February 18, 2019 is Presidents’ Day, a Federal holiday in the United States in honor of George Washington’s Birthday. George Washington, the first President of the United States, was born on February 22, 1732. His birthday was made a Federal holiday in 1885, but since 1971 it has been celebrated on the third Monday in February.
Some states, including Illinois, also celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, but since the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971, it was combined nationally with Washington’s birthday to become “Presidents’ Day.”
In honor of Presidents’ Day, DeKalb County Online is going to take a brief look at the history of United States presidents visiting DeKalb County.
There have been many presidents who have visited DeKalb County, Illinois over the years, both before they were president and in some cases while they were serving as President of the United States. Here are a few notable ones.
The United States president most-closely associated with the State of Illinois only set foot in DeKalb County once, briefly, when he was in the U.S. Army in May of 1832. Lincoln had joined the Army during the Black Hawk War to pursue the Sauk Indian Chief. Lincoln was captain of a contingent that was sent to what is now Stillman Valley to bury the soldiers who died in the Battle of Stillman’s Run.
On the way, the soldiers had to go to Ottawa, and in doing so marched across the southern part of DeKalb County, according to the late Lincoln history aficionado, P.A. Nehring. Lincoln’s unit camped at Paw Paw Grove near the DeKalb County border, and then traveled east on what is now the Chicago-Dixon Road, crossing the road that become Route 23, before entering LaSalle County.
As a lawyer, Lincoln also defended a DeKalb County man in a trespassing case, but he never traveled to the county to plead the case.
If you want to see the famous portrait of Abraham Lincoln pictured above in person, you can visit the DeKalb County Courthouse in Sycamore. The large canvas photograph, taken in 1860 by Alexander Hesler, was donated to the County in 2017 by DeKalb attorney Ron Klein.
In October of 1898, President William McKinley stopped briefly in DeKalb as his train headed to Omaha, Nebraska. After he was assassinated in 1901, a memorial service was held for McKinley in DeKalb. Isaac Ellwood presided over the ceremony and Northern Illinois University President, Dr. John Cook, gave the address.
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt spoke twice in DeKalb, IL. On October 6, 1900, he stopped in DeKalb on his way to Chicago on his famous whistle-stop campaign tour. At the time, Roosevelt was Governor of New York and was campaigning as the Vice-Presidential candidate for William McKinley.
Roosevelt gave his speech on the grounds of Northern Illinois University in the area by the East Lagoon that used to be called the “Campus Woods,” but is now the Montgomery Arboretum. At one time, there was a marker indicating the exact spot where Roosevelt stood as he gave his speech. Appropriately, immediately following Roosevelt’s speech, Northern Illinois University played its first ever football game, which they won against DeKalb High School. Roosevelt was a strong proponent of the sport and has even been credited with saving football by advocating for rule changes that made college football safer.
During Roosevelt’s brief stay in DeKalb, Isaac Ellwood entertained the governor’s party and he ate in the Ellwood House dining room. The Ellwood House Museum has some artifacts from that visit.
President McKinley won re-election in 1900, but was assassinated in 1901. Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the 26th President of the United States on September 14, 1901, after McKinley’s death.
Roosevelt returned to DeKalb as President on May 10, 1905, following stops in Chicago, Dixon and Sterling, as he traveled through Illinois on his way back East. Here is the text of the speech he delivered on that day:
“It is a great pleasure to have the chance of saying a word or two of greeting to you this morning, and to be traveling again through your great, beautiful, and marvelously fertile State. There are two things upon which I want to lay emphasis—to congratulate you upon your material prosperity and to congratulate you upon the use you are making of that prosperity. Here in Dekalb I want to congratulate you upon what is meant by the success of your great manufacturing establishments. I want to congratulate the county upon the success it has typified by its agricultural well-being, and, also, I want to congratulate you upon what is meant by having the State normal school here, because you are taking care both of the things of the body and the things of the mind. You have got to take care of both. If there is not a foundation of material prosperity for the State, as for the individual, you cannot expect anything but unhappiness; but woe to the State, as woe to the individual, if material prosperity is all that is sought after.
“Our people have risen and will rise because they have taken care of both sides of the development of the national character, because your farms and factories prosper, and yet because you take care of the school and the library and build on the foundation of material well-being the superstructure of the higher life. It is just as it is with the individual. The first thing a man has to do is to earn enough to take care of himself and his family. There is no use of expecting much of him if he cannot pull his own weight. He has got to be able to do that first, and, having done that, then- let him also try to be a good neighbor and a good citizen.”
One other notable connection to Theodore Roosevelt in DeKalb County is the Bull Moose Bar & Grille on the corner of Main Street and US Route 34 in Sandwich, IL. The restaurant is housed in a Pullman Palace dining car that was built in 1893 and used by Theodore Roosevelt between 1900 and 1913. During the 1912 presidential campaign, after Roosevelt had left the Republican Party and was running as a member of the Progressive Party, he was shot in the chest in an assassination attempt while giving a speech from the train. As he was recovering in the hospital, Roosevelt declared that he was “tough as a bull moose” and would continue the campaign. That statement was the origin of the “Bull Moose” Party nickname and subsequently the name of the pub in Sandwich, IL.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, made two speeches in DeKalb on October 25, 1959, a few months before he announced his candidacy for President in January, 1960. First, the 42-year-old Senator spoke to about 300 people at the Elks Club. The attendees paid $5 a plate to attend the luncheon.
Later, Kennedy delivered a message to about 1,300 at the Egyptian Theatre. DeKalb County Democratic Chairwoman Dorothy O’Brien, who served as Kennedy’s host while he was in DeKalb, gave an audio cassette recording of the speech to a reporter in the 1980s before she died. The reporter then donated it to the Egyptian Theatre.
On October 25, 2016, the Egyptian Theatre had an event to commemorate the 57th anniversary of Kennedy’s visit, where they played a digitized recording of his speech. You can listen to a couple clips from Kennedy’s speech here: https://www.northernpublicradio.org/post/jfk-speech-dekalb-county-heads-new-audience.
Although our 40th President lived in nearby Dixon, IL until graduating from high School in 1928, the only evidence of Ronald Reagan in DeKalb County is this photo of him (below) as a caddie in 1922 for the Lincoln Highway Ladies Golf Tournament. It appears that the photo was taken at the Kishwaukee Country Club in DeKalb. The tournament continues to this day, as it was held for the 96th year last July at the PrairieView Golf Club in Byron, where the team from the Kishwaukee Country Club captured the title again.
As a United States Senate candidate, Barack Obama spoke at Hopkins Park in DeKalb for an outdoor rally with the DeKalb County Democrats on Sunday, August 1, 2004. It was the weekend after his famous keynote address at the Democratic National Convention made him a national sensation, which ultimately led to him becoming the 44th President of the United States.
On Saturday, May 7, 2005, Senator Obama returned to DeKalb County and did a town hall meeting with about 400 people in the Sycamore Public Library community room.
After taking questions for about an hour, Obama shook hands with attendees, posed for photos and signed copies of his book before departing.
George H.W. Bush
As former President George H. W. Bush’s Union Pacific 4141 funeral train traveled west from Washington D.C. to Texas in 2018, the 41st President’s body passed through DeKalb on December 14, 2018 at 1:56 a.m. on the way to its final resting place in College Station, Texas.