It was a very hot July day in 1938. Thousands of people surrounded the Booneville train depot, sweltering in the hot sunshine while trying to inch closer and closer to the track. The train whistled in the distance and slowed to the cheers of the crowd.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, accompanied by Senators Hattie Caraway and John Miller, emerged from the rear of the train. Standing on the ramp at the back of the train, Caraway introduced the president who then gave a short speech to the waiting crowd. In the speech, Roosevelt praised the local leaders, acknowledged the beauty of Magazine Mountain, and spoke about the future of western Arkansas. The campaign was a part of the whistle-stop train campaign for the President. During the heyday of train travel, it became quite popular for politicians to board a train, stop at each station, and present a short speech to supporters.
In his third campaign for president, FDR realized the importance of gathering support from the solidly Democratic South. Facing a tough campaign and running for an unheard-of third term, he needed solid support for his reelection and for his economic recovery act. His campaign committee had announced his plans to travel across the state on a trip that would eventually terminate on the west coast.
Hearing about the president’s plan, local civic groups and politicians sent an invitation to his campaign committee and became one of the four-stop locations in the state. Local newspapers reported that the president appeared in a light grey suit and appeared tanned and trim as he addressed the crowd.
Little did most people know that FDR was afflicted by polio and required a wheelchair. To stand, he used canes to push himself up and to get into position to deliver his speech. After his short speech, of which I have a copy, he was presented a bouquet of flowers by the local garden club.
As the train pulled away, the Booneville high school band accompanied his departure with a rendition of “America.” Even greater than the kind words by the President, the two senators remained behind and meet with the county judge and other local politicians.
Through their efforts and that of FDR, the area received $1,004,000 dollars for the WPA to construct to assist in the 2-million-dollar construction of the state sanatorium. FDR went on to win the election, followed by his fourth election during WWII. He became the only president to serve more than two terms. He died during the fourth term, leaving his final years in office to VP Harry Truman.
Whistlestop campaigns are no more, the train station, as well as the tracks, has disappeared. Small town America no longer attracts big-city politicians. On a positive side, the sanatorium still stands, the band still sounds great, and local politicians and businessmen still work to make their community thrive.