The first presidential visit to Fort Worth was Theodore Roosevelt in 1905. It was a whistle-stop journey through the state to attend a San Antonio reunion of the “Rough Riders” he had led to fame in Cuba in 1898.
The first stop of the presidential train was in Denison on April 5. Then it was on to Sherman, where 30,000 people were waiting, and Dallas where an even bigger crowd welcomed him. He stopped long enough to give speeches in Hillsboro, Waco, Temple, Austin, San Marcos and New Braunfels before arriving in San Antonio on April 7.
He celebrated with his old regiment that evening and at midnight was on the train headed back north. He arrived in Fort Worth at 9:45 on the morning of April 8 to find a city determined to outdo all his previous stops.
At the Texas & Pacific train station, the reception committee greeted him and escorted him to a platform erected in front of the station to address the immense crowd filling Main and Front streets and occupying the windows and roof of the T&P freight warehouse across Main.
After being introduced by Mayor T.J. Powell, he gave a speech that his aides described as “the best speech of his trip.” Then he boarded an open carriage for a quick procession through downtown, going up Throckmorton to Ninth, then over to Houston and up Houston to the Courthouse, then back to the station by way of Main.
Thirty thousand people, black and white, old and young, jammed every block and filled every window along the way. The Texas Cattle Raisers’ Association, for whom Roosevelt had a particular fondness, had placed a huge welcome banner across Main.
On the way past city hall 600 “negro school children” waved American flags and serenaded him with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Then he stopped at the Carnegie Library, where Throckmorton turned onto Ninth, to plant a tree in honor of Arbor Day, recognizing Roosevelt’s commitment to the cause of conservation.
The tree was an elm sapling, and the spot was on the library’s east lawn. A hole was already dug, and the little tree was waiting in a root bag for him. He bent to his task without doffing his top hat and frock coat, shoveling dirt into the hole while dignitaries held the tree in place.
Because of the press of time, he didn’t make a speech; that would come on another Arbor Day a couple of years later: “A people without children would face a hopeless future; a country without trees is almost as hopeless.”
The president was back at the station in time to say a few parting words to his fans and be on the train, ready to leave at 11 a.m.. He had only been in town 75 minutes, but in that time he had made two speeches and planted a tree. It was arguably the most memorable 75 minutes in Fort Worth history.
That many people had never before filled downtown at one time, not when the railroad arrived in 1876 and not during the Texas Spring Palace run in 1889 and 1890. Roosevelt’s next stop was Oklahoma to hunt wolves with Fort Worth’s W.T. Waggoner and Burk Burnett among others.
TR’s Fort Worth visit was a huge success; the tree, not so much. The Telegram cracked that it hoped the tree would “grow into a big stick,” and it seemed to flourish at first.
The library janitor charged with caring for it predicted that it would grow to “large proportions,” and the library’s directors spent $30 to protect it with a wrought-iron fence. Nonetheless, by the fall it was dead. Informed of its demise, Roosevelt had a replacement sent, this one a Chinese cherry tree, which also died, much to Fort Worth’s embarrassment. No problem. When Roosevelt came back to town in 1911, the ex-president brought with him another elm sapling.
When the Carnegie Library was torn down in 1938, legend has it that the now-full-grown elm was successfully transplanted to the grounds of the Will Rogers Memorial Center. Many years later, however, the city forester could not identify any tree on said grounds fitting the age of the Roosevelt tree.
The moral of the story brings to mind a variation on the famous line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”: When the tree dies, plant the rumor.
Author-historian Richard Selcer is a Fort Worth native and proud graduate of Paschal High and TCU.