By Terry Rogers
On June 9, 1923, President Warren G. Harding visited Milford, the only president to do so while still in office. President Harding was invited to the town by Drs. Frank and Layton Grier, owners of L.D. Caulk. The Grier’s were influential donors to the Republican party, according to Milford historian, Dave Kenton. While he was in Milford, President Harding was initiated into the Tall Cedars, an order of the Masonry and a parade was held in his honor.
According to an article written by Catherine Downing in the Milford Historical Society newsletter, President Harding and his party, which included his wife, his Press Secretary, George Christian and U.S. Senator Lewis Heisler Ball among others, traveled to Wilmington by train, arriving at noon and then enjoyed lunch at the Hotel Dupont which was provided by the Young Men’s Republican Club. The entourage left Wilmington around noon with the intent to arrive in Milford at 4 pm.
The President’s motorcade was greeted by crowds of people lining the streets in every “small town and crossroads village” as they made their way south. Flags and buntings hung from buildings and vehicles as people cheered the arriving Commander in Chief. As they traveled through Glasgow, a Civil War veteran stood in front of his small house in his Grand Army of the Republic uniform. The Grand Army of the Republic was a fraternal organization composed of Civil War veterans of the Union Army, Navy, Marines and the Revenue Cutter Service. The man stood holding his musket, saluting the motorcade. Those with the President and his wife said they were visibly moved at the sight.
The motorcade made a special stop in Elsmere at the home of Dr. Frank Ball, driver of the President’s car, in order to meet some of his family and friends. They then stopped in Newark for a visit to the Women’s College which had opened in 1914 and is now part of the University of Delaware. Graduates wore caps and gowns while undergraduates wore white dresses and they burst into the Star Spangled Banner when the President and his wife stopped from the vehicle. After leaving the college, the entourage was not supposed to stop again until they reached Dover, but when they arrived in Smyrna, the crowds forced the motorcade to stop. The President walked to the post office and made an impromptu speech, offering his appreciation for the reception.
Once they arrived in Dover, they visited the State House where they were received by then-Governor William D. Denney and his wife. At a reception, local dignitaries were introduced to the President and those travelling with him. In addition to his wife, Senator Ball and Secretary Christian, the Secretary of the Interior, Hubert Work and his wife, Brigadier General Charles E. Sawyer, personal physician to President Harding, Senator Walter Edge of New Jersey, Harry Billany of Delaware, the fourth Assistant Postmaster General, as well as the Secretary of Agriculture, Henry Wallace and Mrs. David Tod of Ohio who was a guest of the President, were among those greeted at the reception where punch was served. After the reception, President Harding stood on the steps of the State House and shook hands with citizens.
The next stop was brief one in Magnolia where Mrs. Harding was presented with a bouquet of magnolias and then the motorcade headed to Milford. There were extra police on duty as well as militia to assist with the people who stood in town awaiting the arrival of President Harding. Due to the impromptu stops, the President did not arrive in Milford until 6 pm and they went directly to the baseball park, now the Milford Little League Park. Since the President was late, the planned baseball game between Milford and Crisfield was over before he arrived. They stayed at the park briefly before heading to the home of Dr. and Mrs. Frank L. Grier where a buffet lunch was served to around 300 people.
At 6:30 pm, the Presdient and Mrs. Harding stood on the wide porch of the Grier home to watch a parade of about 2,000 Tall Cedars. After the parade, the President was taken to the Plaza Theatre where he spoke to the thousands of people standing in front of the building. Inside the building, President Harding was made a Tall Cedar by Tall Cedar Longacre with degrees of the order placed on him by several teams and the Evergreen Forest. During this installation, the ladies in the entourage were entertained at the home of the Grier’s.
The day ended with the President traveling by car to Lewes where they boarded the Presidential Yacht “Mayflower” in order to return to Washington DC.
President Harding was elected to office in 1921 as the 29th President of the United States. Before the election, he was a successful newspaper publisher who served in the Ohio legislature and in the United States Senate. He and his running mate, Calvin Coolidge, won the 1920 general election by a landslide, promising to return the country to “normalcy” after World War I. His policies were decidedly pro-business and he campaigned on limiting immigration.
Under Harding’s administration, taxes were reduced, especially for the wealthy and high protective tariffs were introduced. He is also known for appointing the only former president, Howard Taft, as a Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Harding surrounded himself with capable men, appointing Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce, Charles Evans Hughes as Secretary of State and Andrew Mellon as Secretary of the Treasury. However, by the time he visited Milford, many of those who surrounded him had been involved in scandal.
Not long after taking office, Harding transferred supervision of naval oil-reserve lands from the Navy to the Department of the Interior under Albert Bacon Fall. In 1922, Fall secretly granted Harr F. Sinclair of Mammoth Oil Company rights to the Teapot Dome reserves in Wyoming as well as rights for the Elk Hills and Buena Vista Hills reserves in California to Edward Doheny of Pan American Petroleum Company. It was later learned that Fall and his family had received more than $200,000 in payment for the leases. Although President Harding was never implicated in the scandal, it took a toll on his health.
The trip to Milford was part of a larger travel plan across the country in an effort to promote the policies of President Harding, named “Voyage of Understanding,” and to take the spotlight off the recent scandal. He was the first president to visit Alaska on his tour of the country, which was planned in the summer to get the President out of the oppressive heat of Washington due to his health issues. While there he predicted Alaska would become a state in the last speech he ever gave in Seattle. He rushed through the speech and did not wait for applause from the audience. Immediately after the speech, he traveled to San Francisco by train. In the middle of the night of July 27, 1923, President Harding called for General Sawyer, complaining of pain in his upper abdomen. General Sawyer thought it was dietary distress which the President had suffered before, but Dr. Joel T. Boone, who was on the train with the entourage believed it was a heart condition.
President Harding arrived in San Francisco where he insisted on walking from the train to the car as he felt better. The car then took him to the Palace Hotel where he collapsed. Doctors discovered he was not only suffering from a heart ailment, but also had pneumonia, which was often fatal during the time before antibiotics. The common treatment of the day, caffeine and digitalis, was applied and he seemed to improve. He was allowed to sit up in bed the afternoon of August 2 and his wife was reading to him from an article in The Saturday Evening Post, A Calm Review of a Calm Man. She paused to plump his pillows and he said, “That’s good, read some more.” As she reached for the magazine, President Harding collapsed and Mrs. Harding called for the doctors. Despite attempts to revive him, President Harding was pronounced dead of an apparent heart attack. An autopsy was not performed so there is some speculation that he may have had a stroke. He was 57 years old. President Calvin Coolidge, President Harding’s Vice-President, was sworn in immediately as the 30th President of the United States, less than two months after President Harding’s exciting visit to Milford.
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