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Big crowd greets Truman’s 1948 campaign swing through Fresno

On Sept. 23, 1948, a throng turns out early in Fresno to greet President Harry S. Truman’s campaign train.
On Sept. 23, 1948, a throng turns out early in Fresno to greet President Harry S. Truman’s campaign train. Fresno Bee file

Q: Did President Harry S. Truman bring his whistle-stop campaign to Fresno during the 1948 election year?

Phil Tavlian, Fresno

A: President Harry S. Truman stopped in Fresno at 8:12 a.m. on Sept. 23, 1948, during the longest of his three whistle-stop train tours during the presidential campaign.

The first train tour began in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 17, 1948, and ended 15 days later in Louisville. The 17-car campaign train had two dining cars plus lounge and sleeping cars. The tour entered California on Sept. 22, pulling into Truckee at 12:14 p.m., according to an itinerary from the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum archives.

At Truckee, Truman spoke to a crowd from the rear platform, as he did later in Roseville and Sacramento. His last stops that day were a speech at the San Francisco city hall and at Lakeside Park in Oakland.

Truman’s Fresno speech was to have been his third stop on Sept. 23, although by his own account he slept through the first scheduled speech.

“I was supposed to get up at 4 o’clock this morning for a bunch of people up here in Tracy at 5 o’clock, but I didn’t make it! I was sorry about that, but then you know, a workhorse can do only so many hours in a day, and I skipped that one,” Truman told the Fresno crowd.

truman on train
President Harry S. Truman waves to the Fresno crowd during his whistlestop on Sept. 23, 1948. Ed Schober Fresno Bee file

Truman said he was “up at the next stop.” According to the Truman Library, which has texts of most of his campaign speeches, Truman spoke in Merced at 6:55 a.m. “I think everybody that was at those other stops is here, too,” he said. “Or else this great city of Fresno is much bigger than I thought it was.”

The campaign tours were crucial to Truman’s chances to win the November election. Truman “didn’t seem to be up to the challenge” of running the country during his first term, according to the book “Whistlestop” by John Dickerson. A popular saying of the day was that “to err is Truman.”

Even Truman’s advisers thought his chances for re-election were slim. The train tours brought Truman to the people so they could see “a candidate who spoke their language and understood their needs,” according to the Missouri State Archives.

In Fresno introduced his wife, Bess, and daughter Margaret to the crowd and, as he did at most stops, he said his wife was “the boss.”

Truman, a Democrat, focused on agriculture and slammed the Republican Congress. “I can remember very well, I ran a farm for the best 10 years of my life in Jackson County, Missouri,” he said. “It had 600 acres on it and I went there when I was 22 years old and left it when I was 33 to go to war.”

After World War II, “the farmers were all fat and rich and they didn’t go and vote,” Truman said. “That let the country become entangled under this Republican 80th ‘do-nothing’ Congress.”

Farmers would fare better under the Democrats, he said: “I wonder where you raisin fellows would be out here in the Valley if it weren’t for the farm policy of the Democratic Party?”

Truman also touted his support of business and industry: “The prosperity of the farmer and the workingman march side by side. When one is prosperous, the other is. When one is not prosperous, the other is not, and he is out of a job.”

A Fresno Bee story said 5,000 people came to hear Truman. The train pulled out of downtown Fresno after 20 minutes and made stops in Tulare, Bakersfield, Tehachapi, Mojave and Burbank. The final stop that day was Los Angeles, where Truman spoke at the nearly 13,000-seat Gilmore Stadium. Among the celebrity supporters who joined him there were Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and future president Ronald Reagan.

Truman traveled 31,000 miles during three campaign train tours. The first tour, which included Fresno, was the longest of the three, covering 8,300 miles in 15 days. He also took a six-day tour through the Mid-West and a 10-day tour of the Northeast.

The strategy to put him before the people worked. Truman won the Nov. 2 election with 303 electoral votes to 189 for New York Gov. Thomas Dewey.

A side note of the election night coverage was the infamous front page headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune, which jumped to conclusions about the outcome before all the results were in: “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

More about – After the answer to a question about John Albert Poytress appeared in the May 27 Ask Me column, local historian and author J. Randall McFarland of Kingsburg wrote to share more information about Poytress from his upcoming book, “Sierra Chautauqua, A Century of Camp Sierra.”

“Poytress was also among the founders of Sierra Chautauqua, the Sierra National Forest camp between Shaver Lake and Big Creek,” McFarland said. Poytress “was a charter member of the Sierra Methodist Chautauqua and Bible Conference Association when the camp was founded in 1917.” The camp’s name was changed to Camp Sierra in 1925.

When Poytress died on Feb. 15, 1940, he was the last remaining charter member of the association’s board, McFarland said.

“When his board colleagues met in Fresno a week later, they adopted a resolution that saluted him by saying, ‘John A. Poytress, hale and hearty John, good scout, faithful servant and devoted member of this association from its inception … and each of us who have known him so well and so long fully realize what an inestimable loss we individually and collectively, as members and friends of the association in general, have sustained thereby.’”

As a local pioneer, Poytress “helped Fresno County’s social, civic, business and agricultural sectors mature as the 20th Century began,” McFarland wrote.

When Poytress was 20, he settled in Easton from his native England and farmed grapes, tree fruit and alfalfa, ran a dairy and raised horses.

McFarland wrote that shortly after the camp was founded, Poytress “became one of the first two lay members of the camp association’s board.” He also became a charter board member of the Fresno County Farm Bureau that year. He helped establish a boy’s summer camping program through the YMCA.

Poytress owned a cabin at Camp Sierra which was passed down to his descendents. In 2007, Camp Sierra’s ball field was named the John and Ellen Poytress Memorial Meadow.

Ask Me publishes on the second and fourth Sundays of each month. Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name, city of residence and a phone number.