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.”