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Paying homage to a land of presidents

On the trail of eight commanders in chief who resided in this Midwestern cradle of statesmen.

February 15, 2004|Joe McElwee | Special to The Times

Fremont, Ohio — I had no intention of lingering in Ohio last August when I drove through heading west from Philadelphia. My itinerary for the Buckeye State included pumping gas, grabbing burgers and finding restrooms. But a sign on Interstate 80 near Fremont sparked my curiosity: "Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center."

What did I really know about President Hayes? On an impulse, I took the exit.

What I found was a charming, tree-shaded Victorian estate full of fascinating glimpses into the past. The Spiegel Grove home of the 19th president (1877-81) sits on 25 acres and includes a museum, Hayes' burial plot and the family home -- a grand mansion with 15 fireplaces, a center hallway 45 feet high and a butternut staircase supported by 177 hand-carved spindles.

I learned a lot about the president. The museum displayed a jacket worn by Brig. Gen. Hayes in the Civil War. A hole in the left sleeve near the bicep showed where a Rebel bullet struck him. He was injured five times in the war. In 1876, Hayes slipped into office by one electoral vote after losing the popular vote in a bitterly disputed election.

As I left Spiegel Grove, I reflected on something the tour guide said: "Eight presidents came from Ohio." I wanted to know more. Who were these presidents and what was their legacy? Later, at home, I researched the subject. In October, I returned to Ohio for a week to learn their stories.

My first stop: Niles, Ohio. Our 25th president, William McKinley (1897-1901), was born here in 1843, half a block from the National McKinley Birthplace Memorial. The structure, consisting of a library and museum, is fronted by a Court of Honor made up of the busts of statesmen and an imposing statue of the president.

Inside, a reference librarian invited me on a self-guided tour. A video traced McKinley's life from his birth as the seventh child in a family of nine kids to his assassination. In between, there were highs and lows, with tragedy striking frequently. The first heartbreak came in 1873 after his marriage to Ida Saxton, when the couple lost their youngest daughter, who died at 4 months. It was followed by the death of Ida's mother, and then the death of their 3-year-old, Katherine. Then Ida became a semi-invalid. McKinley embarked on his political career at this time.

Museum artifacts included a $500 bill with McKinley's portrait, the original draft of his 1896 presidential nomination speech and a Sept. 7, 1901, copy of the Boston Evening Transcript published the day after he was shot in Buffalo, N.Y.: "Chances good. Second Bullet May be Located by X-rays." McKinley died one week later.

My next stop took me two hours northwest to the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. Garfield (1881) was the 20th president and the last born in a log cabin. Success in the Civil War earned him the stars of a brigadier general. When President Lincoln asked him to fight the war on a political front instead of the battlefield, Garfield ran for office, becoming a congressman in 1862. Friends admired his jovial temperament, citing the time Garfield laughed so hard at a joke he fell to the ground and rolled over.

An assassin's bullet shattered his promising career less than four months after his inauguration. In the 79 days after the shooting, the president was in constant pain and lost 65 pounds. He died of blood poisoning in 1881, an infection many attribute to the probing of numerous doctors as they tried to retrieve the bullet.

Reporters who gathered for Garfield's "front porch" speeches nicknamed the Victorian home "Lawnfield." I walked around inside, listening as a tour guide talked about the life of the president, hearing about such tidbits as the hole in the ceiling through which Molly, the president's daughter, once poured water onto her sleeping brothers. On a bedroom wall hung a photograph of Molly with her back to the camera. Garfield's notation on the back of the picture read, "Molly in a huff."

After spending a night in Columbus, Ohio, I followed Interstate 70 west 150 miles to Indianapolis. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893), our 23rd president, was born in North Bend, Ohio, later moving to the Hoosier State capital to practice law.

The President Benjamin Harrison Home, in the city's historic Old North Side, was built in the Italianate style with ceilings 14 feet high.

Like Hayes, Harrison lost the popular vote in his presidential race but squeaked to victory in 1888 on the strength of a majority in the electoral college. Benjamin, the grandson of President William Harrison, was a Presbyterian elder and wartime general. More than 250,000 people journeyed to his home in 1888 for the candidate's campaign speeches. Harrison accepted his party's nomination in the parlor; he received news he was elected in the family library. In 1901, he died there in bed.

All in the family

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