Jerry Summers: When President Taft Came To Sewanee

Monday, February 22, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

A significant date in the history of the University of the South at Sewanee has almost been unnoticed in the long history of the school that was originally chartered in 1858, survived the burning of the school during the Civil War and the second founding on March 22, 1866 and its growth to the present which has earned the school on the Cumberland Plateau recognition as one of the outstanding liberal arts universities in the nation.

Prior to advent of radio and television coverage, a special visitor came to Sewanee on Nov.  9, 1911 with very little fanfare but at the request of a Sewanee graduate.

Major Archie Butt was the Military Aide to President William H.

Taft and persuaded his Chief to make a stop on his trip from Nashville to Birmingham for a speaking tour. He was traveling on the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad which would travel through the Cowan railway tunnel several times a day.

After transferring to the Mountain Goat Railroad and making a stop at Sewanee, the train would continue to Monteagle and several other stops at the coal mining towns of Tracy City, Coalmont, Gruetli-Laager and Palmer.

The Mountain Goat Railroad was constructed in 1853 as a spur of the Nashville and Chattanooga line and would carry coal and passengers until 1885 when it was decommissioned.

President Taft disembarked at the Sewanee depot from the Mountain Goat at 8:15 a.m.

It was a typical fall day at Sewanee with a fine drizzle falling and the unpaved street from the railroad station to the University rough and muddy.

Local hack operator Harry Hoskins had decorated one of his rigs in red, white and blue bunting for the President to ride in but an alternative source of travel was used when the only automobile on the mountain was commandeered from its Tracy City owner who happened to arrive on the scene.

President Taft, Bishop Gailor, Vice Chancellor William Bonnell Hall and two Secret Service men rode in the automobile while Major Butt and additional Secret Service agents rode in the Hoskin hack.

The opportunity to participate in the protection and safety of the President by the local Volunteer Police almost got out of hand.

One observer raised the question of whether Sewanee was attempting to honor the President or whether the crowd was following in the wake of a wonderous caravan.

The uniforms of the volunteer law enforcement personnel were described as “picturesque” and Police Chief McBee had deputized 12 men to assist him in protecting the President.

Several rode on stately horses and the Chief donned a uniform remnant of King Charles the First, complete with a Vandyke beard and buskin leather boots.

Armed with the nether portion of a billiard cue, he had a sackful of handcuffs attached to the knob of the saddle of his horse. Carrying four revolvers about his person he was a living protector under Tennessee law.

Prior to the Presidential train, Chief McBee handed out to his volunteers as many guns and ammunition as their clothing would hold.

The pageantry and appearance of the horses aroused such admiration that offers to buy the steeds came in on the telegraph wire which, if they had been accepted, would have brought more money to the mountain.

From the porch of the chapel Mr. Taft gave a short speech expressing his appreciation of Sewanee and his good wishes for her future.

The President then visited the library with the Vice Chancellor and a few of the University faculty and their families.

A pleasant and informal reception was held at the request of the President as he had asked that his visit be entirely without ceremony and a compliment to Major Butt.

Although one observer described the President’s visit as the greatest day of Sewanee political history, it did not get much publicity as the Associated Press reporter travelling with President Taft was ignored until the entire ceremony was half over and he refused to leave the train car after being snubbed.

One negative incident did occur as one Sewanee resident, an avowed and dedicated Democrat, refused to go to her window to review the parade as it passed her house because he was a Republican President.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

President Taft
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