Stephen F. Austin State University

The President got his Possum in Gregg County (February 2012)

The President got his Possum in Gregg County
by Van Croddock

This is the tale of President William Howard Taft and the possum-and-'tater lunch he got in Longview in 1909.

Taft was president between Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, but he's probably best remembered for weighing 325 pounds and once getting stuck in his White House bathtub. He had this enormous appetite, often eating steak for breakfast. But in October 1909, the chief executive had possums on his mind.

That year Taft was touring Texas, a state he'd lost in the 1908 election against William Jennings Bryan. Taft gave speeches in Houston, Waco, and Dallas. In the Waller County town of Hempstead somebody gave him a small cage that contained a live possum and suggested it would make a delicious meal.

Taft noted he had an "aversion to the possum fad" but graciously accepted the unusual gift.

Possum and sweet potato was a culinary rage at the time. A century ago, a magazine article noted "two fat possums may possibly feed three hungry men. Still, there are men who can manage their possum single-handed."

On October 24, 1909, Taft boarded his train in Dallas and headed east for Longview. Pretty soon the Yale-educated president was hungry but decided to forego his usual steak. Taft announced that, by golly, he was ready to try one of those possum-and-'tater meals.

But when the train's chef went to the baggage car to retrieve the live possum, he discovered the animal was gone. The train stopped in Wills Point to take on water … and Taft's vast stomach began to rumble.

Just before noon the presidential train chugged into Longview's downtown Texas and Pacific depot. This was the first time a U.S. president had ever visited the town and officials rolled out the red carpet. A crowd estimated at 6,000 (more folks than actually lived in Longview in 1909) crowded into the public square to hear an address by Taft.

Welcoming the president was Mayor G.A. Bodenheim, who "tendered the freedom of the city and the welcome of East Texas." Taft recalled that Longview was home to a friend of his, Texas Governor Thomas M. Campbell. The president joked that Campbell had "moved to the promised land - Palestine."

Taft seemed pleased with the elaborate decorations, especially a 25-foot-tall triumphal arch covered with bunting and flags with the message "WELCOME."

Taft was appreciative of his nice reception in Texas, admitting he'd found "more friends and less votes" in Texas than any other state. The president was cheered lustily by the large crowd.

Then, Mayor Bodenheim called resident Cooper Sheftall to come up to the podium. In Sheftall's hands was a possum-and-'tater lunch.

Railroad officials had wired ahead to Longview, making certain the president of the United States had the meal he'd requested. That afternoon the train rumbled into Jefferson, where 3,000 people had gathered to see the president.

However, the train didn't stop and few in the crowd got to see Taft because he appeared late at the rear door of the train, managing only a quick wave.

Apparently, the president was just finishing up his possum-and-'tater meal.