Presidential visits to Dayton

Between now and the 2016 presidential election, a year away, the eventual nominees are sure to become well acquainted with Ohio due to the state’s electoral importance.

The Dayton area has a long history of visits from presidential candidates as well as sitting and former presidents dating back to 1840 when Presidential candidate William Henry Harrison held a downtown rally attended by 100,000 people. Dayton’s population at the time was only 6,000.

David Williamson, a local attorney and presidential historian, began researching these visits in 1997 for a Leadership Dayton class project. The research turned into the official dedication of the fountain at Courthouse Square as the Fountain of Presidents. Plaques devoted to each presidential visit surround the downtown landmark.

Williamson said our presidential visitors value the area because Dayton is a typical American town. “I like to say Dayton is either the largest small town in American or it’s the smallest large town in American. Those of us who live here sometimes forget which one it is,” he said.

Some of the presidential and presidential candidate highlights, according to research done by Williamson, include:

A visit from future president Abraham Lincoln on Sept. 17, 1859. Lincoln made a speech about slavery, propounding the theory that the founding fathers purposely left the word “slave” out of the Constitution, reserving for future generations the institutions eventual demise.

On Aug. 7, 1920, Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Dayton to meet with former Ohio Governor James M. Cox — the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate — and accept the nomination for vice president. On Oct. 12, 1940, FDR returned as president to inspect the progress at Wright Field and pay a visit to the National Soldiers Home.

Future president John F. Kennedy spoke at the Dayton Bar Association at the Biltmore Hotel on Sept. 17, 1959. Kennedy, who was running for the Democratic Party nomination, did not realize the event was a black tie affair. Price Stores sent over a tailor who took the senators measurements and dressed him for the evening. Several days later an employee at the store found an envelope with money in a pocket of the tuxedo. Charles Fidler at Price Stores wrote a letter to Kennedy and returned the $105. Kennedy wrote back thanking the men for their honesty and included $25 as reward. A copy of Kennedy’s letter is hanging in Price Stores today.

Ronald Reagan rode a train through western Ohio and stopped at a temporarily refurbished Union Station in Dayton on Oct. 12, 1984, during a “whistle stop” re-election tour.

Williamson notes that presidential candidate John McCain felt the area was such an important place that he chose it to introduce his running mate Sarah Palin to the world at Wright State University’s Nutter Center in 2008.

All eyes will return to Wright State when it hosts the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, 2016. This will be the first presidential debate held in Ohio since 1980.

Williamson, who plans to turn his presidential research into a book someday, believes he knows why candidates are drawn to the Dayton area. “We are a purple community in a purple state. We aren’t a red state and we aren’t a blue state. We have Republicans and we have Democrats and we all happen to sit down and break bread together,” he said.

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