James A. Garfield Historical Site, a national treasure in our own backyard
BY GREG GOTH
SPECIAL TO THE SENTINEL
"I have lived in the area since February 2012 and have driven down Mentor Avenue many times without really considering the majestic house that sits on the large lot at 8095 Mentor Ave. This is surprising because deep down I am a history buff; I have a picture of my 1 year old son at Gen Patton's grave and I once took my pregnant wife on a tour of the Verdun battlefield in France - that was not a good idea. That all changed when I was asked by Tim Shire the Publisher of the Lake County Sentinel to accompany him on a tour of the President Garfield Historical Site to take pictures with him for an article.
Situated just past the Great Lakes Mall and tucked into a residential area, the historical site is a beatifically preserved time capsule that allows its visitors the opportunity to travel back and glimpse the home, and the life, of the 20th President of the United States. The site is run by the National Park Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, and managed by Todd Arrington, Ph.D. Though the original farm was 157 acres, the historical site today sits on 8 acres, centered on the magnificent home which occupies the very front of the parcel. What made this homestead so appealing to President Garfield was its proximity to the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad. President Garfield would use that railway while he conducted his business, a path leading from the railroad to the house would make for easy travel to his house after he got off the train. Today that farm lane is a cement path, painted brown to signify the dirt of the old path and dissects the site from the house to the back edge of the lot. I always thought that President James A. Garfield was born and raised in that house, though I will admit I had never really given it much thought, he was not. He was born in a log cabin in Orange Township in 1831; it was not until 1876 that he bought the land on Mentor Ave. Over the course of the next 4 years he modified the house and increased its size. The expansion continued even after his assassination in 1881 with his wife making some significant modifications. Two of my favorite additions include a library and just off the library a vault. The vault though small, is of historical significance. Among its contents is a preserved wreath that was on the President's casket from the Queen of England and documents from his Presidency. Though not officially recognized as such, the small vault could be considered the first Presidential Library in U.S. History. The library itself is just magnificent; I could see myself sitting there lost in books, surrounded by some of the best woodwork I have ever seen, while a fire crackled in the fireplace. Well, I could if I was there around the turn of the century; now there would probably be a T.V. in the room.
Though never seen by President Garfield, I could picture him sitting in that library doing the same thing. What is even more impressive then the woodwork is that according to Dr. Arrington, though there are some period pieces in the collection, 85% of the items on site actually belonged to President Garfield and his family. Even the books, and there must be thousands, are his; some include his hand written notes in the margins. Though he did not have the library when he was alive, he did have a small den just outside his bedroom, right off the main staircase. After his death this den was preserved by his wife Lucretia. The first thing that caught my eye was a well-worn leather chair with an odd shape. I immediately knew the reason for the odd shape, and thought my wife would love a chair like that.
One can still see the spots of worn leather where President Garfield sat while feeding his voracious appetite for knowledge. I can picture him with his back resting in the high area, his left leg draped over the lower arm, and his right leg resting on the floor, tucked in close to the front of the chair to keep him from slipping out while he read Edgar Allen Poe or Shakespeare. The second thing that caught my eye on the hearth of the small fire place where the words "In Memoriam", engraved after his death in tribute to him from his wife; it was their favorite poem.
The first room you see upon entering the home is the parlor. In this room President Garfield met with Ulysses S. Grant after Garfield won the Republican nomination at the 1880 Republican Convention. This was probably a tenuous meeting as Garfield was not even a candidate for the nomination, he was working for John Sherman who was. The Fiske Jubilee Singers, an all-black choir, also sang for him in this parlor near the end of the Presidential Campaign. According to Dr. Arrington it was here and then that he stated "I would rather be with you and defeated than against you and victorious."
From this room it was a short walk out the door where he conducted his "front porch campaign" for the Presidential Campaign of 1880. The open door to the right of the fire place in the picture leads to his mother’s bed room, she outlived him. Her room is so authentic it has the chamber pot still under the bed.
Today hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, are raised and spent by candidates who seek to become President of the United States. In 1880 Garfield ran it from his house. Using his front porch and a modest building out his back door with a telegraph wire strung to it. It was from this office that he learned he won the closest election in United States History, winning by less than 2,000 votes (9.2 million votes cast).
Approximately twenty to thirty thousand people visit the site per year, with last year seeing an increase due to the Republican National Convention. One thing I noticed and liked about the tour we received was how it was conducted. Dr. Arrington stated he likes to concentrate on the history, not so much the items in the rooms and where they came from. This does not imply that he does not know this information; it gave me as the person receiving the tour the ability to actually customize the tour to what I want. When I noticed a black Egyptian Obelisk with hieroglyphics on it outside his den he mentioned how it fit with the other pieces of international art throughout the house. No two people see the same thing when they look at something; this tour allowed me to see what I wanted without impacting what Tim wanted to see. I really liked this method.
I will admit I knew nothing about President Garfield before the tour. After I returned home I went online and looked up information about him. NE Ohio has a great gem sitting on the north side of Mentor Ave just past the mall - or before it if you are coming west. I would recommend to everyone to take advantage of it. This summer, instead of going to the mall to waste a few hours, stop by for a visit. Instead of taking your kids to a movie take them to the historical site and enjoy a tour or one of the many programs they put on. Take advantage of what we have on our doorstep, I know I will be taking my family back.
POSTED 04/10/2016 14:17
View of the rear of the main house
Wreath in the library vault. The wreath was a gift to Garfield's widow after his assassination
The library, built by his widow after the President's death as a tribute to her husband
Garfield's reading chair located in his office
Picture of the campaign office for the 1880 campaign. The building still stands on the site today
Monument to Garfield's memory with a paragraph from a letter to his wife All Photos By Greg Goth