to Africa to hunt big game. But Roosevelt clearly regretted leaving the spotlight and when he came to the conclusion that Taft was not following his trust-busting big stick ways, he listened to friends who urged him to take on Taft for the White House in 1912.

On April 11, 1912, huge crowds were gathering in Allentown for Teddy's "whistle stop" train from Reading to pull into the station. Up and down Hamilton Street the lines of people on the sidewalk were six deep. Although Roosevelt had been in Allentown before in 1905 and spoke from the back of the train, he was president then. It was the zest of the campaign that added a great deal to the excitement to this day.

The Roosevelt express pulled into Allentown at 1:45 p.m. On board with him was his staff, the press, and Lehigh County Republican Party officials who had traveled to Reading to welcome him and ride back. Among them was former Allentown mayor Fred Lewis who looked almost exactly liked Teddy and dressed like him. This amused Roosevelt who told Lewis that perhaps Lewis should make the speech that day.

Once out of the train Roosevelt was escorted to the car driven Dr. A.H. Balliet. They headed up Hamilton Street to the Lyric Theater, now Symphony Hall where a packed house anticipated Roosevelt's arrival.. But the crowd on Hamilton Street had waited for hours and now wanted to get a good look at their hero. Waving his hat in the air Roosevelt gestured for them to come forward which they did by the hundreds along the Hamilton Street Hill. Boys and men and not a few women charged forward to shake the hand Roosevelt extended to them. Allentown police officers, the only security available that day, found themselves overwhelmed.

Gradually the car made it through the crowd and down a back street to the stage door of the Lyric. The theater was filled to capacity and the stage full of chairs right up to the speaker's platform. Most of the chairs were occupied by Civil War veterans. In the balcony cheerleaders from Muhlenberg College chanted Roosevelt's name.

As the Allentown Band swung into "My Country Tis' Of Thee," the stage went dark. Then the curtain went up and Roosevelt was suddenly in the spotlight smiling. "It was the smile showing all the teeth," one local newspaper noted.

Fred Lewis came forward to handle the formal introductions. The crowd went wild again as Roosevelt's beaming smile seemed to fill the hall. Then after several minutes the cheering stopped and the former president began his speech.

Roosevelt began by noting that the veterans around him had done their duty for Lincoln in the war and now the voters had to do theirs. He talked of how they should not be fooled by party bosses but think about what was good for America before they voted.

"I want you to feel a genuine love of country and a growing sense of your duty...You must be honest, decent and patriotic men...I want you to make the professional politicians feel they are your servants not your masters. All I ask of the American people as a whole... is to rule in the interest of justice and fair play for every man woman and child in this fair land of ours...We believe that this country will not be a good place for us to live unless we make it a pretty good place for all of us to live."

With those final words Roosevelt brought down the house. Cheer after cheer rang through the Lyric. After a brief acknowledgement of their cheers Teddy was on the move. Shaking a few hands he headed out the stage door and the waiting car that took a number of back streets and returned him to the station. The newspapers noted that throngs of people lining 6th Street, who assumed Roosevelt might go out the Lyric's front door, were disappointed.

But with the primary election two days away Roosevelt had another stop to make and was off on the train to Easton to make it. According to the local press Roosevelt had been in Allentown approximately 25 minutes.

The rest of the 1912 campaign was not kind to the Republicans. Roosevelt won the Pennsylvania primary and eight others. But Taft's forces were able to dominate the convention and re-nominate him. Roosevelt decided to run as a Progressive Party candidate for president. This split the Republican vote, giving the November election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Roosevelt returned to Allentown in October, 1914 to support Lewis and the Progressives running for Congress. But his active political life was largely over. A disease he caught while exploring a South American river and the death of his son in World War I had made him a worn out man by age 60.

When Roosevelt died in 1919 his son sent out telegram to family members that read simply, "The old lion is dead."