Weekend Wanderlust: Ohio, Mother of Presidents

Kevin J. Elliott
The birthplace of Ulysses S. Grant in Point Pleasant, Ohio

This being November, I thought it obvious to concentrate on the wealth of presidential sites we have in our state. After all, we are the “Mother of Presidents,” birthing eight men who have held our nation’s highest office.

And this being 2020,it’s also the centennial of the election of Warren Harding, a Marion, Ohio, newsman who ran against fellow Ohio newsman James Cox. Harding’s “return to normalcy” mandate (sound familiar?) resulted in a landslide victory during the advent of the Roaring '20s.

Pre-pandemic, presidential history obsessed folks like myself were counting down the days until the grand opening of the Warren G. Harding Presidential Library. In the past, you’ve only been able to tour his house, where he pioneered front porch campaign rallies and allowed the press to hold fort in its own wing. But now there’s an entire museum dedicated to his life and time in office, and the opening was supposed to coincide with this year’s election.

Alright, so maybe just myself and my mother-in-law were “excited,” but presidential libraries, despite memorializing what are in essence failed men with extraordinary responsibilities, are great resources for understanding our collective history, as a nation as well as a perfect reflection of the time in which those men served.

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The library's opening has now been rescheduled for President’s Day 2021, but this still presents a great time to reflect. Harding has been widely considered one of our worst presidents. There are really few ways to celebrate him. After his sudden heart attack in office in 1923, it was revealed that he was an adulterous husband,fathered a love child and was involved in theTeapot Dome scandal. Regardless of any positive things he did as president, that past will always haunt him. 

Which means Harding must be carousing with his wife in his ornate tomb at the center of Marion his mistress,Nan Britton, is buried mere yards away in an adjacent cemetery excited by the prospect of how we as a nation will commemorate the presidency of Donald J. Trump. As much as I’m intrigued at the museum-needed context for Harding’s achievements and foibles, his short tenure was nowhere near the embarrassing charade that has unfolded in the current White House. Speculative fiction reigns supreme, but I can imagine the blip of Trump’s presidency in an official “library” capacity to be the equivalent of aTimes Square souvenir shop in the lobby of Trump Tower, complete withautographed Ted Nugent pictures, cheap tchotchkesmade in China andhalf-off Trump-as-Rambo flags. Will there really be a commemorative plaque marking his birthplace somewhere inQueens

Warts and all is how I’ve experienced most presidential sites.

Jimmy Carter will go down as one of America’s most maligned, but his library reveals his humanitarian side post-presidency. Though he “failed,” little about his presidency was to the harm of Americans. It takes approximately four hours to make it through FDR’s massive historical expanse, and in the end, you see that his triumphs outweigh his mistakes. James Polk is buried in a hidden grove at the Tennessee Statehouse. Gerald Ford has a modest and sterile museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and another more expansive campus in Grand Rapids — despite holding office for little more than two years. I’m so much of a presidential history junkie that I spent my 40th birthday severely hungover in Little Rock, Arkansas, at Bill Clinton’s massive modern library, attempting to understand my deeply conflicted love for his years as president

All of Ohio’s eight presidents William Henry Harrison, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, William Taft and Harding have some kind of library, memorial, or remembrance, with the exception of the second Harrison, who made his political ascendance inIndiana. As of this summer, I’ve visited every one. Here’s quick rundown of four of the sites:

William Henry Harrison

Though not born in Ohio, our 9th president is certainly responsible for America’s forceful expansion into the Northwest Territory. He won the presidency on his “backwoods” motif and frontier toughness, but subsequently became the shortest-sitting president in history (unless of course Mike Pence takes office in December). A mere 31 days after delivering his inaugural speech, in the cold and without a coat, he died in office of pneumonia.

Harrison has amonolithic tomb and quant nature trial in his honor, both on the banks of the Ohio River in North Bend. You’re not going to get the history lesson of his achievements at this site, but you’ll experience the reverence our country gave to our founders.

Ulysses S. Grant 

Perhaps Ohio’s most celebrated president, Grant was the general who led the Union during the Civil War and fought vigorously for a peaceable reconstruction, not only for freed slaves but for Native Americans. He’s often been called our first civil rights president.

Though Grant is buried in Grant’s Tomb in New York City (or is he?) and his official historical site is in St. Louis, there are several spots on the Grant Trail that solidify his Ohio roots. These include his birthplace and his first schoolhouse, both in Point Pleasant, Ohio. Grant became such a hero of America’s Civil War, that his original home became a travelling set-piece, installed in Goodale Parkand at the Ohio State Fair before finally returning. In Georgetown, Ohio, you can also see his boyhood home. 

Rutherford B. Hayes

Another Civil War veteran, Rutherford B. Hayes, has for some time been more infamous than revered, if only because the place of his birth has long been a BP gas station in downtown Delaware, with a tiny marker in a sad patch of grass. Delaware demolished the original home in 1930, but has finally remedied that with a tasteful statue of our 19th president, prominently displayed at the intersection of Sandusky and William streets.

Though Trump has continually and falsely labeled the 2020 election the most “corrupt” in American history, it was Hayes' controversial win that actually caused a constitutional crisis. Having lost the popular vote, a backroom deal was made between Hayes and Southern Democrats to give him the electoral college victory by one vote, if only he removed federal troops from their post in the South, subsequently ending reconstruction.Hayes’ library, in picturesque Fremont, goes into great detail explaining the contested election and the result. It’s a wonderfully simple and informative museum that brings historical context to his complicated single term. The building sits on Spiegel Grove, Hayes’ retirement estate, where you can tour his 31-room mansion, roam the ground’s arboretum and visit Hayes and his wife at the couple’s final resting place.

William McKinley

The 25th president is my personal favorite for several reasons. Though he too was steeped in an administration of cronyism, he opened America up to the rest of the world. He also believed strongly in public education at the behest of his wife, Ida Saxton, whose childhood home in Canton, Ohio, now serves as the National First Ladies’ Library. And, perhaps most intriguing,the bizarre story of his 1901 assassination shortly into his second-term. After giving a speech at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, an anarchist from Cleveland,Leon Czolgosz, shot McKinley in a receiving line. Notably, though, McKinley wasn’t the first Ohio president to suffer this fate. James Garfield, also shot at close range, subsequently went through an arduous, three-month ordeal before succumbing to a preventable infection.

McKinley’s stunning tomb is the largest for any American president, and sits atop a steep hill overlooking the Canton skyline. Next door is his kitschy and charmingly outdated museum. Among the usual artifacts that signaled his presidency at the turn of the new century areanimatronic versions of McKinley and his wife. If you’re more interested in the occasional absurdity of these places, they’re worth the small price of admission.

In good conscience it’s still difficult to safely recommend visiting any of these indoor attractions. As always, call and confirm that these sites are open. Many of these are outdoors and free — so proceed at your own risk. President’s Day will be here before you know it.

The Hayes Library in Fremont, Ohio