Presidential Road Trips
Eight Ohioans held our nation’s highest office. These historic sites across the state celebrate their contributions.
William McKinley occupies an interesting place in American history as the president who bridged the 19th and 20th centuries. He was the last Civil War veteran to win the White House, while also being the first president to ride in a car and appear in a motion picture.
“He was the last of his era but also the first modern president,” says Kim Kenney, curator at the William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum in Canton.
McKinley was born in Niles and grew up in Poland, Ohio, but he’s most closely associated with Canton. After serving in the Civil War and passing the bar exam, he moved to the city in 1868. It was his home for the rest of his life, which was cut short by an assassin’s bullet as McKinley greeted visitors at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901 — six months into his second term as president.
On the day of his funeral, McKinley’s friends gathered to plan a suitable memorial for him. The result speaks to how well regarded the 25th president of the United States was by not only his friends, but also the general public who donated the money to build it.
That memorial — one of the largest for a U.S. president — today rests at the top of 108 steps and looks down over a museum that bears McKinley’s name. The cornerstone for the memorial was laid in 1905, and it was dedicated two years later at a ceremony that included a speech by McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt. During it, he remarked that McKinley “was not only a leader of men; but pre-eminently a helper of men.”
The monument, which was constructed with granite from Massachusetts, Vermont and Wisconsin and marble from Tennessee, serves as the final resting place of McKinley and his wife, Ida. They are entombed in an elevated pair of sarcophagi that rest under a neoclassical dome 50 feet in diameter.
“We believe he’d think it was a bit much,” says Kenney, explaining that McKinley was by all accounts a humble man.
The Stark County Historical Society operates the William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, which includes a planetarium and traces the history of Canton and Stark County. But its primary focus is the life and times of McKinley and his wife.
A multimedia kiosk features film of McKinley as well as footage from his funeral and the construction of the monument. There are life-size animatronic figures of William and Ida McKinley, as well as around 3,500 artifacts, including one of McKinley’s walking sticks and Ida’s sewing bag (with a picture of her husband in the bottom).
Although the monument was opened in 1907, the museum didn’t come along for another 40 years, which made the gathering of so many genuine artifacts a difficult task.
“It can be like finding a needle in a haystack,” Kenney says, “but everything on display has been authenticated.”
The artifacts tell a story not just of McKinley the president, but McKinley the man. Before he held the nation’s highest office, he was a Civil War veteran, a husband and briefly a father. (William and Ida had two daughters, but both died as children.)
“We want to represent all aspects of his life,” Kenney says. “It’s easy for a president to seem distant. We try to personalize him.” — Vince Guerrieri
Visit website for up-to-date times and prices; 800 McKinley Monument Dr. NW, Canton 44708, 330/455-7043, mckinleymuseum.org
More McKinley: William McKinley attended a one-room schoolhouse in Niles, Ohio, the city in which he was born. Among his classmates was Joseph G. Butler Jr., who later wrote McKinley’s biography and was instrumental in building a monument to him on the site of the schoolhouse. The National McKinley Birthplace Memorial was dedicated in 1917. It features a 12-foot statue of McKinley in its Court of Honor as well as an auditorium, a museum and a lending library. Free; Visit website for up-to-date times; 40 Main St., Niles 44446, 330/652-4273, mckinleybirthplacemuseum.org
U.S. Grant Birthplace | Point Pleasant
The tiny home where the 18th president of the United States was born provides insight into the humble beginnings of an American hero.
A crowd of 30,000 people gathered at Ulysses S. Grant’s birthplace of Point Pleasant on April 27, 1922, to hear President Warren G. Harding speak on what would have been the Civil War hero and former president’s 100th birthday.
“Grant was himself the supreme example of American opportunity,” Harding declared that day, and a glimpse of the humble home where he entered the world in 1822 proves those words true. Built in 1817, the timber-frame cottage was a one-room house in untamed western country when Grant’s parents, Jesse and Hannah, rented the place in 1821. Two small back rooms were added later.
“Dr. John Rogers, a very prominent abolitionist, delivered Grant,”says Linda Shuck, secretary of Historic New Richmond, which manages the site.
Grant’s father, Jesse Root Grant, worked as a tanner in Point Pleasant, and the home showcases those labors with a small black leather chest with the initials “JRG” across the top. (It is believed his son took the chest with him to West Point, where an administrative error forever changed his birth name of Hiram Ulysses Grant to Ulysses Simpson Grant.) Artifacts tied to the former president are displayed in a back room, including the Bible used to swear him in during his first inauguration.
By the time of his death in 1885, Grant was so famous that his birth home had become a transient attraction. It was moved to Cincinnati and then Columbus’ Goodale Park and then the Ohio State Fairgrounds. In 1936, it was returned to its original location, about 25 miles southeast of Cincinnati. — Leo DeLuca
Visit website for up-to-date times and prices; 1551 St. Rte. 232, Point Pleasant 45153, 800/283-8932, usgrantbirthplace.org
More Grant: When Hiram Ulysses Grant was 11 months old, his family moved from Point Pleasant to Georgetown, roughly 20 miles to the east. He lived there until he left for West Point in 1839. The U.S. Grant Boyhood Home and Schoolhouse provides a look at the family home, which has been restored to its 1830 appearance, as well as the nearby school he attended. Visit website for up-to-date times and prices; 219 E. Grant Ave. (home) & 508 S. Water St. (school), Georgetown 45121, 877/372-8177, usgrantboyhoodhome.org
James A. Garfield National Historic Site | Mentor
The former president’s Lake County home played a pivotal role in his campaign for the White House.
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.” — VG
Visit website for up-to-date times and prices; 8095 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 Monument. 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 up-to-date times; 12316 Euclid Ave., Cleveland 44106, 216/421-2665, lakeviewcemetery.com
----Harding Home Presidential Site | Marion
Warren G. Harding’s modest residence offers a look into the life of the last Ohioan to occupy the White House.
Warren G. Harding’s Queen Anne-style home on Mount Vernon Avenue wouldn’t garner much attention if not for its pedigree. But its modest kitchen, cozy study and small lot (in later years, two adjacent homes around it were bought and knocked down), fit the 29th president of the United States.
“He always said he was a newspaperman who just happened to become president,” says Sherry Hall, site manager for the Harding Home Presidential Site.
Harding described his Marion Star newspaper as “independent, but leaning Republican,” according to Hall, and the native of Blooming Grove, Ohio, built it into a success prior to making his move into politics. He campaigned for William McKinley in 1896 and served in the Ohio Senate and as lieutenant governor. In 1914, he was elected to the U.S. Senate, and six years later, he emerged as the Republicans’ compromise candidate for president. Harding conducted the nation’s last front-porch campaign for the White House, replacing his lawn with crushed stones to accommodate visitors and building a press office on the property.
Harding was elected, but he died in 1923 before completing his term. His wife, Florence, died 15 months later, willing her Marion home for the creation of a museum, which opened in 1926. The 2,500-square-foot home is filled with more than 5,000 Harding artifacts, including more than 300 from the White House. The on-site press office also houses a small museum.
Hall says one of the site’s primary missions is education, which includes dispelling untruths — the most prominent of which surrounds Harding’s death. He had a weak heart, and Hall says the stress of the job combined with a U.S. tour he embarked on in 1923 took its toll.
But in 1930, a book titled The Strange Death of President Harding written by Gaston Means alleged that Florence Harding poisoned her husband. “It was in a book, so a lot of people thought it was true,” Hall says. “We have to do a lot of myth busting.” — VG
Visit website for up-to-date times and prices; 380 Mount Vernon Ave., Marion 43302, 740/387-9630, hardinghome.org
More Harding: The final resting place of Warren and Florence Harding is about a mile and a half from the Harding home. The former president’s wishes were that he be interred under the open sky with a tree nearby. The circular, white marble Harding Memorial, which was built at a cost of nearly $1 million in 1927, has no roof in order to comply with both of those wishes. Free; Visit website for up-to-date times; Delaware Avenue and Vernon Heights Boulevard, Marion 43302, hardinghome.org
Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library & Museums | Fremont
Webb Hayes’ tribute to his parents at the northwest Ohio estate they called home was the nation’s first presidential library and museum.
Rutherford B. Hayes had an eye toward history even before he became part of it as the 19th president of the United States. During his service in the Civil War, he would often walk battlefields looking for bullets, tree branches embedded with cannon shot and other artifacts to collect and send home.
“In his letters he’d say, ‘This is for my future museum,’ ” says Christie Weininger, director of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums in Fremont. “It was [to be] a museum to the time period. He was witnessing firsthand the horrors of the Civil War, and he wanted to be sure people understood how it was.”
Hayes went on to serve in Congress and as Ohio’s governor before becoming president in 1876. Following his term, the Delaware, Ohio, native and his family returned to Spiegel Grove — the Fremont estate that Hayes’ uncle Sardis Birchard purchased prior to the Civil War.
Hayes and his wife, Lucy, who had a college degree, both prized education. It was a trait they passed on to their children, including their son Webb, who had the idea of creating a first-of-its-kind presidential library and museum at Spiegel Grove to honor his parents. It opened on Memorial Day 1916, and many dignitaries traveled to Ohio for the dedication, with one conspicuous absence. “The plan was for Woodrow Wilson to attend,” Weininger says. “But he had to decline as the country was getting closer to entering World War I.”
The site welcomed visitors for decades, but it wasn’t until a $1.5 million renovation was completed in 2012 that the home became a true reflection of the era during which the former president and his family lived there. Rooms that had taken on a different use over the years were returned to their original state, including an upstairs storage area known as the “Little Smithsonian,” where Hayes kept the artifacts he collected.
Today, the home is open for tours, as is the on-site library containing more than 1 million manuscripts and nearly 100,000 books, pamphlets and other materials, including Hayes’ own meticulously detailed journals and personal papers.
“His diary is incredible,” Weininger says. “He wrote in it consistently from when he was a teenager until he was 70.”
The presidential museum at Spiegel Grove is currently closed until Memorial Day weekend as new exhibits are installed. The permanent ones unveiled there in 1968 turned out to be more permanent than expected.
“The new exhibits are going to be more modern,” says communications and marketing manager Kristina Smith. “There will be more excerpts from diaries and personal papers, and bigger images.”
Previously, the museum tour started with a diorama detailing Hayes’ Civil War service — an unusual place to start the story of his presidency. When the museum reopens, visitors will be greeted by an orientation video, then footage of the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Hayes visited the fair to shake hands, as did his Democratic opponent, Samuel Tilden.
The redesigned galleries at the museum include “Life in the White House,” highlighting the Hayes family’s time in the executive mansion. Another focuses on Hayes’ involvement in founding the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College, which became The Ohio State University. Because Hayes was a collector of presidential artifacts, a new Presidents Gallery features item from commanders in chief through Barack Obama (the museum continued the collection after Hayes’ death), including a pair of Abraham Lincoln’s slippers.
“[Hayes] understood the value of an artifact,” Weininger says. “It connects you to a time and place like nothing else can.” — VG
Visit website for hours and admission pricing for the home, museum or both; 1337 Hayes Ave., Fremont 43420, 419/332-2081, rbhayes.org
----William Henry Harrison Tomb | North Bend
The final resting place of the ninth president of the United States honors a man who had much more of an impact on our nation than his one month in office would suggest.
William Henry Harrison delivered his 8,444-word inaugural address on a cloudy and windy day. He didn’t wear a hat or a coat, and he stood outside in the 48-degree weather for the duration of his one hour and forty-five minute speech.
Thirty-one days later, he was dead, when a cold he caught during that address turned into a fatal bout of pneumonia. Today, visitors to North Bend can pay their respects to our nation’s shortest-serving president at the William Henry Harrison Tomb — a final resting place for Harrison and members of his family. Made of limestone, the tomb is located on a knoll, with an entrance that faces south toward the Ohio River. A 60-foot obelisk was added to the site in 1924.
The Harrison family owned the land where the tomb was built, and, after first being laid to rest in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., Harrison’s body was moved there in July 1841.
“If [people] know about William Henry Harrison, unfortunately that’s what they know: that he gave the longest [inauguration] speech in history … caught a cold and he died,” says Terry Simpson, director of the Harrison-Symmes Memorial Foundation Museum, a small museum located a mile from Harrison’s tomb that shares the story of his life. “But he was a great figure in early [U.S.] history because of the expansion west from Virginia to the Mississippi River.”
Harrison garnered the name “Father of the West” for his role as a pivotal figure in America’s westward push. Before becoming president, he served in the military and opened up new territories by fighting and making treaties with the American Indians who lived there.
“Today, you can’t defend the process they went through to drive the Indians out of the area, but still he had compassion for the Indians,” says Simpson. “Harrison was friends with a lot of the Indian chiefs.”
Harrison rose to the rank of brigadier general of the Army of the Northwest, serving as governor of the Indiana Territory and fighting in the War of 1812. When he retired from the military in 1814, he and his wife, Anna Symmes, moved back to North Bend. Harrison was serving as Hamilton County’s clerk of courts when he was selected as the Whig Party’s nominee for president.
The party capitalized on his status as a national hero following the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, which delivered a huge defeat to Shawnee Indian leader Tecumseh and his confederation. But they also portrayed him as a common man. That combination, as well as his innovative use of marketing techniques, led to Harrison winning the presidency in 1840.
“He was the first president to use campaign literature,” says Beverly Meyers, president of the Harrison-Symmes Memorial Foundation. “There were ribbons to wear and they made glass flasks that were in the shape of a log cabin.” — Carolyn Pippin
Free; Visit website for up-to-date times; 2 Cliff Rd., North Bend 45052, 844/288-7709, ohiohistory.org
William Howard Taft National Historic Site | Cincinnati
The 27th president of the United States spent his formative years at this hilltop residence, located in a neighborhood built for the city’s social elite.
William Howard Taft is the only man in our nation’s history to have headed both the executive and judicial branches. When he died in 1930, The New York Times published a reverent obituary that detailed his swift rise and bitter fall as president, his splintered relationship with Theodore Roosevelt and his unprecedented comeback as chief justice of the Supreme Court.
“Of some public men, when they pass into the shadowed valley, it is said that they are the most admired of their generation; of others, that they are the most disliked or distrusted; but about Mr. Taft there is a universal agreement that he made himself the most loved,” wrote The New York Times on March 9, 1930, the day after Taft’s death.
A native of Cincinnati’s Mount Auburn neighborhood, Taft was born and raised at what today is 2038 Auburn Avenue. His father, Alphonso Taft, was the nation’s 34th attorney general and 31st secretary of war.
Alphonso Taft bought his Cincinnati home and 1.82 acres of land for $10,000 on June 13, 1851. Boasting eight bedrooms, the hilltop residence served as home not only to Alphonso and his wife, Louise, and their four children, but also his parents, Peter and Sylvia Taft, and two kids from Alphonso’s previous marriage to the late Fanny Phelps Taft. The family employed a handful of servants and also kept a horse, a pony, a milk cow and chickens on the property.
“Mount Auburn was the first suburb to be created outside of Cincinnati, only 1.5 miles north [of downtown] as the eagle flies. It was also known as Cincinnati’s Fifth Avenue — upper-class people moved up to the hills and away from the pollution of downtown,” says Kerry Wood, chief of interpretation at the William Howard Taft National Historic Site.
The future 27th president of the United States lived at the home before leaving for Yale Law School in 1874. Alphonso and Louise remained until they departed for California in the late 1880s. After her husband died in 1891, Louise continued to rent the house before selling it in 1899.
Although the exterior of the residence remained largely unchanged over the decades except for a modification to the porch that has since been reversed, the interior was divided into six apartments in the 1940s. Thankfully, Louise’s detailed description of the home in her letters provided a blueprint for the National Park Service’s restoration, which began in 1964 and continued until 1988.
“We had to look through their letters and grandpa’s journals to figure out which piece went where,” says Paula Marett, a park guide at the William Howard Taft National Historic Site.
Visitors enter the home through what was once the Taft family parlor, decorated with portraits of Taft’s parents and grandparents, a Chickering piano and a William Sonntag painting depicting the Hudson River Valley. Down the hall, visitors find a quaint bedroom decorated with a crib, bed and wicker kiddie chamber pot. The space served as Taft’s nursery for the first seven years of his life. At age 7, he moved upstairs.
Today, that space is used as an extensive exhibition area, detailing Taft’s storied career on educational panels and displaying artifacts such as campaign memorabilia.
The year Taft left Ohio for Yale University, he said to his father: “You expect great things of me, but you mustn’t be disappointed if I don’t come up to your expectations.” The detail is included in a National Park Service brochure for the historic site. It’s hard to imagine he did anything but exceed what they hoped he would achieve.
“Taft’s parents were big believers in hard work, education and integrity,” says Wood. “They were always striving to be the best.” — LD
Free; Visit website for up-to-date times; 2038 Auburn Ave., Cincinnati 45219, 513/684-3262, nps.gov/wiho
----Harrison-Symmes Memorial Foundation Museum | Cleves
This small southwest Ohio museum recognizes how our state shaped Benjamin Harrison’s path to the White House.
North Bend, Ohio, claims two presidents of the United States: William Henry Harrison and his grandson, Benjamin Harrison, who became the 23rd man elected to the presidency in 1889. Both called the tiny town located along Ohio’s southwestern border home. Benjamin Harrison was born there in 1833.
A graduate of Miami University, he worked in the Cincinnati area for a short time before moving his family to Indianapolis in 1854, where he began his career as an attorney and became involved in politics. He also fought in the Civil War, rising to the rank of brevet brigadier general.
“He was known as ‘Little Ben’ because he was short in stature,” says Terry Simpson, director of the Harrison-Symmes Memorial Foundation Museum, which details the life of Benjamin Harrison, his grandfather and other local history. “He was very respected by his men, and they had no problems following him into battle.”
Harrison returned to Indiana after his time in the military to continue practicing law and politics. After becoming the Republican nominee in 1889, he delivered deliberate and detailed front-porch speeches at his Indianapolis home that helped him win the presidency.
During Harrison’s term in office, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho and Wyoming were all admitted to the Union. He also expanded the U.S. Navy and was president when Congress approved the establishment of Sequoia and Yosemite national parks in 1890.
Although he was at times described as a cold person, Harrison put a focus on family. He was the first president to have a Christmas tree in the White House, because it was important to him and his wife, Caroline Scott Harrison.
“You can definitely see the twinkle in his eye in some photographs we have of him with the children and that softer touch with family letters,” says Jennifer Capps, vice president of curatorship and exhibitions at the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site in Indiana. “He wasn’t really a cold person; it was just getting to know him.” — CP
Free; Visit website for up-to-date times; 112 S. Miami Ave., Cleves, 513/236-3889, hsmfmuseum.org
----First Ladies National Historic Site | Canton
Two properties, located a block away from each other, showcase contributions made by the women who have called the White House home over the years.
The restored Victorian-style residence in downtown Canton was the childhood home of President William McKinley’s wife, Ida Saxton. It was also the couple’s home between 1878 and 1891, during the time when McKinley served in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Saxton McKinley House is half of the First Ladies National Historic Site, which also includes the National First Ladies’ Library Education and Research Center, located a block away. Exhibitions at the library change about twice a year. The most recent, “A Gift to Cherish,” included Nancy Reagan’s hat and Mamie Eisenhower’s gown and shoes. “Trials on the Campaign Trail” opens later this month.
Between the two properties there are a couple thousand items in the collection, ranging from furnishings to dresses to photographs. Both acquire artifacts by donations, loans and contributions from the first ladies themselves.
“You just never know when the phone is going to ring, and you’re going to get something really cool,” says Patricia Krider, executive director at the National First Ladies’ Library. — CP
Visit website for up-to-date times and prices; 205 & 331 Market Ave. S., Canton 44702, 330/452-0876, firstladies.org, nps.gov/fila