BROOK — The President of the United States once stood in Newton County, once kicked off his campaign right outside Brook, once made the ground beneath our feet the most important place to be in the nation, even if only for a day.
When William Howard Taft, the all-but-crowned successor to President Theodore Roosevelt, came to speak at Hazelden (an estate about five minutes out of Brook), he brought out a crowd of around 25,000 enthusiastic supporters. They viewed the spectacle from “two long rows of circus seats.” The event was, at the time, the largest political rally ever held in Northwestern Indiana. It was the largest gathering of people, period, in the region, a record that stood for over 20 years. Historians have termed it “the most celebrated historical event ever to occur in Newton County.”
And yet, so few are aware that such an event ever took place in Newton County. On Sept. 14, the Newton County Historical Society will dedicate an Indiana Historical Marker honoring the grounds where Taft began his campaign.
“We may be a small county,” said Kealy Myers, Vice President of the George Ade Historic Commission, “but there’s been a lot of history here.” And it’s true, but before this year, Newton County had zero historical markers like the one about to be dedicated. One of only four counties to not have a single one. And yet the Taft Rally Marker is now poised to be the county’s third.
Contacted by Casey Pfeiffer, Director of the Indiana Historical Marker Project, a little over two years ago, Newton County Economic Development Director Tim Myers became very passionate about bringing recognition to the fascinating yet underappreciated history of Newton County. A history buff himself, ideas sprang to his mind almost instantly: Bogus Island, the infamous criminal hideout once at the center of the now-drained Beaver Lake, for example. But what Pfeiffer was most interested in, Myers recounts, were the great people to come from Newton County.
And so the two devised a plan to celebrate some of the county’s hometown heroes: Sam Rice, the Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, whose marker stands proudly in his hometown of Morocco; Governor Warren T. McCray, the fierce opponent of the Ku Klux Klan and the only governor to ever hail from Newton County; and now, William Howard Taft, who while not being from Newton County, put the county on the map with his famous rally in 1908.
George Ade—the man who brought Taft here—was one of the most well-known celebrities of his time. He was a playwright, the first to ever have three shows running on Broadway concurrently. He was something of a political activist and brought many noted political figures to his home of Hazelden during its heyday. Ade was also a writer, a man who made his fame on the streets of Chicago, being able to oscillate seamlessly between the cityspeak and the country vernacular of the time, in an almost Twain-like manner. He gained notoriety as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News, but he used his capacity to create as a writer of short stories and a humorist as well.
Still, while Chicago brought him fortune, there was something he missed desperately about Newton County’s simple pleasures, the place that he truly called home. And so in 1904, he built the home of Hazelden, a property of 417 acres named after his grandparents’ home. Even he could not have predicted that in four short years, those vast, idyllic grounds would host the future President of the United States.
Ade became acquainted with Taft during his time as a delegate to the Republican National Committee, and he was among the delegates who nominated Taft. The RNC Chair, Frank H. Hitchcock, had planned for Taft to run a “front porch” campaign, the style popularized at the time that was a far cry from the campaigns of today. Rather than traveling around the country in a flurry of public appearances, going from state to state and personally appealing to voters, the nominee would instead remain in one place, giving speeches from his own “front porch.” Onlookers would instead travel from around the country to come and see the candidate, although this opportunity was not available to many voters from the lower classes. In an increasingly populist age, the strategy was becoming unfeasible. Rather than remaining in Hot Springs, Virginia, and Cincinnati, Ohio, as had been the plan, Taft elected to pursue a more national campaign, a campaign that would begin at Hazelden.
The Republican Party, in the wake of Theodore Roosevelt’s two terms, was actually in a rather fractured state, and this fractured state was what prompted Taft to pursue a national campaign. He hoped that personal appearances could overcome partisan differences on the state level, could inspire the masses to turn out to the polls and instill them with hope. In Indiana, this situation was perhaps more dire than it was nationally, for the rift between conservative and progressive Republicans was greatest here. Governor Frank Hanly, a conservative, had just called a special session of the legislature to consider the “local option”—one that would allow individual counties to prohibit alcohol in the hopes of eventually bringing about nationwide prohibition. Jefferson H. Claypool, of the state Republican committee, wrote to Taft, calling Hanly a “religious bigot,” and suggesting that the man might have been an agent of Taft’s opponent, William Jennings Bryan, conspiring to win the state for the Democrats in the presidential election by provoking such outrage.
It was the schism in Indiana that prompted Taft to give his first speech of the campaign here, and what better place than the home of celebrity playwright George Ade, who had already extended him an invitation.
The demonstration was held on Sept. 23, and despite all of the apprehension, all of the conflicts between local Republicans, it was a massive success. Taft arrived by train in the small town of Ade and came to the farm as part of a six-car convoy. Around 25,000 spectators came with him, so many that special trains were sent out in every direction within a 50-mile radius. The grounds at Hazelden, only four years old, saw hundreds of automobiles that day, in a time where one town might only have five or six, total.
Taft spoke for nearly an hour to an audience that hung on his every word, and laid out the issues of his campaign in a way that was “dignified, forceful, and to the point,” according to newspapers of the time, although he often had to stop speaking due to outbursts of applause from the audience. Immediately after he finished, the audience gave him a magnificent standing ovation. As if the event was not enough of a spectacle, “Japanese Day fireworks” were launched one after another that afternoon. The rest of the event was marked by wonderful music by a number of marching bands from all around the state, a barbecue of epic proportions (Ade had to butcher forty of his cows for the great banquet), and Republican cheer all around.
“The affair from start to finish,” remarked the Newton County Enterprise, “was a splendid success, and Mr. Ade has every reason to feel proud of his achievement.” Taft’s instincts about the campaign paid off, for he won the election by an electoral margin of 321-162, and beat his opponent, Bryan, by over 8% in the popular vote. That he won Indiana by a margin of 10,000 votes is no coincidence—it may well be that those 10,000 who decided the election attended the festivities at Hazelden, that he might have lost the state without George Ade’s aid.
The event put Hazelden, and, to a larger extent, Newton County on the map. Theodore Roosevelt would go on to host a rally of the Bull Moose Party at Hazelden just four years later (ironic, given that his entrance into the election helped defeat Taft in 1912), and in 1924 the Vice President, Charles W. Dawes, would speak there as well. The George Ade Home would continue to be used for political gatherings, community events, and other celebrations until his death in 1944.
Currently, here in Newton County, the George Ade Historic Commission is working to restore the George Ade Home to its former glory, to keep it open as a museum where people can tour the life of one of Indiana’s finest. The organization also has plans to construct a pavilion on the grounds in addition to restoring the venerable building’s exterior.
Looking towards the future, although the county won’t be eligible for another marker until 2021, history advocates are already working to get a marker approved dedicated to George Ade himself.
It is the hope and goal of Tim Myers that other organizations will follow their lead in applying for these markers and work towards the preservation and celebration of the county’s storied history.
“(These markers) have been a collaborative effort by many different historical groups and people who support history,” he said, crediting the George Ade Historical Commission, the Economic Development Committee, the Newton County Historical Society, and the Iroquois-Washington Committee of Brook, the latter of which is a three-person board who sponsored this particular marker.
So on Sept. 14 at 2 p.m. CST, at the grounds of historic Hazelden, come out and celebrate history.
“Come out and hear a story from 1908,” said Kealy Myers, “Come see the grounds and the home, and picture 25,000 people here, listening to future President Taft speak.”
There may not be a crowd of 25,000 people at this event, but you will be following in their footsteps and will experience history in a way that few get to. Following addresses given by the speakers, there will be an ice cream social (catered by Fair Oaks), free tours of the home, and plenty of photo ops on the grounds and at the home.