LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: This summer, we're taking you on a road trip called Honey, Stop the Car. You're driving, you see something that makes you want to pull over, like the spot where a town played a dirty trick on a former president.
Sara Wittmeyer of member station WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana reports.
SARA WITTMEYER: In the summer of 1842, along what is now Highway 40 in Central Indiana, Martin Van Buren was being taken for a ride, literally. He'd been out of office for a little more than a year, but the ex-president was already traveling the country trying to drum up support for another run at the White House.
BILL CLENDINENG: He spent a weekend in Indianapolis speaking and meeting people and then was heading west to Illinois to shake more hands, to kiss more babies.
WITTMEYER: But according to historian Bill Clendineng, the people in Plainfield, just outside of Indianapolis, wanted to teach the ex-president a lesson. During his term, Van Buren opposed a bill that would have funded improvements to the National Road, which wasn't really a road so much as a strip of dirt, with huge tree stumps and ruts that forced carriage passengers to tie themselves to their seats. Some Plainfield residents decided that Van Buren should go on a rough ride to see firsthand how badly the road needed repairs.
CLENDINENG: The�report is of the carriage coming down that hill and gaining speed and then hitting the tree roots here and tipping over.
WITTMEYER: At the base of the tree was a large mud hole where pigs wallowed. There were two routes to get around it, but the carriage driver deliberately took the rough route knowing the elm's roots would overturn the carriage and send Van Buren flying into the mud. The plan was executed perfectly. The carriage tipped over, and Van Buren went into the muck, soiling his starched white clothes and filling his boots with thick mud.
Residents who'd gathered in their Sunday best to greet the ex-president stood amazed as a humbled Van Buren made his way to the town tavern to clean up. Meanwhile, the carriage driver who'd pulled off the prank was rewarded by some residents with a $5 silk hat.
It took 75 years before the tree was marked with a plaque. And now a stone marker sits in the spot where the old elm used to be. It's on the front lawn of the church where Clendineng is the pastor, right along U.S. 40.
CLENDINENG: It's a great story, but driving by, all you have is this rock.
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CLENDINENG: And a metal plaque on it saying: This is the Van Buren Elm.
WITTMEYER: After the dirty political stunt in Plainfield, Van Buren did attempt two more runs for the presidency. But failed bids in 1844 for the Democratic nomination, and in 1848 as the nominee of the Free Soil Party, marked the political end of his road.
For NPR News, I'm Sara Wittmeyer.
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WERTHEIMER: Our trips to roadside monuments and statues will motor through the summer on WEEKEND EDITION and MORNING EDITION. This is NPR News.
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