As the final days of the 2020 Presidential election head to a thankful conclusion, it is interesting to note that Mansfield hosted the first of its two ex-Presidential visits 105-years ago this month.
On the evening of October 15, 1915, William Howard Taft was three years removed from his reign as the 27th President of the United States. Remarkably, he was also in Mansfield.
The largest man ever to be elected President, Taft -- who turned 58-years-old the month earlier --climbed to the third-floor auditorium of old Alumni Hall that evening to deliver a standing-room only address to the students, faculty and guests of Mansfield State Normal School. His appearance not only greatly enhanced the prestige of the community and school, it also rekindled a friendship with the family of one of the former President’s most trusted colleagues.
A professor at his alma mater of Yale University after leaving the White House, Taft had just returned to New Haven after recently traveling across the country and back in a swing through the western states. During the course of those travels, the popular ex-President delivered scores of speeches, including one to a crowd estimated at 100,000 attending the burning-of-the-mortgage celebration at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
Although his scheduled lecture was the buzz of campus, it seems few outside the community were aware of the ex-President’s upcoming visit. Leaving New York City by train on the morning of the 15th, Taft’s Lackawanna Limited pulled into Elmira at 4:38 p.m.
As Taft departed from the Parlor Car, just two people on the platform knew he was coming. It was a far cry from the crowds, bands and military escorts the former President received at every stop on his recently completed trip through the West.
But Taft, traveling alone and carrying his own baggage, seemed to enjoy the lack of pomp and ceremony as he was greeted by MSNS President William Straughn and Mansfield resident C. Morris Thompson. Perhaps alerted by travelers at the station, who no doubt recognized Taft by his unmistakable appearance, an Elmira Star-Gazette reporter appeared and started peppering the former chief executive with questions. Included was the ubiquitous inquiry if the former president would be a candidate in 1916.
Usually know as friendly to the press, Taft gave the scribe quick answers, including a firm no on running again, as he hustled into the back of the Thompson automobile for the trip to Mansfield. Time was in short supply for the party as they lumbered over mostly unpaved and winding roads, hoping to get to Mansfield with enough time remaining for Taft to dine and dress prior to his address.
Taft’s lecture, originally scheduled to be “Signs of the Times” but switched to “the Question of Adequate Defense” at the last moment, addressed expanding our armed forces in preparedness in conjunction with the ongoing WWI in Europe. He also proposed a pre-League of Nations concept known as the League to Enforce Peace that Taft himself would head.
The address was well received with an encore scheduled at the Methodist Church for the overflow unable to secure tickets to sold-out Alumni Hall. Taft was, no doubt, exhausted after the grueling trip along with the obligatory socializing both before and after the lecture. Tired as he was, the ex-President looked forward to one more obligation he desired to fill.
Waiting for Taft at the conclusion of the evening was C. Morris "Babe" Thompson, the same young man who drove the ex-President to Mansfield from Elmira. The Thompson family hosted Taft at the "Wren's Nest" for the evening before returning him to Elmira in the morning.
Thompson, then 24-years old, lived at the “Wren’s Nest” along with his mother Mary Swan Thompson.
A native of Mansfield and granddaughter of Dr. Joseph P. and Sarah Morris who donated the land for the building of Mansfield Classical Seminary, Mary married James K. Thompson in 1889. Her husband graduated from West Point in the Class of 1884 and was a career military man of note.
In 1905, Major James K. Thompson was assigned by the army as aide to the Secretary of War under then President Theodore Roosevelt. The Secretary of War was none other than William H. Taft. Thompson accompanied Taft on his historic trip to Japan and the Philippines that year. They grew to respect and appreciate each other during the months long journey.
Major Thompson passed away from cancer in 1910 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. His widow, Mary Swan, returned with her sons to Mansfield and the Wren’s Nest. Her son, John Bellinger Thompson, followed his father’s footsteps, graduating from West Point in the Class of 1914. He later became Commandant of Cadets and polo coach at West Point, before being promoted to the rank of Brigadier General during WWII.
C. Morris "Babe" remained in Mansfield where he managed the farm and dairy operations before later starting the Morris Farms Dairy Bar and becoming one of the borough’s most respected citizens. He had four children with his wife Emma Louise Lyon. Their daughter, Mary, married Ivan McElroy, a West Point graduate and member of the polo team under her uncle who himself also rose to the rank of General. Daughter Louise “Peep” married J.D. Walker and was a lifelong resident of Mansfield until her death in 2002. Son, Casper Morris Thompson Jr., followed his grandfather in a military career and is also buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Youngest son Joe was a lifetime Mansfield resident who operated the farm along with other positions before passing away in 2017.
It would seem, Taft came to Mansfield, not so much to add Mansfield State Normal School to the list of institutions of higher education he lectured at, as it was to pay his respects to the widow and family of a friend and fellow patriot.
The Taft photo at top was autographed to Capt. Thompson as he was when they worked together.