James A Garfield National Historic Site

A Visit To: James A. Garfield National Historic Site

James A Garfield launched his presidential campaign from the front porch of this home. After his assassination, his wife turned their home into a library and memorial to her husband. Now it is preserved as the James A. Garfield National Historic Site. I decided to visit the site instead of going to an amusement park with my brother and his family.

James A. Garfield

The visitor center (in what was the stable) has a short movie and small exhibits detailing the important events in the President’s life. Garfield was the last president born in an actual log cabin. His father died when he was just an infant, leaving the family in extreme poverty. I read somewhere that Garfield was one of poorest Presidents. Everything he accomplished in life, he accomplished on his own or with the meager support of his family.

James A Garfield National Historic Site
Garfield at 16. They mentioned his piercing blue eyes once or twice on the tour.
Garfield dreamed of becoming a sailor. While Lake Erie was nearby, he worked on the Ohio and Erie canal, managing the mule trains that haul the barges. He fell ill and had to return home to heal. Once he recovered, his mother gave him her life savings, $17, so instead of returning to the canals, he entered college at age seventeen.

Garfield attended Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, later named Hiram College. Once the money ran out, Garfield started working as the school janitor, but quickly became a professor while still a student. He continued at Williams College, where he graduated with honors, and returned to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute as a professor. Within a year, he became the college president. Education was what allowed him to pull up out of poverty

Garfield was a general in the Civil War, and was considered a hero. Despite reading a few articles and the display at the visitor center, I am still not completely sure what he did to deserve the title. He was elected to Congress while serving, and left his command to serve his term.

Radical Republican

Garfield was a Radical Republican, meaning that he wanted Lincoln to seize the lands of Confederates, and execute Confederate leaders. After the war, Garfield advocated preventing Southerners who fought in the Confederacy from voting, and wanted it to be more difficult for states to reenter the Union. Garfield vehemently opposed Lincoln’s plan for reconciliation. Garfield was one of the many in Congress who had a dim view of Lincoln. He viewed Lincoln as a second class lawyer, nothing more. Garfield wanted the South to pay. These Radical Republicans didn’t talk about being the party of Lincoln.

Garfield served nine terms in Congress and his prominence grew. He supported the gold standard, and at this point in the visitor center my eyes began to glaze over. The gold standard is not the most exciting piece of American History, although I am sure I should care about it a lot more than I do.

Garfield was involved in a scandal where he accepted stock dividends, as well as the “Salary Grab” scandal, where Congress retroactively gave themselves a raise. Voters didn’t like this bit of legislation that Garfield guided through Congress. He won narrowly won re-election. The Republicans lost control of the House, and Garfield became Minority Leader. At the Chicago Republican Convention, Garfield won the nomination on the 34th ballot, even though he wasn’t seeking the Presidency.

Conventions were clearly different back then. Delegates really had a role in choosing the candidate, as the primary system didn’t yet exist. The presidential candidates were selected by the small groups of men who attended the convention, rather than voters through the extended (and some would say fixed) process we have now with Super Delegates and Super Tuesday.

Only 100 days into his term, Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled, socially awkward, possibly insane, office seeker with a gun. Garfield clung to life, but died two months later, his body riddled with infection. Most doctors thought the antiseptic procedures of Joseph Lister were quackery, so Garfield’s doctors probed his body with dirty hands and equipment, trying to remove the bullet. They did some awful things to the poor man, who lost a huge amount of weight and suffered miserably throughout his treatment. The last room of the visitor center showed some of the devices invented (air-conditioning!) to make the dying man more comfortable.

James A Garfield National Historic Site
James A. Garfield circa 1870–1880
By Unknown; part of Brady-Handy Photograph Collection. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Lawnfield

Once again, the house tour was led by a fantastic volunteer, who answered all our questions or knew the details of nearly every item in the home. Garfield only lived in the house for 5 years. His wife, Lucretia lived for 37 after his death, and made many changes, making the home into a memorial to her husband. The home is filled with the actual possessions of the Garfield family. The Park Service restored the first two floors of the home to how they would have looked when Garfield lived there.

Tradition was that presidential candidates did not campaign. Once he got the nomination, Garfield used the long front porch of his home to campaign. The house is on US Route 20 which even then was a major road. Reporters and visitors crowded the front lawn, and Garfield would stand on the porch and give a speech or answer questions. The tracks of the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad crossed the property. A small platform was set up, and Garfield gave speeches to the passengers. Garfield converted a small outbuilding that had been his library into campaign headquarters, and even installed a telegraph to keep up with the news. This was not a traditional campaign.

When I visited, several of Lucretia’s dresses were on display. The dresses normally are preserved in a archival box in a climate controlled environment. I am not much of a dress fan, but these dresses were gorgeous, some with deep rich blues, with intricate beading, pleats, and folds. Each room displayed a different dress. Her morning dress, her mourning dress and formal dresses for wearing around Washington. Our guide discussed many aspects of the fashions of the day and dress construction which was lost on me. As she talked about the dresses, she shown a small pen light on the dresses so that we could see the features without the dresses being exposed to any harsh light. The other ladies on the tour were very interested, although the guy with his National Park Passport didn’t seem so interested in this part of the tour.

James A Garfield National Historic Site
My favorite of Lucretia Garfield’s Dresses

Artwork by Lucretia and the Garfields’ five children fill the home. Paintings by the children are framed alongside paintings by professional artists. Tiles lining the fireplace were all painted by Lucretia or the children. It gives the feeling of a home, not an empty old house, and one can imagine the richness of family life the Garfields enjoyed.

The Library

When Garfield died, Lucretia was left nearly penniless. Garfield’s friends started a national campaign to raise money for her and her family. Lucretia used much of this money to live off, but also to expand and renovate the home. She created a grand staircase leading up to the library. The library housed Garfield’s books and papers. The preserved wreath from Queen Victoria is stored in the vault Lucretia added to protect her husband’s most valuable papers. She and Queen Victoria corresponded, and she kept those letters in the vault as well. The library is clearly a labor of love, and also gives a hint to the kind of money that was raised on her behalf. There are tables decorated with inlaid wood from China, elaborately carved woodwork and many smaller treasures.

Many old house tours leave me wishing I knew more about the occupants. This one actually filled in a lot of pieces about Garfield, and made him a little more compelling. One wonders what he might have done as President.

The vault at the James A Garfield National Historic Site
The vault