Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Two Presidents Meet, 1919

Two Presidents Meet, 1919

By: Ardis E. Parshall - October 08, 2008

The victorious European and American powers drafted the Treaty of Versailles to settle affairs at the end of World War I. This Treaty also created the League of Nations, a prototype United Nations.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was a staunch supporter of the League of Nations; the U.S. Senate, which by constitutional fiat must ratify treaties before they become the law of the land, was not, and ultimately voted against the Treaty. (The United States’ formal acknowledgment of the end of hostilities was the Porter-Knox Resolution, an act of the U.S. Congress passed in 1921 and signed by Warren G. Harding, Wilson’s successor.)

Late in 1919, before the Senate finally rejected the Treaty, Wilson tried to rally support for it by undertaking a month-long tour of the United States, lobbying for public support. He left Washington on 3 September 1919; his tour brought him to Salt Lake City on 23 September.

As with all cities along his route, Salt Lake City and its leaders expected to make a spectacle of the president’s visit. In addition to his scheduled speech in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, local officials planned a gala reception and banquet. Prominent citizens made plans to call on Wilson in the presidential suite of the Hotel Utah. Politicians at many levels looked forward to having their photographs taken with the president.

The festivities began at the railroad station, where Wilson’s train was greeted by everyone who was anyone in Salt Lake City. The President and Mrs. Wilson rode from the station to the hotel in the carriage with Governor and Mrs. Simon Bamberger. Treasury secretary (and Wilson’s son-in-law) William Gibbs McAdoo rode from the station in a carriage with LDS President Heber J. Grant.

During their ride, Secretary McAdoo told President Grant that President Wilson was ill and would not be attending any of the entertainments planned for him, nor would he be able to meet with any of the local dignitaries. He would give his speech in the Tabernacle as planned, but otherwise he would need to rest. There would be only one exception to his no-visitors request – one that Mr. McAdoo hoped President Grant would be able to arrange. President Grant assured him it would be done.

Upon arrival at the Hotel, the party, at Wilson’s request, declined to occupy the presidential suite. Instead, they asked for ordinary rooms, so they were dispatched to rooms on the eighth floor. Wilson went immediately to his room to rest until that evening’s speech, disappointing all those – great and small – who wished to meet him.

He and Mrs. Wilson rose in time to dress in evening clothes for his speech. A knock came, and an aide opened the door to admit the one person the president had wanted to meet in Salt Lake City. It was a woman – a tiny woman, 92 years old, dressed in her best clothes and decked out with an accumulation of the scarves, laces and bows she favored, despite their never having been in fashion in quite the way she wore them.

It was Emmeline B. Wells, president of the LDS Relief Society.

“Mrs. Wells,” the president greeted her. “Will you tell me about the wheat?” They sat on the couch, and President Wilson leaned forward to hold President Wells’s hand all during the interview.

Sister Wells told him about her call by President Young in 1876 – when Sister Wells was only an editor for the Woman’s Exponent, long before she became president of the Relief Society and became used to such interviews – to write an editorial calling on the women of the church to save grain against a day of need, and then to organize the women and see to it that grain was in fact saved.

She told him about projects to glean wheat in the fields, to buy wheat with donated money, and to acquire wheat in creative ways, like charging a peck of wheat as the price of admission to dances and parties. She told about building granaries to store the wheat safely, about loaning it out (requiring it to be repaid in kind) when grasshoppers destroyed the crops of farmers, and about how train car loads of flour had been sent to help the victims of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She probably reminded him that his government had sent men to Utah to investigate rumors of grain being hoarded in defiance of national law during the recent war – and how their annoyance changed to admiration when they learned that the wheat stores had been built long before the war, and how, and by whom. The Relief Society offered to give the grain to the government as a gift; it was not accepted. Instead, the government bought 205,518 bushels of grain, at market prices, from the Relief Society for use by the armed forces and in European famine relief.

At the end of their interview, when Wilson was called to leave for the Tabernacle, the two presidents rose from the couch. “Mrs. Wells,” Wilson said, “I thank you for permitting me to have this interview. I consider it one of the greatest privileges and honors of my life.”

Wilson spoke in the Tabernacle that night, then continued his trip the next day. His travels were cut short by his illness, however, and he was rushed back to Washington, D.C., where he suffered a stroke on 2 October, from which he never really recovered.

The record does not tell us whether Sister Wells said to President Wilson what she had so often said in public: “I believe that I am the only person in the world who has ever been told by a prophet of the Lord to gather and store wheat for famine – except Joseph in Egypt.”



  1. What an enjoyable read! Something I was not aware of. I find it interesting that W Wilson, of all the dignitaries and elite of SLC, would want to visit with President Wells. That really says a lot.

    Comment by Steve C. — October 8, 2008 @ 9:00 am

  2. I’m touched. Would a president of the US today know who the General Relief Society President is? I had thought that the food storage had originated with Pres Grant, but I see Brigham Young had much earlier encouraged the storing of wheat. Do you think this explains the Mormon fascination with wheat in our food storage programs, even though very people know how to use it today?

    Comment by BruceC — October 8, 2008 @ 9:17 am

  3. Beautiful story. Thank you, Ardis.

    Comment by Researcher — October 8, 2008 @ 9:37 am

  4. BruceC: It does come across that food storage was something the Church was doing in the 19th Century. (Maybe Ardis could enlighten us more on that as well). You bring up another important issue–what do we do with wheat?! (We’ve stocked up on rice. We know how to fix rice).

    I don’t want to get too far off subject, but has any other president met personally with a General RS president?

    Comment by Steve C. — October 8, 2008 @ 10:03 am

  5. Brigham Young was always concerned about having a store of surplus food for hard times, and given the starving years of the early Utah settlements, that makes sense. At the beginning of the Utah War, he asked that people live on their fruits and vegetables and conserve all their wheat and cattle — the produce couldn’t be preserved, but stored wheat and cattle on the hoof could be held against the possibility that the people might have to flee into the mountains and not be able to raise a harvest for a few years. And he was always scolding the people through the 1860s for selling their wheat to passing emigrants — selling surplus was one thing, but he noted that too many farmers were greedy for the high prices that emigrants would pay and sold everything, and then ended up dependent on the church or their neighbors for bread and for seed the following year. I don’t think he let up on the save-grain-against-famine sermons even after the coming of the railroad, because that was part of his “home production” program.

    Bruce is probably right that the institutional memory of storing wheat (along with the WoW’s “wheat for man” injunction) may be responsible for the tendency to store wheat even when you don’t know how to mill or use it.

    Steve, I don’t know one way or the other whether any other General RS president has met with a U.S. president. It seems within possibility that Belle Spafford or Barbara Smith with their involvement in national/international organizations might have met with one, but I don’t know. I’ll keep an eye out for such a story.

    Thank you, Researcher — and “hello” to your non-blogging scientist husband who seems to know me. 😉

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 8, 2008 @ 10:24 am

  6. Ardis, fascinating story. Who knew? You, of course. This should be in the PH/RS manuals.

    An interesting side note regarding Pres. Wilson’s illness, and the League of Nations initiatives: John Barry, in his 2004 book on the 1918 Spanish Flu,The Great Influenza (Viking Penguin, 2004), contends that Wilson himself came down with influenza while in Paris in the spring of 1919, which severely curtailed his energy and activities, and then was further debilitated by his stroke. It was kept secret at the time, but the symptoms all seemed to match up with the flu. He recovered enough to return to most of his duties, but never had the strength and stamina to pursue his larger agenda items, such as the League of Nations, with the same energy as before. His illness that you describe was likely that his constitution had been ravaged by flu, and he was chronically ill for the rest of his life.

    Comment by kevinf — October 8, 2008 @ 11:43 am

  7. Amazing. Where do you find this stuff? Wherever you get it, thank you so much for sharing it.

    Comment by Chris — October 8, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

  8. You bring up another important issue–what do we do with wheat?!

    My wife and I have this conversation every time she says we should buy some wheat for our food storage. We don’t have a mill, and in the ultimate scenario there would be no power anyway. So she has come up with some creative ideas. Most involve cooking it whole (like rice) and adding it to other stuff as filler.

    But, to bring this back to Mormon History, the “what to do with wheat” question reminds me of things I read about the saints that followed Lyman Wight to Texas. Most of them worked in the pineries in Wisconsion during the Nauvoo period, so they knew how to build mills. In Texas they made a point to build mills first. Noah Smithwick, a prominent Texan, noted the Wightites contribution of a mill in one part of Texas. Without the mill, he said, wheat bread was not practical. Before the mill, cornbread was king. Smithwick bought that mill from the Wightites when they moved on.

    Comment by BruceC — October 8, 2008 @ 12:37 pm

  9. Thanks for the additional information, kevin. I was wondering what the symptoms preliminary to a stroke were, that could have made him ill; your suggestion that he may have been sickened by the flu makes sense.

    And thanks also for your kind words, Chris. I’m always reading old newspapers and magazines with an eye toward what can be turned into a post, supplemented by a little research for context. And of course my regular research work for clients turns up lots of bits and pieces that can be used without damage to a client’s needs.

    Sometimes it’s only a matter of taking a straightforward news account and turning it inside out — this one, for instance, started as a plain chronological account of the wheat program in an old Relief Society Magazine, which I thought might be familiar to at least the Relief Society sisters among Keepa readers. But by taking the detail I hadn’t known — the paragraph about Wilson’s interview (including the quoted dialog used here) — and making that rather than the wheat project the focus of the post, supplementing it with a little research into why Wilson was in Salt Lake City, it all turned into a story with a little drama rather than mere information. That’s my only real secret. Don’t tell anybody.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 8, 2008 @ 12:51 pm

  10. OK, I’ll bite. Just how do you make a living at this? Please don’t take that the wrong way. You have a rare gift for what you do here, but I had no idea there was much of a market for freelance research. I won’t be offended if you tell me it’s none of my business.

    Comment by BruceC — October 8, 2008 @ 1:10 pm

  11. That’s my only real secret.

    Yeah, sure Ardis. We all believe you. That’s like the sculptor saying that the secret to his art is “I simply chisel away everything that doesn’t look like an angel.”

    (If that’s the case, why can’t the rest of us do it?)

    Comment by Researcher — October 8, 2008 @ 1:35 pm

  12. Great piece of history Ardis — thanks.

    Comment by john f. — October 8, 2008 @ 1:36 pm

  13. If I were my cat, I’d be purring right about now …

    Bruce, I sure don’t make a living by blogging! :) But I have a nose for a story and a good memory for historical persons and events, which lets me recognize material of interest in old documents and connect the dots. I work for historians and professors, specializing in the collections at LDS Archives, where I read huge masses of raw documents — correspondence, diaries, minute books, whatever — looking for relevant material for clients. So if you’re working on Topic X, and you want extracts from such records that haven’t been previously exploited by other scholars, I’m your mole in the Archives. (Frankly, it’s my secretarial skills that let me earn a living, since I can read handwriting, no matter how poor, and transcribe at lightning speed. The tight control LDS-A keeps over what they will allow to be photocopied aids and abets me, because some clients find materials they want, but they don’t have the time or skill to sit and type it all out.) It’s a small set of clients who need what I can give, but they all seem to know each other so word of mouth works well, and it’s enough to keep me busy.

    And you can see how that kind of work brings me into contact with bloggable materials nearly every day.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 8, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

  14. You know how to get strait to my heart, Ardis.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 8, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

  15. Threadjack Alert:

    Ardis, the “Taping Bacon to the Cat” link is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen and read on a blog. Thanks!

    Comment by Ray — October 8, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

  16. This is absolutely wonderful, Ardis. The mental image this gave me was powerful.

    Comment by Ray — October 8, 2008 @ 2:10 pm

  17. Great post, as usual, Ardis.

    As to your link to men whom you can respect . . . I’m sorry that I’ll never earn it.

    Nor will I make the changes necessary in my life to deserve it.

    Sorry, Ardis.

    On the other hand, I’ve thought of taping other things to cats. But, lest you be offended, I won’t mention what.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 8, 2008 @ 3:32 pm

  18. Pffffffft!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 8, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

  19. Taping Bacon to the Cat? You didn’t run across that in the church archives!

    However, I loved this comment:

    Next up in the kitchen: taping buttered toast to the cat’s back and re-conducting the old experiments on whether the toast-always-landing-butter-side-down effect is balanced by the cat-always-landing-on-its-feet effect.

    We are not responsible if this rips a hole in the space-time continuum.

    Comment by kevinf — October 8, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

  20. You didn’t run across that in the church archives!

    Well, I have a life, after all! 8)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 8, 2008 @ 4:35 pm

  21. Pffffffft!

    If the dynamite had not exploded, that’s the sound it would have made.

    Comment by Mark B. — October 8, 2008 @ 4:59 pm

  22. Hey, Mark, it was so cold here last night that I saw a lawyer with his hands in his own pockets. :) (I don’t know how to do a cat smiley)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — October 8, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

  23. :3
    Marvelous post!

    Comment by Jami — October 8, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

  24. I also wonder if Wilson further wanted to meet her because of her work with the Women movement during the 19th century and the Exponent. What with the pressure in that period for Woman’s Suffrage growing it might have been part of his concern but one can never know really.

    Fascinating stuff as always Ardis.

    Comment by Jon W — October 8, 2008 @ 10:54 pm

  25. […] this facilitation might be considered “formal” church relief efforts, but it’s not the Relief Society sending trainloads of flour to San Francisco in 1906, or the church airlifting supplies to Honduras after Mitch, or Area […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » 1900 Galveston Hurricane, 3/8: The Institutional Response — October 20, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

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