November 12, 1909 was a momentous day for the city of Middletown, as thousands of cheering, flag-waving residents lined the streets to enjoy a day full of pomp and circumstance and an evening full of dancing and fireworks. The Hartford Courant covered every detail of the day’s festivities in a breathless, three-page spread under the subheading, “Middletown Sees the Greatest Day in its History.” Officials later estimated that the crowd was the largest ever assembled in Middletown in a single day.
The special occasion? President William Howard Taft came to town to celebrate the inauguration of the new President of Wesleyan University, William Shanklin. Taft had been selected as the guest of honor and plenary speaker for the event, and his visit marked the first to Middletown by a sitting President of the United States in over 75 years. (The city’s last presidential visitor had been Andrew Jackson in 1832.)
Not long after sunrise, President Taft and Vice President James Sherman pulled into Middletown station via train, where they climbed into an open-top automobile and proceeded to Wesleyan along a parade route crammed with cheering citizens. The route had been opulently decorated with “forty triumphal arches of flags, hundreds of pictures and paintings of Taft. Great streamers of the American colors” waving from housetops along the route, wrote the Courant, “gave the city an appearance such as it never assumed before.” President Taft’s motorcade was escorted by 75 Civil War veterans (all members of the Grand Army of the Republic veterans’ group) and was followed by the Governor’s Foot Guard, several fife and drum corps, and other patriotic organizations.
After Taft delivered an address lauding the contributions made by college graduates to American society, he was presented with an honorary doctorate and joined his fellow dignitaries — along with plenty of Wesleyan alumni — for an evening banquet before being escorted back to the train station. The festivities culminated in a grand fireworks display over the Connecticut River, marking the end to what was certainly one of Middletown’s most patriotic occasions, today in Connecticut history.
Steven Devoto, “From 1909: Taft at Wesleyan; Shanklin Installed,” The Middletown Eye news blog
Deborah Shapiro, “President Taft Day in Middletown,” Middlesex County Historical Society