President Truman and the 1948 National Plowing Match at Dexter, Iowa

It was an election year. New York Governor Thomas Dewey was expected to soundly beat President Harry Truman.

Iowa was chosen to host the 1948 National Plowing Match, giving the little town of Dexter nine months to get ready for it. They decided to invite Gov. Dewey to be their main speaker.

He declined.

So they sent a delegation to ask the President if he’d consider coming. He eventually decided to make “whistle stops” in several towns to speak along the Rock Island train route.

The train arrived at the Dexter station about 11:00 the morning of September 18.

The Dexter band, led by drum majorette, Thelma Blohm, played “The Iowa Corn Song” for the President, followed by “The Missouri Waltz,” since Truman was from Missouri.

President Truman, his wife Bess, daughter Margaret, and other dignitaries, including Plowing Match princesses, rode in a dozen convertibles, followed by the Dexter band, with the Iowa Highway Patrol last.

President Truman’s convertible was a powder blue Cadillac.

Dexter’s streets had been scrubbed and the main street lined with flags and banners. Store owners decorated their windows to welcome the President.

The parade wound north on Marshall Street to the highway, west to the Drew’s Chocolates corner, then north a mile and a half to the Weesner farm, where the contests and conservation and other demonstrations were underway. Cars (including our gray 1939 Chevy with a “city horn” and a louder “country horn”) lined the roads and driveways. 

The President was met by ten acres of humanity, estimated at 75,000 and 100,000 people.

The platform awaiting the dignitaries had been built by local World War II veterans who were enrolled in the G.I. night school at Dexter, including John Shepherd, Warren and Willis Neal, Glenn Patience, and Earnest Kopaska.

Truman’s noon speech was carried live over WHO-Radio. (You can watch part of the speech on YouTube, or at the Dexter Museum, which has a display about that historic day, including two of the original tote-boards.)

I was in the crowd, a four-year-old perched on Dad’s shoulders and told to look at the man on the stage. I didn’t realize until I was older that I’d seen my first U.S. President.

The dignitaries were treated to home cooking in the shade of a tent.

The tablecloth is signed by President Truman, given to the Dexter Museum by Helen Cook Neal, in memory of her parents, Walter and Leah Cook who were on committees to make the day successful.

We brought our own food and found a picnic spot under a tree. It was a hot day and Aunt Evelyn Wilson had brought a little tub for cousins (ages 2 to 6) to cool off in. Aunt Darlene Scar had brought enough potato salad to share.

I wonder if Governor Dewey wished he had accepted Dexter’s invitation to speak to the crowd assembled that day.

In spite of the blaring headline the day after the election in The Chicago Daily Tribune, “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN,” Truman won! 

Marker to commemorate Truman’s visit.

I took for granted that Truman reboarded the train until someone remembered Truman’s car going through Adel on his way to Des Moines . This is from local historian Bryon Weesner: “The president’s train (Rock Island supplied the engine, but the rest was standard Pullman and the Presidential Ferdinan Magellin) was backed into Des Moines after he made his way to the show site.

“After delivering his speech and touring, he delivered another set of remarks and then the motorcade (30 brand new Cadillac convertibles) drove then Highway 6 back into Des Moines, then on Hickman down what was Harding Road (now MLK) back to the Rock Island Depot where the group reboarded the train which was then further backed into east Des Moines (Rock Islands Short Line Yard) and then headed south into Missouri down the Rock Island’s Spine Line and on to Kansas City.”

Rod Stanley of the Dexter Museum told the story for Our American Stories.

Another 35-minute story about President Truman from Our American Stories, The Man from Independence.




    • It also made me historic! First time I was in the Dexter Museum, I kept connecting to “old things,” but that one did it. The memory flooded back. My sis, two years younger, only remembers stories about it.

  1. Truman, one of my favorites. My mom says she still remembers sitting on her dad’s shoulders at the Greenville, Tx train depot watching Truman give a speech from the back of the caboose. Those were the days. God help us all in this election cycle. – Alan

  2. Great posting. My grandfather was a member of Trumans “Kitchen Cabinet” a group of his personal friends that he talked over things with….the inner of the inner 🙂

    • Wow! Bet he could tell stories!

      Someone just said on my FB page “When Harry left the White House he carried his wife and his luggage to there car. Loaded it up and drove home to Missouri. No secret service or anything.”

      • The Trumans actually took the train home from Washington, D.C., to Independence, Missouri. And I believe that they used the presidential car, the Ferdinand Magellan, which President Eisenhower let them use despite the animosity between him and Truman that grew out of the 1952 campaign. So many people came to see them at Union Station in Washington that the police had difficulty getting them to the train.

      • Thank you, Rick, for your note. “The Hidden White House: Harry Truman and the Reconstruction of America’s Most Famous Residence” by Robert Klara also gives a surprising glimpse of how Harry Truman viewed being president, and also how the First Family was treated.

  3. Beautifully vivid, as usual. Your background on the WWII vets helping build the stage is telling ; from my experience with WWII vets histories. Regardless of their personal political parties.. where many weren’t political as 16 million had served in the war.
    Why did Harry win by 2 million votes by surprise in ’48? Because a great many felt they OWED their life to this sometimes unpopular, rough edged President.
    Their most common phrase: ” Harry dropped the bombs and I got to come home. ”
    So many historians and Americans discount or forget we had people (including my Dad as a sailor on a troop transport in Pacific) who were being told to get ready for invasion of Japan’s 2 islands with lots of deaths over next year.

    • My dad had orders for Saipan that September! Mike Walrod reminded me on the one I shared on Dallas County History, “When Harry left the White House he carried his wife and his luggage to there car. Loaded it up and drove home to Missouri. No secret service or anything.” He came to little Dexter, after Dewey had turned them down. Says a lot!

  4. I have never, ever seen a President in real life (not that I’d go out of my way to meet one). But what ever happened to the days a president would do something like this and just visit a small town.

  5. A lot of people are critical of Truman ordering the Bomb dropped. The same people have probably never seen the casualty estimates. they started as low as a half a million and went up to from there. And we’re not even talking about the Japanese side of the equation. Compared to that number, dropping the bomb was a drop in the rain bucket.

    • I posted a picture of Dad and his B-29 crew (he was the commander!) who had orders for Saipan and combat 75 years ago the 21st. Because of those bombs, they didn’t have to go!

  6. I was there, also. Only 8 years old, & my Mom took me there for a while & then back home, as it was so crowded & so hot!

  7. Truman had a method of estimating the size of a crowd based on the number of folks per square yard or some such unit times the area covered by the crowd. However, I find no mention of it on the internet. I recall that he used his scheme to help a journalist or someone come up with a number.

    • I figured the number was a Des Moines Register estimate, but they may have just used him as a resource. It certainly was a “sea of humanity,” especially for a town that never reached 900 souls in population!

    • Just got this from Dexter historian Rod Stanley: Herb Plambeck interviewed Truman on the stage after Truman had toured the grounds. Plambeck said he was not prepared to do it but there were still many people there to listen to this live. He asked Truman about how he came up with the 100,000 people figure. Truman said he figured 10,000 people per acre and you have 10 acres here, now you figure that up. Plambeck said that explanation by Truman brought the house down. I have seen estimates of 75,000 but in my program I will continue to use 100,000. [Herb Plambeck was the farm guru from WHO Radio. I can still hear his voice!]

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