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Taft's Beverly summers

President had place in the sun on North Shore

Compared with the 2004 Democratic National Convention, security at President William Howard Taft's summer White House 94 years ago in Beverly was remarkably casual.

''They didn't shut down anything," said Stephen Hall, interim director of the Beverly Historical Society. ''Taft would just get in the car and go. [First Lady] Nellie [Taft] would go into the shops and buy hats and gloves.

''The speeches were just as spirited, and the campaigns were just as spirited. It was a much more familiar age, though it was more formal in other ways."

But the summer presence of the genial 300-pound Republican who was president between 1909 and 1912 dominated the social scene. A local newspaper published the license-plate numbers of his touring cars for easy recognition. Motorists in goggles and dusters formed a half-mile line outside the president's cottage awaiting his emergence for a Sunday drive.

Sightseers paddled dories to hail the presidential liner Mayflower, anchored off Woodbury Point with its white-gloved crew of 200, 16-piece band, and custom-made presidential bathtub.

The excitement was too much for his summer landlady. Maria Antoinette Evans, 12th-richest woman in America, had rented a 14-room cottage on her Beverly Cove estate to the president and his family for the summers of 1909 and 1910, only to have a cavalcade of newspapermen, visiting dignitaries, and gawkers descend on her solitude.

''Poor Mrs. Evans -- the Secret Service men were nailing telephones to trees, jumping out from behind bushes and scaring the horses," said Hall, who is co-producing a video on the Taft years when Beverly billed itself the Nation's Summer Capital.

So Mrs. Evans effectively evicted the president of the United States, informing him the summer lease would not be renewed in 1911.

She then had the former summer White House cut in half and floated by barge across the bay to Peach's Point in Marblehead, where it was reassembled. In its place on her Beverly grounds she installed an opulent Italian garden, today the site of Lynch Park, off Ober Street in Beverly Cove.

During the final two years of his presidency, Taft made his summer White House at ''Parramatta," the 18-room former estate of late merchant and ship-owner Henry W. Peabody in the Montserrat section at 70 Corning St., now a private residence.

The tale of Mrs. Evans yanking the welcome mat from the summer White House adds to a certain Rodney Dangerfield element accompanying the legacy of President Taft, the only man ever to serve both as president and Supreme Court chief justice, but more widely recalled for getting stuck in the White House bathtub, and for finishing third in his 1912 reelection bid.

A short play, ''Good Heavens, Mrs. Evans," was performed two years ago to raise money for restoration of a carriage house in Lynch Park.

''I always thought, what a funny story -- that you'd have the nerve to evict the president and move the house," said the play's author, Beverly writer Nancy Brewka Clark, whose research into the subject led her to a more sympathetic view of Maria Antoinette Evans.

Now, a video history of Taft's presidential summers in Beverly is being made by a former intern on the set of ''The West Wing." Beverly City Councilor John Burke, who completed an internship on the set of the hit TV series as an Emerson College senior three years ago, has produced previous videos for the Beverly Historical Society about the younger Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and the Rev. John Hale, a key accuser in the witch trials.

Burke noticed no memorial to Taft's summers in Beverly exists outside of a marker on the pew the president occupied at the First Parish (Unitarian) Church. ''If you lift up the cushion, the old clippings are underneath," he said.

The 25-year-old city councilor is now working with Hall on a Taft video they hope to complete by Christmas. ''That the president chose Beverly for his summer White House is something we should be very proud of," said Burke.

At the time, ''Big Bill" Taft made a splash in Beverly. Local newspaper headlines trumpeted his comings-and-goings as well as his daily golf scores at Myopia Hunt Club in Hamilton.

When the identity of the summer White House was revealed in 1909, hundreds of souvenir-hunters descended on Woodbury Point and ripped relics from the cottage, to Mrs. Evans' chagrin.

Twenty-one-gun salutes reverberated from a naval ship in Gloucester Harbor whenever the presidential yachts passed Eastern Point.

Rubber stamps were sold to postmark outgoing letters from ''Beverly, Massachusetts, the Summer Capital."

Hall described how his father, as a boy, distributed the hymnals at the First Parish Church: ''He found the hymnals in the Taft pew kept disappearing, probably as souvenirs for the locals."

The executive business of the nation was conducted that first summer of 1909 in rooms at the Beverly Board of Trade in the Mason Building on Cabot Street, where, a local paper wrote, the president would ''run the gauntlet of pop corn men, candy vendors and suspender peddlers" to reach his office.

Images at the Beverly Historical Society's website show Taft attending the city's Fourth of July and Grand Army of the Republic parades in 1909, and laying the cornerstone of the YMCA building on Cabot Street in 1911.

Even as his political fortunes sagged, the avuncular Taft remained popular with Beverly, said Hall.

''The Republicans and Democrats [of Beverly] voted for him in 1912," he said. ''No question the people of Beverly loved him."

Material for this story was drawn from the book ''Boston's Gold Coast" by Gloucester historian Joseph Garland. For more on the Taft summer White House, see Beverly Historical Society's website: members.tripod.com/BevHistSoc/index.html 

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