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FDR Visit to Grand Forks


On this date in 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt won a second term as president. The following fall, he became the first president to visit the city of Grand Forks. Today’s story tells of what happened in Grand Forks when FDR came to the city to officially dedicate the new county fair grandstand, a W.P.A. project, in October of 1937.

President Roosevelt arrived by train from the west at 9:30 in the morning on October 4th, having stopped in Williston the evening before, where over a thousand people saw his railway car and got a glance of FDR sitting in his coach-chair by the window.

Monday morning was the beginning of a “lovely day” with “June-like weather” in October. The President got a full tour of the city, including the new, W.P.A.-built auditorium at Central High School and a stop at the University of North Dakota campus, where UND president John C. West and the faculty gave him quick greetings. The residents of Grand Forks turned out, about forty-thousand strong, to cheer the motorcade from curbsides and boulevards; with schoolchildren waving tiny American flags. Seventeen marching bands played rousing musical airs at selected street corners as Roosevelt, the “smiling, hat-waving man,” passed by on his way to the fairgrounds.

The highlight of the short, two-and-a-half hour visit was Roosevelt’s speech to dedicate the new grandstand. A twenty-one-gun salute and a “mighty roar” of applause welcomed the President as he reached the speaker’s platform.

FDR charmed the overflow crowd of 10,000 spectators standing on the stairways and along the sides of the grandstand when he remarked: “This is the first mistake I have seen the WPA make, for in building this grandstand, they made it only half as big as it ought to be.” The President delivered a twenty-minute speech that day, commenting on drought conditions in the West, some farm policy earmarks, and on some recent Supreme Court controversies. Seventeen regional radio stations carried the speech over the airwaves to North Dakota’s citizens.

Many people that day took photographs of FDR as he dedicated the grandstand or as he passed by in the motorcade, making scrapbook-quality memories. Interestingly, four “amateur cameramen” had innocently snapped photos of the President while he was “descending his ramp from his car” to the speaker’s platform. Not knowing that “taking a photo of the president in that form” – in other words, showing that FDR could not walk without assistance due to his polio-induced paralysis, was prohibited, the four photographers were surprised when Secret Service agents confiscated their cameras. The Secret Service men returned the cameras after removing the film. The public was to know as little as possible about the President’s disability.

Despite the photo incident, it was a glorious day for Grand Forks. Just after noon, the presidential train left Grand Forks, headed for Fargo. Every crossing and village along the seventy-five miles of tracks had a gathering of “persons hoping to see the president” as his railcar rolled by.

The FDR visit on October 4, 1937, was historic, marking the first time a sitting president had visited Grand Forks.

Dakota Datebook written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, MSU Moorhead History Department.

Sources: “40,000 Acclaim First U.S. Chief To Visit in City,” Grand Forks Herald, October 5, 1937, p. 1, 2

“Thousands Here To Welcome FDR,” Grand Forks Herald, October 4, 1937, p. 1.

“Welcome,” Grand Forks Herald, October 3, 1937, p. 4.

Camera incident and village gatherings of people along the Grand Forks to Fargo route in “When FDR Visited N.D.,” Bismarck Tribune, October 5, 1937, p. 3.

“President Hints at Special Session; Addresses Throng In Grand Forks At State Fair Grounds,” Bismarck Tribune, October 5, 1937, p. 1, 2.