Bumpers remembers FDR
Alas, I have failed as a father. Rachel, my oldest daughter, recently informed me that she had been unaware that President Franklin Roosevelt had ever visited Booneville. I was aghast! Surely she could not be ignorant of one of the two most notable events in South Logan County history (the other being the Ruiz-Van Denton rampage and trial)!
The date was July 9, 1938, and Mr. Roosevelt was on a whistle-stop tour through the nation. Booneville was his only stop in Arkansas. The town’s population at the time would have been about 2200 people, but an estimated three to four thousand were on hand to greet the President. Roosevelt had been to Arkansas two years previously, but before that you have to go back to 1918 and William H. Taft to find a Presidential visit to the state.
The whistle-stop format was particularly convenient for Mr. Roosevelt, since he had suffered from polio and was severely restricted in his mobility. That way he could stand on the platform on the back of the train and speak to crowds without having to dismount. He was accompanied by Arkansas’ two U. S. Senators, Hattie Caraway and John E. Miller.
Franklin Roosevelt was one of the most popular and powerful politicians in United States history, and at this particular time he was at the peak of his popularity. The Great Depression had been ushered in with the stock market crash of 1929, and immediately upon his election in 1932, FDR had instituted a series of programs to relieve the extreme economic pain being experienced across the nation.
In the 1936 election, Roosevelt had defeated Alf Landon with almost 61% of the popular vote. It had been the biggest electoral landslide since the War Between the States. He had won 523 of 531 electoral votes: Landon carried only Maine and Vermont. So, by 1938, the President would have been at the peak of his public approval, a figure of legendary proportions, especially in the old Solid South.
U. S. Senator Dale Bumpers of Charleston recalled vividly the President’s visit. He was born in August 1925, so he would have been just shy of 13 years old at the time. He remembered the train pulling slowly into the station, the school band playing, and the generally festive atmosphere among the large crowd.
Bumpers recalled that the President was supported by his son on one side and a cane on the other, and that with that help he was able to reach the microphone that had been set up in the middle of the platform. He remembered that Mount Magazine was plainly visible in the distance, and Mr. Roosevelt gestured toward it and commented on the majesty of the scenery. He also commended the work being done by the State Tuberculosis Sanitorium.
The Senator acknowledged, “At that point, that was the highlight of my life. We just couldn’t believe that we were even in the same state with him, let alone standing there listening to him.” No doubt many in the audience agreed with him in that opinion.
The President’s trip through Booneville is probably still remembered by a few citizens of western Arkansas, although they likely would be in their 90s by this time. However, given the difficulty of travel in that era, and the brutal economic conditions that the nation had just experienced, it is doubtful that anyone who was there ever forgot it.
Yes, Rachel, please believe me when I say that President Roosevelt did indeed come to little ol’ Booneville, Arkansas.