by Roberta Lawrey, City Librarian
The President of the United States stands proudly at attention, with the spade and the newly-turned sod prominently displayed so that Mr. Julius Leschinsky the photographer could capture the essence of the moment. This locally well-known, often copied photo also shows the dignitaries gathered around and the steely-eyed secret service men alertly watching the crowd. The date was April 27, 1903, the President was Theodore Roosevelt and the sod had just been turned for Grand Island's about-to-be-built Carnegie library. How did it come to be? Thereby hangs a tale.
On the front page of the April 1, 1903 Grand Island Daily Independent a story announced the great western trip of the President. He would travel 14,000 miles through twenty-two states and two territories. The tour would last sixty-six days.
The special train, consisting of the President's private car, two sleeping cars, a dining car and two baggage cars, would leave Washington and travel to Yellowstone via Chicago, Minneapolis and Sioux Falls. After a fortnight in Yellowstone, the train would head to St. Louis and then go the southern route to California. (The President's train actually came through Grand Island twice.) Additional states to be visited were Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa and then back to the Capitol. The article reported that the President was "in fine physical condition and says he has already the fragrance of the woods and the mountains in his nostrils."
All through the month of April there was a flurry of activity to get ready for the presidential visit. Committees were formed to carry out the work. Some of the tasks that the various committees performed were arranging for the reception and entertainment of the President, securing guards for keeping a clean passageway securing the attendance of the school children and providing for them a suitable place along the line of march, setting up the speaker's stand, and decorating the business and residential areas. 0ther committees were a committee on music, a committee on carriages, and finally, a finance committee -- the bills had to be paid. The committee on securing horses reported that there many offers of good mounts but that everyone wanted to make it a condition that the President would ride his horse.
By Friday, April 24, 1903, the headlines announced "Have the Horses"-- and the news article detailed the final arrangements for the weekend's festivities. It was reported that "the matter of the president breaking the first sod for the construction of the library building was discussed at some length and it was on motion declared the sense of the committee that while such a feature of the program would be highly desirable yet, owing to the short time to make the necessary arrangements, no action be taken." (Emphasis by author of this article.) Elsewhere in the paper, Mayor James Cleary urged the citizens to decorate their homes and businesses and the members of the Grand Island Fire Department were notified to appear at City Hall at seven o'clock sharp Monday morning, with caps and badges, to participate in parade and guard duty. The H. H. Glover Co. advertised flags and bunting for sale and Matthew's Book Store offered 16 x 22 inch pictures of the President at .O5 cents each. They also featured a six-volume set of Roosevelt's Winning of the West.
The presidential visit was not marred by any unfavorable incident and he was "delighted with his sojourn in Grand Island." He didn't seem to mind the high winds and blowing dust that prevailed during his visit.
The train arrived just a little behind schedule, and after a short brisk walk he was attended upon by the members of the reception committee: Mayor Cleary, Judge T. 0. C. Harrison, C. G. Ryan, Mr. C. F. Bentley, Mr.. W. P.. Thompson and Mr.Louie Veit . The President received them most hospitably and at once began the subject of the day's program, after treating them to a cigar.
"During this informal welcome and reception Mayor Cleary suggested that it would be very desirable if the President could break the sod for the construction of the new library building and he at once very emphatically expressed his readiness, remarking that it would give him something of a local nature to talk about in his brief address."
At the most, the library board had twenty-four hours to get ready for the ceremony and the preparations, as evidenced by the bills, were simple. They purchased a spade from the A. C. Lederman Co. for $1.15, they hired a carriage from Corkin's Livery Stable for $2.50, and they contacted the photographer. Monday morning at 8:40, after a ten-minute delay, the Presidential party was driven from the Union Pacific Depot to Sycamore Street over to Third and then west to Walnut.
The parade was headed by a mounted guard with Marshal of the Day Roeder in charge and followed by the Harrison band. "The line of march was bordered all the way by a mass of people. The prettiest scene along the entire line of march and one which pleased the President was that of the school children between the Glover and Ferguson corners. There were about 900 children in line, each waving flags and the view was very pretty."
"At the library site the President met the members of the library board and was given a spade with which to break the ground. He was only expected to make one cutting with the spade but again his characteristic vigor demonstrated itself and no less than three or four manipulations of the spade would suffice (The vim with which the President broke the soil caused one lady who happened to be near, to remark to her husband that the President could handle the spade better by a whole lot than her spouse.)
A short time later at the high school grounds a block away, the President spoke about the event: "This morning I have turned the sod in preparation for the building of your new library. It is certainly a commendable enterprise as I came here I passed through rows of school children. Now I am proud as an American of what Nebraska has done with its product of farm and range, I am proud of your material development but above all, what really counts in any state and in any time is the character of the men and the women whom that state produces. That is the essential thing. And the school, the church and all that instructs for the moral and intellectual improvement--those are the agents that count more than all else in the development of citizenship. Of these things as Americans we have a right to be satisfied."
At the June 5, 1903 meeting of the Library Board, the following resolution, authored by Mrs. Abbott and Mrs. Bentley, was entered into the minutes: Your committee appointed to write an account of the turning of the first sod in connection with the new library building begs leave to submit the following: The library board unanimously decided to have some ceremonies when the initial steps were taken in erecting the Grand Island Carnegie Library Building. President Roosevelt while on his western tour very kindly consented to turn the first sod for the building site. All arrangements had been completed by the Library Board. The trees about were draped in red, white and blue bunting. The Presidential procession was to march by the library site in going to the High School grounds where he was to deliver an address. A narrow lane was fenced in with ropes leading from the street to the spot where the first work was to be done. Mr.Leschinsky, the photographer, was stationed on the south side of the enclosure to photograph the President while in the act of turning the sod, and the Library Board as well, who also stood within the enclosed space. The occasion had a two-fold interest for the citizens of Grand Island--first and foremost the fact that our President, author, soldier and statesman was to lift the first spade full of earth and as well as from the fact that it was the beginning of our new Library that President Roosevelt alluded to in his speech as one of the many libraries which together form one of the corner stones in our great Republican Edifice. A large number of people had already assembled in anticipation of the event, despite the fact that the day was very inauspicious. When the procession arrived at the Library grounds the enclosed space was packed with people. After turning the sod, President Roosevelt, at a suggestion from one of the members of the Board, placed it in a box and shoveled in some of the loose earth as well. The day was not favorable for taking a picture and it is to be greatly regretted that the photograph was not more of a success. Your committee recommends that the spade used by the President of the United States in turning the first sod for the Grand Island Public Library be suitably engraved and given a prominent place in the new Library Building together with the picture of the President and the Board. We believe this will be an interesting bit of history connected with the Library associated as it is with one of the world's greatest contemporary men. We believe they will be suitable decorations, and that they will possess some historical interest and significance in afteryears. Afterward for horse lovers: The President was delighted with the mount he had on the way from the Taylor Ranch. It was the Hansen horse of Dannebrog, the little dappled animal that attracted considerable attention wherever it was seen. He had not long mounted the animal when he remarked upon its elegance as a saddle animal. Upon seeing the horse in the parade, he remarked: "I might wish for another ride this morning. See that fine horse of mine there?"