Location: Mentor, Ohio
Webpage: National Park
General Description: James A. Garfield grew up on an Ohio farm being raised by a his widow mother and began early to raise from these humble beginnings. As a young boy he tried his hand as a mule skinner for a canal boat on the Ohio and Erie Canal, before realizing that he was not suited for a life as a sailor. After attending multiple schools in Ohio he graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts in 1856. He then returned to Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram Collage) where he was an instructor and chosen to be the President of the Institute at a very young age of 27. In his spare time he publicly spook in favor of the Republican Party and abolition and began studying law. This led to his election to the Ohio State Senate from 1859-1861. In the summer of 1861 he asked for a commission in the army and was given the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Union Army. Later that year, he was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, commanding a brigade at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. However, his political career did not end with the war as he was elected to the House of Representatives in October, 1862. He asked to remain with his brigade, but President Lincoln convinced him that he was needed in Washington, so he resigned his commission. Garfield became a member of the Radical Republicans in Congress who favored the punishment of rebel leaders and confiscation of southern plantations. In this he was in opposition with the moderate Republicans, most noteworthy the President himself. Garfield continued to serve in the Congress for the next 17 years. While maintaining a home in Washington D.C. for his large family of 7 children, he wanted his family to experience life in his home state of Ohio. In 1876 he purchased a modest home and approximately 100 acre estate in the small rural town of Mentor, just northeast of Cleveland. He choose this location partly due to the environment, but also to change his residency from the 19th Congressional District after the Democrats redrew the lines to make this a Democratic stronghold in the state. Thus he sidestepped their attempts to remove him from Congress. Later that year he more than doubled the size of the house to accommodate his large family. He attended the 1880 Republican National Convention to nominate Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman for President. However, along with two other nominees, Ulysses Grant and James Blaine, they were not able to obtain the Party’s nomination. On the 36th ballot, Garfield allowed his name to be entered as a compromise candidate and to his surprise won the nomination. At this time in history, it was unseemly for the Presidential nominee to actively seek the office, rather allowing surrogates to make speeches. So Garfield returned to his home in Mentor, Ohio. This did not mean he was not to be actively engaged as he converted the carriage house into a campaign headquarters and had a telegraph wire installed. It was also common practice that the Presidential candidates to receive citizens, both influential and common supporters, at their home, as well as reporters. Since the railroad actually ran through the his property, it was a simple matter to create a whistle-stop on the property that greatly increased the crowds that would gather on his front lawn. Thus he conducted the first successful low-key “front porch campaign” that became the norm for many following elections. The reporters literally camped on his front yard and coined the name “Lawnfield” for the property in the popular press. Garfield narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent, Winfield Hancock and became the 20th US President. Unlike today, where the first 100 days of a Presidency is critical for the new President to get started on his legislative agenda, in the late 1800s the first job of a new President is the appointment of his Cabinet and all the political appointments throughout the nation, which he had to personally oversee and approve. The White House was inundated with people seeking a political appointment. This was literally all Garfield was able to accomplish with some epic Senate battles over confirmation. One aspiring citizen was Charles J. Guiteau who was denied a political appointment. Believing that Chester Arthur would be inclined to give him this position, he decided to seek revenge. On July 2, 1881 at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station where Garfield was leaving to join his family for a short vacation, Guiteau shot Garfield twice in the back. After 11 weeks of intensive and other care President Garfield died convalescing in Elberon, New Jersey after he was transported there by train over track specifically laid from Washington D.C. to New Jersey for that purpose. They were never able to locate the bullet in his back even using Alexander Bell’s new invention of a metal detector, which could only find the metal springs of the bed. Thus, Chester A Arthur became the 21st President. Following his death, his wife, Lucretia, created a fund to construct a memorial for her husband. The fund was so successful with donations from around the country, that there was sufficient funds to once again expand the house creating the first Presidential Library for all the books, manuscripts, correspondence and papers of President Garfield. This library also included a large vault to protect the papers, although today the papers are part of the Library of Congress. The family continued to own the property until 1936 when they donated it and all of the original furnishings to the Western Reserve Historical Society. Today the first two floors have been restored to the period when the Garfields lived in the house, including an entrance hall and a reception hall, James and Lucretia Garfield’s summer bedroom, a parlor, dining room, and Grandma Eliza Garfield’s bedroom. A stairway from the hall leads up to the Memorial Library.
1) While the original property extended a couple of miles north towards Lake Erie, the National Historic Site is today completely surrounded by urban homes in this suburb of Cleveland. Only the house and a few acres remain of the original estate. The Visitor Center is located in the restored carriage house and contains a few exhibits on the life and accomplishments of President Garfield. Of course, since he did not serve as the President for very long, most of these accomplishments are centered on his time in the Civil War and serving in Congress. There is also a nice film about his life and this is where the tour of the house begins.
2) The tour begins walking up the path the people would have walked from the train to the house during his “front porch campaign” in 1880. You get to stand on the porch from where Garfield would have delivered his nearly daily address to the crowds.
3) The tour of the first floor is interesting as they have nearly all of the original furnishings used by President Garfield and his family. With the additions made to the house some of the rooms appear strange. For instance the original dining room was converted into a “meet and greet” space for any influential visitors that would be invited into the house. The stairway to the second floor is also different as it ascends from behind the fireplace in the original dining room.
4) The library that Garfield’s wife added on to the house after his assignation is well worth the entire tour!! It is a large room lined with bookshelves full of books. Garfield’s life long goal was to read a book a day, thus all of these books was just a fraction of those he owned. There is a rolling desk that folds in on itself that was made specifically for President Garfield and would have been presented to him in the White House if he had survived. There is also one of the desks from his time in the House of Representatives that was given to the family when the Congressional Building was redone a few years after his death. However, the most amazing feature is the large walk-in vault that Lucretia had built to protect all of his papers. Today a few reproductions are on display as the originals are now in the Library of Congress.
5) Outside of the house you can enter the original carriage house that Garfield had converted to his campaign headquarters. Again it has been restored to the condition at the time of his election using reporter’s photographs of the interior.
6) Also outside the house are a couple of structures that are unique to the property. The first is the stone windmill that is the first structure you see as you pull into the parking lot behind the house. It looks like a miniature stone lighthouse with a windmill on top. This was used, along with a hydraulic ram, to supply water into a cistern on the third floor of the house. Thus Garfield had one of the first homes in the area with running water.
7) The other unique structure is the brick structure attached to the Visitor Center that was used to store natural gas. At some point after Garfield’s death they discovered natural gas on the property. So Lucretia had installed this storage facility so she could power all the lights and heating in the house. Thus the home was never fitted for electricity, but continued to use the free natural gas!