Matt Welsh in the Ox-Drawn Wagon

Matt Welsh is shown in the ox-drawn wagon.

Saturday, Nov. 14, 1959, was a cold autumn day at Vincennes. Despite the fact that the high temperature was barely above freezing, lines of cars and buses were making their way into the city, filled with people who were coming to attend a special outdoor event. It was on that day that Vincennes resident Matt Welsh held a rally to officially toss his hat into the ring, declaring his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for governor of Indiana. Welsh, an attorney and state senator, made a try for the nomination in 1956, but was defeated by Terre Haute Mayor Ralph Tucker on the ninth ballot.

Welsh had made no secret that he would again seek the nomination. He spent the past year doing preliminary campaigning, visiting almost all of Indiana’s 92 counties.

The 47-year-old Welsh began his day with a luncheon meeting in the Grand Hotel’s Orchard Room for the media. He spoke to reporters about important issues of the day, including tax reform, flood control, education, unemployment, farm income, patronage, and overall fiscal responsibility.

Welsh’s campaign sent 13,000 invitations to active Democrats around the state, those invitations containing 26,000 tickets. The campaign was uncertain as to what the response would be, especially given the cold weather, but were gratified at the turnout. The Knox County Sheriff’s Department had to be called out to control traffic, when more than 4,500 Democrats from across the state, arrived in Vincennes to support Welsh.

The rally was sponsored by the Knox County Democratic Committee, chaired by J. Manfred Core. Core would play a key role in Welsh’s campaign.

The campaign planned what was a very unique, attention-grabbing event to kick off Welsh’s candidacy. What was termed the “Matt Welsh for Governor Ox Roast” was meant to be a throwback to an old-time 19th century political rally. It took place on the Vincennes University campus in the area around the historic sites and what was then Green Auditorium. Outdoor decorations included corn shocks, bales of straw, pumpkins and baskets of apples. Cider was served by girls in period dress. The centerpiece was half a steer cooked for hours on a spit over a wood fire.

Welsh would write in his political memoir “View from the Statehouse,” about the attempt to actually find an ox to roast. It was a seemingly impossible task, and his campaign was told that if one was found the meat would be tough anyway, thus they settled for the steer. In their search, they did turn up a pair of pet oxen owned by a farmer in Orange County, who also had a covered wagon. These were brought to Vincennes and became a main topic of conversation at the rally. The candidate even climbed into the wagon for a photo opportunity.

Welsh, his wife and twin daughters stood in a reception line in the Blue Room of Green Auditorium. A tent was set up outside for the overflow crowd and when he made the speech announcing his candidacy, it was piped into the tent.

At the Democratic State Convention held at the Indiana State Fairgrounds Coliseum in June of the following year, Welsh did win the nomination, defeating opponent Indiana State Auditor Albert Steinwedel. He would, of course, go on to win the governor’s office, becoming only the second Knox County man to serve as governor, the first being James D. “Blue Jeans” Williams, who was elected in 1876.

Brian Spangle can be reached at brianrspangle60@outlook.com. His latest book, “Hidden History of Vincennes & Knox County,” published last year by The History Press, is available for purchase at the Knox County Public Library and on Amazon.

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