The presidential motorcade made its way slowly down the West River Road on a balmy fall afternoon in 1936. At 38th Street, the parade of cars turned off the curving roadway and pulled into the courtyard at the Michael J. Dowling School for Crippled Children. The notable visitors riding in an open-air limousine included President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor.
FDR had come to Dowling on Oct. 9 to dedicate the school’s therapeutic swimming pool, but his whirlwind Minnesota visit had a broader political purpose. That year, he was running for re-election after ousting Herbert Hoover from the White House in 1932.
The Dowling event, occurring just weeks before the Nov. 3 election, gave Roosevelt an opportunity to showcase the WPA — Works Progress Administration — his signature New Deal initiative used to fund the school’s new pool.
Dowling had opened in 1924 on a 19-acre campus overlooking the Mississippi River. The land for the local public school had been donated by a former Minneapolis mayor, William Eustis, who himself had been crippled as a result of a childhood illness.
A bouquet and a welcome from students
On that Friday afternoon in October, several thousand Minnesotans had crowded on to the Dowling campus in hopes of seeing the president and his famous wife. A small delegation from the school was waiting to greet the Roosevelts. It included Dowling Principal Gladys McAlister and two students, Mavis Whitman and Martin Croze. Tiny Mavis was hoisted up at the side of the presidential limousine to present a bouquet to Mrs. Roosevelt on behalf of her fellow students. Then, 15-year-old Martin, seated in a wheelchair, delivered a short welcoming address to the presidential party. He later admitted that he had pinned a campaign button for the Roosevelt’s Republican opponent, Alf Landon, on the back of his suit jacket lapel.
In his brief remarks at the dedication ceremony, Roosevelt spoke directly to the Dowling students, telling them that their warm reception reminded him of the greetings he receives from the children at Warm Springs, his polio treatment center in Georgia.
‘I hope all of you will be able to learn to swim in this fine pool,” he told Dowling youngsters. Then, in an oblique reference to his own disability, Roosevelt said. “Swimming, as you know, is the only exercise I can take.”
On to Pioneer Square and St. Paul
Just 10 minutes after it began, the ceremony at Dowling was over. The presidential motorcade headed off through South Minneapolis on 38th Street to Nicollet Avenue and then down Nicollet to Pioneer Square, where the president made some brief remarks. Then Roosevelt and his entourage were off to St. Paul, where he delivered a speech on the steps of the State Capitol before heading back to the presidential train waiting for him at Union Station.
The 1936 election campaign was occurring at a time when political polling was still in its infancy. Two years earlier the American Institute of Public Opinion, underwritten by a consortium of 70 newspapers, had started measuring the public’s views on current issues, using random sampling techniques. Now, in the 1936, the institute was able to provide a state-by-state breakdown of presidential preferences.
Just as Roosevelt was beginning his western-states campaign swing in early October, the Public Opinion Institute released a new set of polls that moved Minnesota from the “toss-up” to the “borderline Democratic” column. The new poll showed Roosevelt narrowly besting his Republican opponent, Landon, in Minnesota, 51 percent to 49 percent.
Roosevelt’s political strategists had sent the president to Minnesota to begin his western tour because of the state’s unique political landscape and its quarreling factions that threatened to undermine FDR’s electoral changes there.
Only a week before the president’s visit, the Democratic Party’s candidates for governor and U.S. senator had withdrawn from the race and thrown their support to the candidates of the Minnesota’s then dominant Farmer Labor Party. Earlier in the year, the state’s charismatic Farmer Labor governor, Floyd Olson, had died in office, further complicating the political scene in Minnesota. Now in 1936, Farmer Labor U.S. Sen. Elmer Benson was running for governor and Ernest Lundeen, a former Republican, was seeking Benson’s Senate seat as a Farmer Laborite.
Many old-line Democrats were irate about what they viewed as their party’s capitulation to Olson’s party, whose left-leaning policies were suspect in many politics circles. Olson had been a staunch supporter of Roosevelt and the New Deal, but some Farmer Laborites did not share his enthusiasm for the national Democratic Party’s standard bearer.
Just before Roosevelt’s train left St. Paul on the next leg of the campaign swing, the president met with the leaders of the various political groups in an effort to win their support and massage their bruised egos.
On Election Day, any residual fallout from Minnesota’s political squabbles had only minimal effect; Roosevelt won a second term in a landslide, defeating Landon with more than 60 percent of the vote in Minnesota.
Eighty years later, the Dowling pool, now part of an environmental learning center, continues to soothe tired and weakened muscles, just as it did when Franklin Roosevelt visited on that fall day in 1936.