Exhibit looks at Taft’s summer white house

Stephen P. Hall

The city of Beverly was a sleepy North Shore community with only 18,000 residents in the spring of 1909, but soon that would all change.

What had started with a trickle of Boston Brahmins buying up oceanfront property for “summer cottages” in the middle to late 19th century, really reached its zenith in the first two decades of the 20th century. By 1909 such famous people as Henry Clay Frick, “Judge” William Henry Moore, rubber tycoon Robert Evans, Frederick Ayer and a handful of ambassadors and other foreign dignitaries had found this little quiet corner of the map, and the summer parties and other activities began in earnest.

It was perhaps inevitable that the new president of the United States would look to this area for summer accommodations once he was installed it the White House at Washington, D.C.

Following his March 1909 inauguration, President William Howard Taft was thinking of how to escape the heat of Washington, both politically and climatically.

In 1909 there were no air-conditioned offices.

For the previous 16 years he and his family had vacationed in Canada, on the shores of Murray Bay, halfway between Quebec City and Saguenay. But he quickly realized that it would not be “correct” for the president to summer on “foreign soil,” so he began his search for a location within the borders of the United States of America.

His search finally took him to Beverly’s humble shores, and he quickly discovered that Beverly was for the most part “comfortable Republican Territory.” Nearby Nahant was at that time the home of Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Sr., and the nearby towns of Manchester and Magnolia at the time housed many of Washington’s elite including William Boardman and Sen. Albert Beveridge.

On Hale Street, in what is now part of the Endicott College campus, Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, and her husband Congressman Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, spent many a summer. When Teddy came to visit his daughter Alice, he would occasionally visit Taft. “Big Bill” Taft would have not trouble finding golf partners in this environment.

Although they looked at many homes along the North Shore, Nellie Taft finally decided on the green, shingled, 14-room cottage known as “Stetson Hall” that was located on Woodbury Point, between Beverly Cove and Hospital Point. The “cottage” was in 1909 owned by Robert Dawson Evans, and was directly across the lawn from the main house, “Dawson Hall” where he and his wife Marie Antoinette Evans summered.

A new exhibit at the Beverly Historical Society focuses on the time the Tafts spent summering in Beverly.

The summer of 1909 would not start off very well for the Tafts. As soon as Nellie had decided on the location, the newspapers announced it, and several hundred souvenir hunters invaded the Woodbury Point estate. Some of them ripped off relics of the very house itself, and left the grounds so covered with litter, that the estate resembled a park after a “rock concert.”

From the start Mrs. Evans would not be happy with attention her new summer tenants would bring to the property. To add to the troubles of Mrs. Evans, on July 1, shortly before the Tafts' arrival via train and automobile on July 4th, 1909, Mr. Evans was thrown from his horse and seriously injured. He died several days later on July 6, 1909.

In today’s government where it takes millions of dollars and requires a large group of people every time the current president vacations, it is hard to imagine that in 1909 President Taft was perfectly happy to accept the handful of rooms offered to him by the Beverly Board of Trade, for “summer office space” in the Mason Building on Cabot Street.

The North Shore Reminder is quoted in this description of the humble office space as, “Pretty good little room they are, too — for a country board of trade.... To be sure, in order to get to his rooms he, [Taft] will have to climb the marble stairs, for there is no elevator, and will have to run the gauntlet of pop corn men, candy vendors and suspender peddlers, who infest the sidewalk. Once ensconced however, he will be all right. He can tip back in his swivel chair and enjoy the soothing strains of music, as furnished by the itinerant hurdy gurdy man. The president has already been warned not to pay any attention to any agonizing screams he may hear, for these will merely emanate from one of the dentists’ offices on the same floor. It has been facetiously suggested that if the councils of state lead to uncertainty of action, recourse may be had to the wonderful powers of reading of the future possessed by Mme. Zaza, occultist and palmist, whose fortune telling studio is in a nearby shop.”

This kind of press made it clear that perhaps another location should be found for the executive offices and in the second season the president found additional office space off of Cabot Street, and the center of Beverly’s business district, at a more quiet location, the “Pickering House” on Lothrop Street. It was noted in the July 30, 1910 Beverly Citizen Newspaper, that, “the president can visit the [new] offices frequently. He [Taft] has never set foot in the Board of Trade Rooms but once.” No doubt the climb up those marble stairs was the cause.

By the end of July 1909 the family was complete with the arrival of Taft’s eldest son, 19-year-old Robert, returning from Yale, and his daughter Helen, 17, a student at Bryn Mawr. The family posed for a family portrait this first summer in the driveway of the estate.

September 14, 1909 was one of the first chances for the president to be seen participating in a major event in Beverly. The event was the G.A.R. parade and he sat on the reviewing stand, along with the mayor of Beverly and governor of Massachusetts. This parade honoring the local soldiers of the Civil War drew the press and thousands of people, from the surrounding cities and towns.

Although the president had the use of the presidential yacht, “The Mayflower,” he was more inclined to automobile travel. But often the sleek white Mayflower that he inherited from his friend Theodore Roosevelt was anchored in the harbor for most of each summer, much to the delight of the local “rubber neckers” in their dories and small sailboats. At 273 feet long she had a crew of 200 to keep her “shipshape,” including a 16-piece band. He also had a smaller yacht, the “U.S.S. Sylph,” for shorter trips.

One feature that the people of Beverly enjoyed was seeing the president on Sundays. He would often do two things on Sundays. First the family would attend the First Parish Church (now First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church), and then he would engage in the rage of the first decade of this century, “automobile parties.” We forget that in 1909 very few but the rich and powerful had automobiles. So what we would view as a painful commute down a bad unpaved road, was in 1909 great fun for family and friends.

The president’s other passion was golf. He became a member of the Myopia Hunt Club, and Essex County Club, and his favorite golf companion was John Hays Hammond. He would also meet with other famous Beverly summer residents such as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Judge Robert Grant, and Henry Clay Frick.

The Aug. 9, 1910 attempted assassination of Mayor Gaynor of Hoboken, N.J., prompted the Secret Service to tighten the security around the Tafts and their summer white house on Woodbury Point. Secret Service men jumping out from behind bushes, telephones nailed to trees, and strangers knocking on her door asking for the president, added up to the “last straw” for the widowed Mrs. Evans, and 1910 would be the last summer for the Tafts at Woodbury Point.

Mrs. Evans told the president not to plan on spending any more summers at Stetson Hall. She announced that she wanted to tear the cottage down and put in an “Italian Garden” in its place. As it turned out she did not tear the cottage down but rather cut it in half, put it on a barge and floated it across the harbor to Peaches Point in Marblehead were it was put back together.

Within a few weeks, the Tafts found a new home to spend the summers of 1911 and 1912 and it was called “Parramatta.” It had been the estate of the late Henry W. Peabody, a Salem and Boston merchant. It was located at 70 Corning Street, about a three-quarters of a mile inland from his previous “summer white house” in a section of Beverly know as Montserrat.

Henry W. Peabody’s widow leased the 18-room “cottage” for the 1911 and 1912 summer season to the president. Mrs. Peabody, a bit friendlier toward her new tenant than Mrs. Evans, painted “Parramatta” a patriotic white in 1911 in preparation of the Taft family arrival. By 1911 the postcard vendors had to restock their shelves with new photos of the second summer “White House” in Beverly.

A Taft Club was organized in the Spring of 1912 to get “Big Bill” reelected but it was not to be. William Howard Taft left Beverly for the last time on Oct. 26, 1912. And on that date Beverly ceased to be the summer home of President Taft.

Stephen P. Hall is the Director of the Beverly Historical Society & Museum. His column appears monthly in the Citizen.

If you go

  • What: A new exhibit “Presidential Summers at Beverly — Taft’s Summer Capital 1909-1912”
  • When: Sept. 15 through Dec. 29.
  • Where: The Beverly Historical Society and Museum, 117 Cabot St.
  • Information: Call 978-922-1186.