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A presidential scrap touches down at the Havre de Grace Opera House

On successive afternoons in May 1912, Havre de Grace and its then 41-year-old Opera House — a building celebrating its one-year anniversary this month of being reborn (after a $4 million face-lift) as The Cultural Center at the Opera House — played host to one of the most spirited presidential campaigns of the 20th century.

The combatants were first-term incumbent William Howard Taft and his one-time friend and mentor, former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was trying to get back to the White House he had vacated four years earlier.

There was little love lost between the former friends. In 1908, the popular Roosevelt had heartily recommended Taft as his successor. But he now regretted that endorsement (as well as his decision not to run for a second term, thus clearing the way for Taft), and as May played out, the two men were battling tooth-and-nail for the Republican nomination.

Roosevelt arrived in Havre de Grace first, May 3, on the first of a two-day visit to Maryland that began at 4:30 a.m. in Salisbury. The Harford County town was his second stop — he was scheduled to speak in Baltimore that evening, then head to Westminster, Frederick, Hagerstown and Hancock the next day.

Arriving via private train car for a scheduled 2:30 p.m. speech, Roosevelt began his visit by clasping the hand of Baltimore native and former U.S. Attorney General Charles J. Bonaparte, exclaiming “Hello, my fellow criminal.”

The two men had recently been accused by President Taft of some chicanery involving the suppression of a charge that the International Harvester Company was in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. As TR was renowned as an opponent of the trusts, Taft was charging him with hypocrisy of the worst order. Roosevelt and Bonaparte “laughed together at the indictment which had been written against them by Mr. Taft,” The Sun reported.

Roosevelt then addressed a group of Baltimoreans who had come north for his speech. He used the occasion to dump on “the bosses,” as he would do repeatedly during the campaign — one that, despite his immense popularity, he was destined to lose, in large part because top Republican officials refused to back him.

“The danger of America today is not thraldom from a foe outside,” he told the group, according to The Sun, “but the yoke of the boss within our borders. It is time that American citizens awakened to the fact. It is time that they thought for themselves.”

Speaking from the front of the Opera House, Roosevelt then addressed a crowd of supporters before getting back on the train and heading for Baltimore, where he spoke that night before a “vast throng” at the Lyric.

The following day, May 4, Taft brought his campaign to Maryland, starting in Aberdeen before going to Bel Air and Havre de Grace, then ending the day in Baltimore. He arrived at the Opera House by automobile from Bel Air at 5 p.m., “tired and dusty but full of fight still, as he expressed it,” according to The Sun.

The president was met at the Opera House by a crowd of between 3,000 and 4,000, according to The Sun, “who applauded him more frequently than had any Maryland audience during the day.”

Hard to say who benefited more from his stop in Havre de Grace. Taft would win the nomination, but Roosevelt would refuse to go away quietly, launching a third-party candidacy that split the Republican party and helped elect Democrat Woodrow Wilson to the White House. Maryland went for Wilson in the election.

But one sure winner that May was the Opera House, whose brush with presidential notoriety would help ensure its place in local history (it would enjoy a similar moment in the spotlight in 1960, when candidate John F. Kennedy received a key to the city during a ceremony in front of the building). Even after a 1921 fire destroyed its third floor, the building remained a cultural touchstone for Havre de Grace, continuing to house government offices until 1993.

ckaltenbach@baltsun.com

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