James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor (photo by Maureen MacGregor)
Ohio Life

Visit the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor

The former president’s Lake County home played a pivotal role in his campaign for the White House as the site of his front-porch campaign. 

The era from the end of the Civil War to the 20th century wasn’t renowned for its memorable presidents. Even among those, James A. Garfield was particularly forgettable.

Elected in 1880, he only served four months before a disgruntled office seeker shot him at a Washington, D.C., train station. He died two months later, more from his doctors’ marked indifference to hygiene than from the wound itself.

But his record before being elected president — his rise from humble origins, service as an officer in the Civil War and 17 years in the U.S. House of Representatives — offers a tantalizing glimpse of what might have been.

“He really is lumped in with all the post-Civil War bearded Republicans,” says Todd Arrington, site manager of the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor. “But I think Garfield had the intelligence and congressional experience to stand above. I like to believe he would have been a very strong president.”

Garfield was born in what is today the village of Moreland Hills. He was also the last president born in a log cabin, a replica of which now sits near the village hall.

In 1876, while he was still a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Garfield bought a nine-room farmhouse and 140 acres in Mentor for his wife Lucretia and their five children. Four years later, he was selected as a compromise candidate at a deadlocked Republican National Convention in Chicago.

Because presidential candidates didn’t do a lot of campaigning on their own during those days, Garfield returned home to Mentor. It was also a time when candidates were far more approachable by the general public. Aided by railroad tracks that cut across Garfield’s
property, those who wanted to wish him well began coming to his home.

“He started giving speeches from his front porch, and it was where the concept of the front-porch campaign was born,” Arrington says.

It’s estimated that 17,000 people came to see Garfield speak during the summer and fall of 1880. Some were even received by Garfield in the foyer of his family home, but typically were allowed no farther.

Today, visitors to the James A. Garfield National Historic Site can take a tour of the home. Although Garfield’s family made additions after his death, Arrington estimates that 80 to 85 percent of the items in the home belonged to Garfield or his family.  

Among Lucretia Garfield’s additions to the home following her husband’s death is a library that contains around 1,400 books, including Garfield’s personal collection. It ranges from the Congressional Record from his time in the U.S. House of Representatives to several volumes of Edgar Allan Poe and biographies of John Quincy Adams and Alexander Hamilton.

The library itself is strikingly different from the rest of the house, with red walls and wooden paneling and bookshelves adding a layer of warmth. The family hosted parties in the space, and Lucretia Garfield would often read in the room.

“She made it her mission to memorialize [her husband] for herself and her children, and that’s what led to the construction of the memorial library,” Arrington says. “That’s where we get the most oohs and ahs.”  

Visit website for up-to-date times and prices8095 Mentor Ave., Mentor 44060, 440/255-8722, nps.gov/jaga


More Garfield: Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland is home to many prominent names from history, including John D. Rockefeller and Eliot Ness. But towering over them all is the James A. Garfield Memorial. It is the final resting place of Garfield and his wife Lucretia, their daughter, Mary, and her husband (the caskets are in the crypt of the 180-foot structure). The monument also features mosaics, stained-glass windows and balconies that, on a clear day, offer a view of downtown Cleveland. Free; Visit website for times and closure information as the monument is undergoing renovations slated to be completed in spring 2024; 12316 Euclid Ave., Cleveland 44106, 216/421-2665, lakeviewcemetery.com

A version of this story originally appeared in our February 2016 issue.