The Northfield Depot

Jeff M. Sauve

Taft Greeted by Elephant, 1908

One of the more interesting events to take place at the Northfield Depot was the brief whistle-stop presidential campaign tour in 1908 of Republican William H. Taft, then secretary of war and Theodore Roosevelt’s hand-picked successor.

On Saturday, September 26, 1908, Taft was scheduled to leave Faribault between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. in his private rail car, “Constitution.” Delayed, he arrived in Northfield at 3:30 p.m. People of all ages made their way to the Milwaukee-Rock Island depot, jockeying for a spot.

This crowd, estimated between 4,000 and 8,000, represented the single largest gathering along Taft’s campaign route that particular day. With little elbow room, the crowd waited patiently in the noted “nasty cold” weather with overcast skies that eventually turned to rain. St. Olaf College students, representing a recently organized Taft Club and Band, stood under a red, white and blue banner proclaiming “Taft Club,” and they played when the candidate appeared from his coach.

According to the St. Olaf College student newspaper, the Manitou Messenger, the following exchange took place between the students and Taft as he was about to speak: “‘What’s the matter with Taft?’ which concluded lustily in the usual manner, that he was all right and we all said so.”

Nearby Bridge Square hosted the Patterson Carnival Company with elephant rides, sideshows, souvenir sellers, merry-go-round, and shooting gallery. As Taft arrived, a carnival elephant was slowly being led by the mahout to the back of the coach where the candidate stood.

Mildred Ware, the mayor’s teenage daughter, rode the elephant. Dressed as Columbia, she was wrapped in the flag of forty-six stars and waved another flag in her hand.

The use of the living symbol of the party was a grand success. The Northfield News reported, “Mr. Taft’s pleasing face broadened at once into one of his winning smiles.” The elephant ambled closer for inspection and then stood, “swaying restlessly during the proceedings.”

The strain of speaking to large audiences on the campaign trail took its toll on Taft’s voice. One source noted that he sometimes traveled with a throat specialist. When Taft was invited to take a seat on the elephant, he responded with some effort: “I am pleased to see this beautiful emblem of party victory. I should like to mount the animal myself, but I am afraid there isn’t time to rig a derrick to get me up there. When I ride a horse he generally becomes very contemplative and serious before he gets home, and I fancy even this big fellow would not be so restive after he had carried me for awhile. I am not able to talk in the open air, but there are some brazen throats here that can make you hear better than I can.”

The 51-year-old Taft, who stood nearly 6 feet tall, obviously was poking fun at his weight, estimated at the time to be nearly 300 pounds. Taft’s Northfield whistle-stop lasted but a few minutes before the train resumed its journey, with Senator Moses E. Clapp in mid-address.

Taft later commented that he disliked campaigning in the fall of 1908, “One of the most uncomfortable four months of my life.”