Weekend Wanderlust: Warren G. Harding presidential sites get new life in Marion

Kevin J. Elliott
The Warren G. Harding Presidential Library and Museum photographed Tuesday, October 13, 2020 in Marion, Ohio.

Ohio’s Warren G. Harding, the 29th president of the United States, has toiled in his grave for almost a century, largely considered one of the most divisive men to hold the office in our nation’s history. Be it weaponizing the media as a partisan force, naming a cabinet rife with corruption, or engaging in adulterous behavior behind the scenes, Harding's foibles have been routinely magnified by historians, who also tend to ignore the handful of successes he managed in his brief term.

That tenure was cut short when Harding died of cardiac arrest in 1923 in San Francisco during a cross-country tour that made him the first president to visit Canada and the future state of Alaska. 

In a recent C-SPAN survey ranking our 44 presidents, Harding has moved the needle only slightly from his position near the bottom, going from 40 to 37. The change is no doubt aided by the disastrous reign of our most recent former president, though these types of polls are entirely subjective (in no world should Woodrow Wilson be in the top 10).

It’s unlikely that Harding will climb the ranks much further as history progresses, but in the grand opening of Marion’s new Warren G. Harding Presidential Library and Museum — a multimillion-dollar, years-long undertaking by the Ohio History Connection — perspectives are bound to change for those who consider Harding a minor, inconvenient, blip in American politics. Indeed, when Harding died, he was extremely popular and mourned nationwide.

“Our main goal is to introduce President and Mrs. Harding to our visitors, and by that I mean to present them as multifaceted personalities,” said Sherry Hall, the Harding Presidential Site Manager. “Constant and deep research is essential to that mission, and we want to give people the most accurate information possible. Visitors are welcome to form any opinion they would like of the Hardings; we are trying to provide a factual foundation for them to draw upon.”

Inside the stately, pristine new museum are hundreds of the thousands of artifacts that had until recently been stored without proper context. First Lady Florence Harding made sure immediately after her husband’s death that these archives would be preserved, but her untimely demise only 15 months later, not to mention the scandals that would dominate most of the 1920s, marred Harding's achievements and stifled any critical interpretation of his presidency going forward.

Here, we can now see Harding’s unlikely ascendance to the White House through the lens of his post-Civil War childhood in rural Ohio, his regional dominance as a newspaper man (he owned the Marion Star) and his staunch rally for “Americanism” during the campaign of 1920 (sound familiar?). 

“Harding’s presidency was a bridge between the aftermath of war and a new era for the nation,” Hall said. “When Harding took office, the country was not ‘roaring.’ There was a worldwide recession, social issues such as race problems and immigration, and a general feeling of insecurity about what the next step should be for the country. Harding helped to set the course for the rest of the decade.”

Whether or not it was by Harding’s hand that the country enjoyed economic and cultural prosperity during the 1920s is up for debate, but there are several metrics outlined in the exhibits that lend weight to that theory.

That said, Harding’s legacy is one of dichotomies. Though he signed the Federal Highway Act of 1921, the precursor to our nation’s network of interstates and improved roads, he was an opponent of organized labor. While he deplored segregation and made several fiery speeches calling for African Americans to secure more civil rights (most notably a 1921 address in Birmingham, Alabama), he was also instrumental in the stoppage of immigration, which became law shortly after his death. To Hall’s point, the museum presents all aspects of Harding’s life: the good, the bad and the very ugly; the facts and the falsehoods.

The last thing you’ll see in the museum is an exhibit on the scandals, including the tale of Nan Britton, Harding’s mistress who gave birth to his only child. Though it was considered “fake news” for nearly a century, with Britton’s name dragged through the mud, DNA revealed the truth in 2015. Since that time, Britton's side of the family has had a legitimate seat at the table of Harding’s legacy going forward.

The crown jewel of the reimagined Harding sites is the meticulous restoration of the stunning family home at 380 Mt. Vernon Ave. Again, it is Florence who is the unsung hero in preserving the legacy of the Hardings. She was the custodian of their estate, tasked with the furnishings and décor, right down to the wallpaper and the repairs. Her record-keeping of receipts and the various Marion artisans who helped design the home provided a paper-trail from which to pull during the painstaking, years-long process of bringing the home back to its 1920 magnificence. From the front porch, where Harding gave several of his famous stump speeches during the campaign, to the adjacent “press house,” where journalists would live and report and apparently join Warren in games of horseshoes on the grounds (a pit has also been newly installed), not a detail was spared. 

While historians will continue to wrestle with Harding and where he may rank, the sites in Marion present President Harding and Florence (the first First Lady to vote) in a different light — one with nuance and a modernity that is the blueprint for future institutions of this ilk. 

“What you or I consider important ingredients for determining anyone’s legacy may be very different, and that’s fine,” Hall said when asked about how visitors should approach the museum. “I want people to see the Hardings as we see each other: as human beings.”

The Harding Memorial

There and back 

Should you want the complete Harding tour, Warren and Florence are buried together at the Harding M at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Vernon Heights Boulevard. (No, their beloved dog, Laddie, is not buried with them.) Harding’s birthplace is a 30-minute drive northeast on a county highway near Blooming Grove. Nan Britton, who died in 1991, was laid to rest in Pleasant Valley Cemetery in far north Knox County.

Any drive from Columbus towards Marion should include a detour into Waldo. There you can visit the G&R Tavern for their incredible fried bologna sandwich (be sure to include a piece of homemade pie). 

You could also likely fit in a visit to the Wyandot Popcorn Museum, the largest collection of antique popcorn poppers and peanut roasting equipment in the country. While it’s not entirely apparent why Marion is home to this particular curiosity, the town holds its annual popcorn festival every September. This year it’s headlined by Great White.

For more information, and for reservations at the Harding Library and Museum, visit hardingpresidentialsites.org