Crossing Marion Avenue on the Richland B&O Trail you are intersecting with a very specific and fairly embarrassing moment in history involving a US President: Warren G. Harding.
Harding the President
President Harding does not often get much of a break from the critics of history who, for most of a century since his death, have held him personally accountable for the scandals following in the wake of his administration. It was his misfortune to have placed his trust in men far less scrupulous than he; and he is quoted as having said, “I have no trouble with my enemies, I can take care of my enemies all right. But my friends… they’re the ones that keep me walking the floor nights.”
He was an amazing man though, when you consider that most of our presidents came to their careers through the advantage of families with money and political power; yet he was an entirely self-made man, who started from the ground up.
He was born only 11 miles from the center of Mansfield, and through a rare combination of perseverance, personal charisma, and fateful timing, he rose from a country kid who fished in Whetstone Creek to the highly respected editor of the Marion Star; then Ohio State Senator, Ohio Lieutenant Governor, and US Senator.
He was only 55 when he was elected President, in the largest landslide Republican victory ever. It’s hard to imagine how the most popular man in America in 1920 could be sort of swept under the rug as an embarrassment for the rest of the 20th Century.
Harding the Golfer
Looking through sepia-toned photos from the 1920s there are many shots of Warren Harding, dressed in his quaint sporting knickers, out on the fairways golfing. He was, through the news media at the time, a terrific source of the game’s growing popularity, even though he wouldn’t allow reporters onto the course when he was playing.
He considered himself a fairly lousy golfer, and said that if he broke 100 the reporters could write about it because that would be news.
Harding learned to golf in 1901 at the age of 35, and then learned, through the years, how the camaraderie of the game could be instrumental in building friendships, political alliances, and business connections.
About the time that Warren Harding was learning to swing his wooden clubs in Marion, Mansfield was establishing its first golf course: Westbrook.
This country club on Springmill Street was laid out by the most preeminent golf course designer in America: so it was well-known and attractive to golf enthusiasts from all around the state. In 1913 that included Warren G. Harding, who drove over from Marion in his 1913 Packard to play a round at Westbrook and talk politics with his Mansfield friends.
In order to truly appreciate Mr. Harding’s tale of his golf outing to Mansfield, there are two more elements of the story that need to be asserted: Mrs. Harding, and Marion Avenue Road.
Florence Kling Harding was one of those First Ladies around whom whispers swath themselves like the netted veils she was often photographed wearing.
There are those who still assert, even today, that she poisoned the President—that’s how strong a presence she emanated then and now.
She was a decisive and strong-spoken woman and wife. And in 1913 on the day her husband drove to Mansfield for a golf outing she told him in no uncertain terms that he was to be home for dinner with the guests.
When Warren suddenly realized that he had been mingling too late into the afternoon at Westbrook, he pitched his clubs into the car and peeled out for home. The way home was by Marion Avenue.
Marion Avenue Road
In Richland County there is a curious and folkloric tradition in the naming of country thoroughfares that involves using a double title. The best known is probably Bowman Street Road. If you’re from here it makes sense because when the pavement exits the city limits it is not a street anymore…you don’t find streets in the country. In the countryside they are roads. So north of Mansfield, Bowman Street is Bowman Street Road.
Another prominent example of this twice-named phenomenon is Marion Avenue Road. In 1913 it went all the way to Marion, Ohio.
If you drive there today you will coast down a long hill, at the bottom of which the pavement crosses the Richland B&O Bike Trail. In 1913 that crossing would have been the B&O Railroad. It was a double track, and it was raised more than a foot or two above the surface of the road.
The bump over the tracks required careful slowing of the car.
When Senator Harding was campaigning to become President Harding in 1920, he had occasion to be riding on a B&O train, and pass through this intersection at the Marion Avenue Road. He had with him a small pack of reporters on the train, who he loved to entertain, having spent so many years himself as a newspaper editor.
An Embarrassing Tale
Glancing out the window he happened to recognize the long hills on either side of the tracks, and he laughed with a self-deprecating humility as he recounted to his friends about the day in 1913 when he raced down Marion Avenue Road to get home before Flossie could blow her top.
He was late, he knew it, and he was going way too fast. His companion in the Packard may have been his driver, he didn’t say. They hit those tracks ‘like sixty’ and they went airborne—them and the car. The car came down however, while they were still going up.
The cars in 1913 had a roof that was made of canvas, and the words they always use to describe Harding were “tall and handsome.” Both of the men went literally ‘right through the roof’ and their heads tore through the canvas. He said if his eyes had been open he probably could have seen the road in front of them from above the roofline.
As a Result
Today the railroad bed—now the bike trail—has been graded down level to the pavement of Marion Avenue Road, so it’s a smooth crossing, but it’s not difficult to imagine a time when that intersection was a little more treacherous.
It is the site where the future President hit the roof in an attempt to make sure his wife did not.