Since the 2016 election season is in full throttle, this seems like a good time to revisit a historic happening involving a presidential candidate who came by train to Northfield to give a major address to the youth of the nation on Sept. 16, 1952. The largest crowd ever assembled for an event in Northfield stretched Carleton College’s Laird Stadium beyond its 9,000 seat capacity to more than 10,000 in order to accommodate an audience for a speech by Dwight David (Ike) Eisenhower, the popular World War II general and Republican who was running for president against Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Seating spilled out onto the track and the stadium reverberated not with cries of “First and ten, do it again,” but “I Like Ike!” Carleton’s President Laurence (Larry) Gould commented, “This is the first time that both the Carls and the Oles have been in this stadium yelling for the same thing.”
Eisenhower was paying his last visit to Minnesota before the general election of Nov. 4. It was part of a 12-state campaign tour with eight major speeches, including his only college address in Northfield. While the speech was heard by farmers, businessmen and other townspeople, there was an emphasis on younger voters. Clifford Stiles, a Carleton senior from Lake Bluff, Illinois, had invited Eisenhower through the Carleton Young Republican Club shortly after Ike’s nomination in Chicago. (See sidebar story.) Besides St. Olaf and Carleton, 14 other colleges from around the state sent car caravans and busloads of students.
Earlier that day, Eisenhower had made a brief stop in Albert Lea where an estimated 3,000 people greeted his 18-car special campaign train carrying the general, his wife Mamie, advisers and media people. The “whistle stop” continued to Owatonna. There Eisenhower spoke a few minutes on a rear train platform about his enthusiastic support for farm co-operatives in order to save the family farm and agriculture. Eight-year-old Crawford Schwendler, Jr., from Washington Elementary School had grown a giant pumpkin with “I Like Ike” carved into it in his garden on the outskirts of Owatonna and it was presented to Eisenhower. Mamie Eisenhower told the crowd jovially, “We’ll try to have pumpkin pie for lunch.” (Young Schwendler became a graduate of the Owatonna High School Class of 1962. Now living in Arizona, he told me his father ran Schwendler Electric Service in town. He remembers his father handing the pumpkin up to a Secret Service man just as the train was ready to leave. He even got a letter of thanks from Eisenhower later. Schwendler retired from Roadway Express in Denver after working for Control Data Corp in Minneapolis and serving in the Army.)
Then it was on to the Rock Island Depot in Faribault. The Faribault Daily News of Sept. 16 reported that Eisenhower was given a “tremendous welcome by some 5,000 persons,” including school children released from classes and a color guard from Shattuck School who presented arms and got a salute from Gen. Eisenhower. After a brief talk on the rear platform, in which Eisenhower encouraged everyone to vote in the November elections, he introduced Mamie who flashed her “famous smile and waved enthusiastically to the crowd.” She accepted a basket of flowers and “seemed very pleased when she and the general were presented with Pak-A-Robes. She stroked her blanket tenderly as she posed for photographers and Ike grinned and made a comment about keeping warm this winter.” (Pak-A-Robes, stadium blankets in zippered cases from the Faribault Woolen Mills Co., have been favored gifts for years.)
The train moved on to Northfield where a welcoming committee composed of selected students, Northfield mayor Oakey Jackson, President Larry Gould of Carleton, President Clemens Granskou of St. Olaf, Republican leaders and other dignitaries met the party at the Milwaukee train depot. Mamie again was given flowers. A red Cadillac convertible was waiting to take the Eisenhowers across the 3rd Street Bridge and north down Division Street to Carleton’s Laird Stadium. Most businesses in town had closed in the morning so all could go to the event. The Carletonian newspaper reported on Sept. 20: “Students, faculty and Republican-minded citizens of Minnesota flocked into Laird Stadium, joining the colorful and exhilarated throng. Bands representative of the various area high schools performed on the field as cheerleaders from Carleton and Macalester and three St. Olaf trumpeters led the crowd in an ‘I Like Ike’ cheer.” The bands came from Cannon Falls, Faribault, Farmington, Hastings and Northfield and the Northfield Male Chorus entertained. The Faribault band presented some tricky formations, played It’s A Great Day and spelled out I-K-E on the field. Carleton freshmen sold campaign buttons, ties, banners and hats to cover rally expenses and St. Olaf and Carleton lettermen ran refreshment booths. The Carleton football team attended as a group in full gridiron uniform.
The media crowded around the dais set up for a speaker’s stand on the 50-yard line of the football field and the radio broadcast of the speech was carried over WCCO in Minneapolis, WCAL of St. Olaf, KARL of Carleton and KDHL of Faribault. It was also kinescoped over CBS-TV for later broadcast. Stiles told me that “just before Eisenhower arrived, the entire microphone and loud speaker system went down. There was a connection at the foot of the speaker’s platform that someone had kicked accidentally, and nothing worked. We found the loose connection, plugged it back in, and disaster was averted.”
Carleton President Gould, serving as master of ceremonies, held his arms aloft, pleading with the crowd to quiet down “so the proceedings could begin and schedules be maintained,” according to the Northfield Independent account of Sept. 18. “The crowd responded, as could be expected of intelligent youth.” Eisenhower was introduced by the U.S. Senator from Northfield, Edward J. Thye. Governor C. Elmer Anderson and other important political figures were on the platform.
Joining St. Olaf and Carleton students in the audience were representatives from Augsburg, Concordia, Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline, Macalester, Mankato State Teachers’, St. Catherine, St. Cloud Teachers’, St. John’s, St. Thomas, Duluth University, Winona State Teachers’ and Worthington Junior College. One hundred cars came from the University of Minnesota alone. Fifteen high schools were represented.
Eisenhower opened his speech with the words, “My very good friends, and you must be my friends, otherwise I don’t see how both St. Olaf and Carleton could have turned out here together,” provoking laughter in the stadium. He reminded the crowd that he was a college president, too, the head of New York’s Columbia University, although currently on leave. He joked, “You people will determine on next Nov. 4 whether my leave will be permanent.”
Eisenhower went on to stress that moral values must rule American foreign policies. He compared the American and Communist ways and said, “If you can by co-operation show that you can outdo, outthink, outwork and outlearn any dictatorship that has ever existed no matter what its force, you will have done your part.” Eisenhower praised the role of small colleges in preserving “the values that have made our country great and which in turn we must apply if we are going to lead the world toward peace, security and prosperity.” He called small colleges “one of the greatest symbols of a free America.” The Northfield News of Sept. 18 noted that the “wild cheers” at the end of his talk moved him to remark, “This is the dandiest meeting I’ve had in a long time.”
After the speech, the Carletonian quoted a St. Olaf letterman as saying, “Eisenhower displayed great foresight in coming to speak to us college students. His interest in the youth vote is shown through this part of the campaign.” One St. Olaf student, however, said, “We can’t take a chance on a Republican candidate now” and five men from Rosemount said they did not like his policies and claimed, “He does a lot of talking without saying much.” An Augsburg student said, “It’s wonderful that the colleges have the opportunity to get together and hear Ike. He is the only one who can bring us through, considering present world circumstances, for he is the best.” (Eisenhower’s popularity can be seen in a later presidential poll of Carleton students which showed Eisenhower was favored by 75.9 percent of the vote to Adlai Stevenson’s 24.1 percent.)
Just before the caravan of cars left to take the Eisenhowers back to the depot, the Sept. 18 Northfield News account said that “swarms of people” gathered around the convertible to shake hands with both Ike and Mamie and get autographs. The Faribault Daily News of Sept. 17, 1952, wrote, “A college age youth ran alongside the car to hand the Eisenhowers two napkin-wrapped hot dogs which the students had been selling from the stands on the grounds.” There was another report that someone tossed a popsicle into the convertible (and Mamie ate it, as it was close to the lunch hour).
Among those swarms were two very excited 12-year-old Northfield boys. Several years ago, Dan Freeman described their experience to me in this way: “I was there with my buddy, Doug Westerlund. We sat up into the wee hours of the morning that day working on a WE LIKE IKE sign. It was on a sheet and was about five feet by ten feet. Sadly, when we held it up in the stadium, we blocked several peoples’ view of the proceedings. One of the security people came to us and brought us down to the track where we could lift it without blocking anyone’s view. After Ike finished his talk, the same security fellow brought us over to Ike and he signed our sheet right after he sat down in the back seat of the convertible. I have hunted high and low for that autograph without any success and I now believe it got thrown out by someone way back in the fifties.”
The Northfield News of Sept. 18 reported, “A genuinely warm and human American with his charming wife gave Northfield a day that will long be remembered.” Ike and Mamie Eisenhower “captured the hearts of many Northfielders. Ike got in his licks with a firm handshake, an inspiring look and a sincere interest in the people he came in contact with. His wife Mamie charmed as many with her sweet smile and warm ‘hellos.’”
William Howard Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have also visited Northfield, but even Clinton, who gave a commencement address at Carleton when he was president in 2000, did not speak to a crowd as large as the one proclaiming “I Like Ike!” at Laird Stadium in 1952.
Clifford Stiles on Ike’s 1952 Speech
Clifford Stiles (Carleton College Class of 1953) really liked Ike in 1952. In a recent telephone conversation, Stiles told me how he pulled off the largest gathering in Northfield history to hear “Ike” Eisenhower speak at Laird Stadium. Stiles was head of the Young Republicans at Carleton College and had connections. Like Harold Stassen, who had been governor of Minnesota from 1939 to 1943 and had spoken to 1,100 at Sayles-Hill Gymnasium on March 14. Like Walter Judd, who was serving in the House of Representatives for Minnesota’s fifth district and had given a “stem-winder” of a speech at a packed Great Hall on April 17. Like Northfield’s own Edward Thye, Minnesota’s U.S. Senator from 1947 to 1959, who had been Minnesota’s governor from 1943 to 1947. And like P. Kenneth Peterson, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party.
So when Dwight David Eisenhower became the Republican candidate for president in Chicago in July after Stiles’ junior year, Stiles phoned and wrote to his contacts from his summer job at Grand View Lodge on Gull Lake in Nisswa, Minn., with his suggestion that Eisenhower should come to Carleton and “make a national appeal to the youth of the nation.” Stiles said Eisenhower was planning his campaign strategy in Denver, so Stiles’ “plot” was to have each man individually present the great idea for a speech in Carleton’s large stadium which had never been filled before. When the idea was accepted, Stiles headed for the Twin Cities to make plans. Of course, first he had to get the okay from Carleton’s President Laurence (Larry) Gould, but that was no problem. Gould had attended the Republican National Convention as a Minnesota alternate delegate.
Stiles told me that he had engaged a fleet of convertibles to transport the Eisenhowers and dignitaries from the Northfield train station to Laird Stadium. Gould had planned to take the short ride with the couple but Eisenhower said, “No, Mamie and I will ride alone,” which Gould considered an insult, according to Stiles. Later Eisenhower apologized to Gould, saying, “I don’t want to set a precedent for when we campaign in Wisconsin.” Eisenhower did not want to have to ride with Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy whose anti-communist witch hunt rhetoric was widely criticized and led to his being formally censured in 1954.
Stiles said that the Eisenhower public relations people feared they had “made an awful goof” when they did not see crowds at first. But as the red convertible carrying the Eisenhowers drove into sight of the thousands at the stadium, a roar broke out as cheerleaders led “I Like Ike” cheers. Mamie Eisenhower later told Rep. Walter Judd that the appearance at Carleton College was “one of the most impressive highlights of the entire campaign.”
Stiles now lives in Foley, Minnesota, with his wife, Carol, where he was in family practice as a physician for 50 years. Two of their four children went to Carleton: T.J. Stiles, Class of 1986 and Karen Stiles, Class of 1990. T.J. Stiles has won two Pulitzer Prizes, in 2010 for his biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt and this year for his history of George Armstrong Custer. In 2003, T.J. Stiles published Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War which is available at the Northfield Historical Society.
Clifford Stiles told me his “only claim to fame” from his years at Carleton is masterminding Eisenhower’s 1952 speech at Laird Stadium. I would say that he carried off a very impressive historic happening.