President Taft on steps of Yakima County Courthouse in 1909?

YAKIMA, Wash. -- To President William Howard Taft’s surprise, he ran into an old friend when he stopped in Yakima more than a century ago.

Just like Theodore Roosevelt’s visit six years earlier, the city had pulled out all the stops to honor the president.

Buildings were festooned with American flags and fruit showcasing the Valley’s agriculture, while people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of president.

Taft was on his way to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle when he arrived here at 5:30 a.m. Sept. 29, 1909, from Spokane. The presidential train was parked in the Northern Pacific Railway yards south of Yakima Avenue, with a cordon of police keeping people back.

But one woman, Betty Hodges, was allowed a visit to the presidential car. Hodges, who owned a ranch in Naches, knew Taft when they were both living in Cincinnati. Taft received her warmly and invited her to breakfast.

He would later mention the meeting during his speech in Yakima, describing Hodges as an “old sweetheart.”

He said if Hodges could cultivate the good will of fruit as she did with people, she’d be the best farmer in the Valley.

Hodges told the Yakima Daily Republic that she was merely friends with the president.

At 9:15 a.m., Taft left the train and got in the lead car of a 13-car convoy for a tour of the Valley. Secret Service agents scanned the crowd as people took pictures as he passed.

His first stop was Yakima High School, where A.C. Davis High School now stands. Students greeted him with patriotic songs, and he spoke to the students, urging the girls to wait until they “feel a strong desire” to get married.

His next stop was Summit View School, where students presented him with a basket of peaches, strawberries, grapes and apples, the first of several fruit baskets he would get on his trip.

The procession eventually made its way to the Yakima County Courthouse where Taft would speak to a crowd of more than 5,000 people.

Mayor Philip M. Armbruster presented Taft with a basket of apples rather than the key to the city. After other dignitaries spoke, Taft addressed the crowd, noting the presence of Union Civil War veterans, and paying tribute to the Yakima men who served in the Philippines during the Philippine Insurrection following the Spanish-America War.

He noted the presence of the monument to the men of Company E of the First Washington Infantry, which had been moved to the courthouse lawn from the middle of the Third Street-East Yakima Avenue intersection the year before. Today, that monument sits on the south side of the intersection of East Yakima and Naches avenues.

Taft also talked about how alike Americans were as he traveled cross country, and urged them to consider the state’s junior U.S. senator and North Yakima resident Wesley Jones as presidential material, as opposed to having Taft tap him as a running mate in 1912 as Gov. Marion Hay suggested.

“You are not in the habit of taking the back seat or accepting the culls of apples. You want the best, don’t you?” Taft asked the crowd. “So what is the use of standing in the second place?”

After a luncheon following the speech, Taft boarded the train for the trip to Seattle, arriving at midnight.

• It Happened Here is a weekly history column by Yakima Herald-Republic reporter Donald W. Meyers. Reach him at 509-577-7748 or dmeyers@yakimaherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/donaldwmeyers.