Why Is Galesburg So Popular With Presidents?

Jul 24, 2013
Originally published on July 24, 2013 4:04 pm

If you’re wondering why President Obama is in Galesburg, Illinois, he has been there before and it turns out he’s not the only president or future president to visit the small prairie town west of Chicago.

Fifteen men who were either in the nation’s highest office or went on to become president have made stops in Galesburg.

The first future President to visit was Abraham Lincoln in 1858 when he was running for the U.S. Senate.

One of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates was held on the Knox College campus that President Obama is visiting today.

When he was a young U.S. senator in 2005, Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at the college and President Bill Clinton also spoke in Galesburg in 1995, unveiling what he called a “Middle Class Bill of Rights.”


  • Tom Wilson, historian in Galesburg, Illinois.

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Galesburg Register-Mail “Probably the most unusual stopovers of a president occurred during 1967 when Ike Eisenhower and his wife Mamie arrived via the Santa Fe rails on North Broad Street. Ike successfully persuaded the train conductor to hold the train over a short time so he could visit with an 8-week-old Scottish border collie pup that he had earlier purchased from the Don Marshall family of rural Knoxville.”

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So why Galesburg? Well, it turns out President Obama is one of a long list of presidents to visit this small Illinois prairie town, from Abraham Lincoln to Ronald Reagan. Tom Wilson is a local historian in Galesburg, and he is with us now. Hi, Tom.



So, you know, Reagan make sense. Lincoln makes sense. Obama make sense. They're all - they've got Illinois roots. But what about Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes, William McKinley, Harry Truman? Why did all these presidents come to Galesburg?

WILSON: Well, the attraction, I believe, was the Knox College campus. Knox College is known nationally, and it was the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, in fact, the only site that still remains intact. And Harrison and McKinley and some of the early presidents that came to Galesburg definitely were attracted to events on the Knox College campus.

HOBSON: What do you mean they were attracted to events on the campus?

WILSON: The fact that the Lincoln-Douglas debate had been held here had some significance with Abraham Lincoln's past, of course. And also, I think that even in those days, although security is completely different than it is today, I think coming to a smaller Midwest community was a comfortable situation for those particular people.

HOBSON: Why are the speeches that are given in Galesburg often about economic things?

WILSON: Well, first of all, Galesburg - I hate to put it this way - probably a typical Midwest community that, beginning in the last 20 years, started to lose most of their industry. And we had four major industries in Galesburg that each employed about a thousand people, and one by one, they went out of business.

And of the of the things that occurred was that our Maytag plant, that at one time employed about 2,000 people - of course, they produced refrigerators and such - moved to Mexico. And this drew a lot of attention, and it was very controversial. And what's interesting about that, now they've left Mexico. So that didn't work out for them, and the grass wasn't greener on the other side of the fence.

And Obama had, you know, an interest in all of that when he was the fledgling Illinois senator, and then wanted to go on to Congress. He started making several visits to Galesburg. And incidentally, this will be the seventh trip that he's made in to Galesburg.

HOBSON: Now, we think of Illinois as a blue state, one that these days goes for Democrats just about every time. Is Galesburg like that, or is Galesburg more middle-of-the-road politically?

WILSON: Well, I'll tell you, that's an interesting story, because until about 25 years ago, there basically had never been a Democrat elected to any office in Galesburg or our county. And the tide started to turn. And Galesburg and Knox County voted in favor of Bill Clinton, and then, of course, have carried both elections, about actually 60-some percent of the vote in favor of Obama. So I don't think there's any doubt that Obama's constant in and out of Galesburg had an influence and helped him with his vote.

HOBSON: Is it still exciting to you when the presidents come to visit Galesburg?

WILSON: Oh, I think any community, regardless of their political affiliations, have to be excited when the president of the United States comes to town. And I think, especially in smaller communities, any time a president is going to come in, it's got to be a really tremendous thrill.

HOBSON: Tom Wilson is a local historian in Galesburg, Illinois. Tom, thank you so much.

WILSON: Thank you, and have a great day.

HOBSON: And, Robin, Tom was also telling us that when Bill Clinton went in 1995, he made the Secret Service figure out where the fast food restaurants were...


HOBSON: ...in Galesburg while he was visiting.

YOUNG: That's the old Bill Clinton.

HOBSON: That's right. Not anymore. From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.