For a day, Meacham was 'capital of the United States all day long'

President Warren G. Harding, right, is shown on July 2, 1923, next to a marker commemorating the Oregon Trail near Meacham. (Photo from the John Turner and Richard Hermens collection)

Tuesday will mark the 90th anniversary of the day Meacham moved a step ahead of Washington, D.C.

Time stood still in Meacham on July 2, 1923, the day President Warren G. Harding stopped there to speak at a celebration commemorating the Oregon Trail. Harding, who had been elected president in 1920, stayed in Meacham for eight hours and 20 minutes and declared the small town "the capital of the United States all day long," according to a July 1923 edition of The Observer.

An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people attended the celebration and Harding's presentation. Unfortunately, few if any of the people who heard Harding speak in Meacham are alive today and mementos from the president's appearance are rare.

One memento was recently presented to John Turner of La Grande, a medallion his father, John R. Olson, purchased at the Oregon Trailcelebration Harding spoke at. The small medallion was sold at the event to raise money to help the gravesites of American veterans buried overseas.

Turner did not know about the medallion until he received it from his sister, Katherine Burt of Albany.

"I treasure it. I don't have a lot of other of my dad's things," Turner said.

Turner's father was 21 when he heard Harding's presentation and lived in Baker City. He said his father had never told him about getting to hear the president speak.

The medallion also has special meaning for Turner because he has intense interest in local history. He and Richard Hermens of

La Grande have published a number of books about local history and have an extensive collection of historic photographs.

The train Harding was riding in pulled into Meacham at 9 a.m. on July 2. He emerged from his train wearing a badge on the lapel of his coat which read "President Harding."

In Meacham, 24 miles west of La Grande, Harding was met by governors from Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Washington.

No major instances of violence marred Harding's visit, although The Observer reported that two "nationally known pickpockets were arrested at Meacham."

Members of several Native American tribes, including the Cayuse, attended. Following a powwow which Harding attended, the Cayuse declared Harding a full-fledged member of their tribe.

Harding apparently enjoyed his stop in Meacham. The 29th president was scheduled to leave Meacham at 3 p.m. but stayed until 5:20 p.m., an article in a July edition of the East Oregonian reported.

Harding went on to Pendleton by train and later to Alaska and then down to California. He died from a heart condition in San Francisco a month after visiting Meacham.

Contact Dick Mason at 541-786-5386 or dmason@lagrandeobserver.com. Follow Dick on Twitter @lgoMason.

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