Ohio's presidential circuit

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / February 8, 2004

In the annals of presidential history, most of these men have been forgotten. There are no Jeffersons, Lincolns, or Roosevelts among them. Perhaps someday David McCullough will focus his critical eye on one of them and bestow him with greater esteem, but for now they are just seven men who served in the highest office in the land. One had the dubious task of signing income tax into law. Another installed the first telephone in the White House. Five fought in the Civil War, including the most famous soldier of his time. Three died in office. What they have in common is that they were born in Ohio. Indeed, outside of Virginia, no other state has had such a rich presidential heritage.

From 1868 to 1920, seven of the 10 presidents elected were from Ohio. On a driving tour of the state, from Cincinnati to Cleveland, a slew of homes and monuments may be visited to gain a better sense of the characters of these men, the accomplishments they achieved during office, and the scandals that marred their presidencies.

Ulysses S. GrantIn a year when a retired general hopes to run for the office, be forewarned that not all war heroes make good presidents. Ulysses S. Grant was by far the most recognizable American in the United States when he was elected in 1868. He took office in a time of chaos, just three years after the end of the Civil War. In his first term, he kept inflation in check, improved foreign relations with Britain and Spain, and fought courageously to enforce the rights of blacks in the South. He was easily reelected in 1872 and that's when his administration began to unravel. Several of his Cabinet appointees were involved in bribery and fraud.

''Grant, an honest man, was not part of the scandals," notes our tour guide, Selma Brittingham. ''He was guilty, however, of trusting the wrong people."

Grant's Boyhood Home is in Georgetown, Ohio, an hour east of Cincinnati, in one of the few rural parts of the state. He would live in this two-story white brick building from 1824-39, when he enrolled at West Point at age 17. The wooden floors are still original, and the leather rocking chair in the parlor was created by his father, a tanner. This work so disgusted young Ulysses that he begged his father to let him do other chores like chop wood or make the long horseback ride into Cincinnati for provisions.

''By the age of 12, there wasn't a horse he couldn't break," Brittingham says.

When a local boy flunked out of West Point, Grant's father made a bold plea to have his son enrolled. He would flourish as an equestrian in college, but being tone deaf didn't help his studies. One of his favorite lines was that he knew two songs: ''One is 'Yankee Doodle,' and the other isn't."

Grant would become the Union's greatest hero in the Civil War and would remain beloved by the public long after his presidency was over. Much has been written about his gregarious nature and his love of cigars and drink. When his friend Mark Twain implored him to write his memoirs, he responded, ''Who'd want to read them?" The first royalty check received by his wife answered that question. The sum was a then-astronomical $250,000. But Grant had died shortly before the book went to press.

Rutherford B. HayesGeorge W. Bush wasn't the first man elected president without winning the popular vote. New York Governor Samuel Tilden had 200,000 votes more than Rutherford B. Hayes in the 1876 election, but Hayes was declared the winner by a special Electoral Commission appointed by Congress. The defeated Democrats began calling him ''Rutherfraud."

Yet, it was hard to knock Hayes's credentials for the job. He graduated first in his class at Kenyon College, earned a law degree at Harvard, and in the Civil War, where he was wounded five times, rose to the rank of brigadier general. He was governor of Ohio for three terms before being chosen as the Republican candidate for the presidency, in which he vowed to serve only one term. In office through 1880, Hayes stood up to big business, like the large railroad companies, established himself as an environmentalist, and had the first telephone installed in the White House. He made the initial call to inventor Alexander Graham Bell.

''Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Hayes presidency is that he came in under difficult circumstances, after the turmoil surrounding Grant, and restored honor to the job," says Tom Culbertson, director of education at the Hayes Presidential Center.

Hayes's house in Fremont, an hour east of Toledo, is by far the most opulent of any of the presidential homes in the state. He retired to this estate after the presidency, remaining active in his causes, including the education of blacks and Native Americans. One enters the homestead through stone gates that were once the property of the White House, and parks next to the first presidential library ever built, in 1917. The three-story mansion has 31 rooms and almost all of the furniture is original. That includes the 12,000-plus books tucked away in the library and the Albert Bierstadt painting in the front parlor, given by the artist to his close friend.

James A. GarfieldHayes was a close friend of James A. Garfield, the Ohio statesman who succeeded him in office. Garfield was elected in 1880, vowing to continue the reforms of Hayes, but on July 2, 1881, a disturbed man who had sought employment in the White House but been denied by Garfield, shot the president at a Washington train station. Garfield was headed to meet his wife and five children for a vacation on the New Jersey shore. It was there that he died on Sept. 19.

A professor of classical languages and president of Hiram College, Garfield had grown up in an impoverished family, the fifth and youngest child of a widow. He worked his way through college, graduating from Williams, on his way to becoming an impassioned orator who spoke out against slavery long before the Civil War (in which he fought). As a nine-term congressman in the House of Representatives during the Reconstruction period, he would continue to push for the rights of blacks.

Garfield's speaking skills served him well during his presidential campaign; he became the first candidate to talk from his front porch. Thousands of people came to his estate northeast of Cleveland, in Mentor, to hear him and to pick apples off his trees for a snack. The historic site includes a carriage house and campaign office.

Garfield's mother was the first president's mother to live in the White House. Her room on the first floor of the house in Mentor is a shrine to her son, with numerous portraits of him on the walls. In the dining room, the painted birds that line the tiles of the fireplace were painted by Garfield's wife, Lucretia. Upstairs, Lucretia built a concrete and steel vault to keep her husband's papers after his death, worried that a fire might lose them forever.

Benjamin HarrisonIt would be seven more years before another Ohioan ascended the ranks to the nation's highest office. Benjamin Harrison's birthplace and the home of his grandfather, President William Henry Harrison, is in the town of North Bend, just west of Cincinnati. William Henry Harrison made a very long inaugural address on a very cold day in 1841, developed pneumonia, and died just a month after taking office. His grandson, a Civil War veteran and US senator, was best known for his international agenda during his years of office, 1888-92, signing trade agreements with many nations. He was also active in naval expansion and the protection of forests. All North Bend has to memorialize these two men is a minor monument for the elder Harrison, so it's hardly worth a visit.

William McKinleyThe younger Harrison is recognized as one of the finest presidents from Ohio, but William McKinley receives the highest marks by most historians. Taking over the office in 1896, he led the United States into the age of imperialism, spending the majority of his time on international affairs. During his tenure, America fought the Spanish-American War, establishing the country as a naval power. Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii all were annexed under his administration.

McKinley was easily reelected in 1900, but on Sept. 6, 1901, fell to an anarchist assassin's bullet in Buffalo. A gynecologist, forced to perform surgery on the president, couldn't locate the bullet, and McKinley died on Sept. 14.

A colonnaded memorial, designed by architects McKim, Mead, and White, was created in 1917 in McKinley's hometown of Niles, near Youngstown, including the McKinley Museum and Library. The information and memorabilia found in the museum are not terribly interesting, and worse, McKinley's house and belongings no longer exist. A replica of his house was built by the city last May -- again, not worth a detour to Niles, a good 90-minute drive from Cleveland.

William Howard TaftCincinnati's favorite son was that bear of a man, William Howard Taft. Taft's boyhood home still stands on Prospect Hill, a well-to-do section of the city. His father was a successful judge, ambassador to Australia, and secretary of war under Grant. Those Ohio connections would serve young William well as he rose through the ranks of the Republican Party. President McKinley selected Taft in 1900 as the first commissioner of the newly annexed Philippines.

Yet, it was New Yorker Theodore Roosevelt who rallied for Taft's nomination in 1908 to succeed Roosevelt as president. Much to Taft's dismay, it was the same Roosevelt who was trying to sweep him out of office in 1912, running against Taft on the newly formed Bull Moose Party ticket. This resulted in a split of the Republican vote and Democrat Woodrow Wilson's election. While President Taft did manage to pass an amendment instituting income tax, and performed more whimsical duties like inaugurating the tradition of throwing out the first pitch of the baseball season, he stuck to the letter of the law and relished none of the omnipotence Roosevelt crusaded for as president. The rift with Roosevelt and the stress of his wife's recovering from a stroke took a toll on Taft, who ballooned to a portly 325 pounds in office. He was so big he needed a new tub in the White House. When he departed a defeated man, he said, ''I'm glad to be going. This is the lonesomest place in the world."

Taft's three-story yellow house is next to a large visitors center with park rangers milling about. All of the original furnishings in the 13-room house were sold in 1899. Nevertheless, the museum upstairs shows a slender young Yale law student, whose father and three brothers graduated from Yale, too. Taft taught at his alma mater before being the only person to serve as president and chief justice of the US Supreme Court. He preferred the latter, rallying support for a new court building and backing the Judiciary Act of 1925, which allowed the high court to choose cases based on merit.

Warren G. HardingThe Harding Home in Marion is another worthwhile stop. Three hours north of Cincinnati, the house stands on a tree-lined street in this small town. There's a museum out back that Warren Harding bought from a Sears catalog to house the press during his 1920 campaign, but his home and grounds could fit seamlessly into any middle-class neighborhood in America.

A journalist and publisher of a local newspaper, Harding revived the Ohio tradition of Garfield's front-porch campaign, speaking to some 600,000 people who came to hear his policies. His supporters included Al Jolson, who arrived in Marion with 90 fellow vaudeville performers. Harding's good looks and easygoing personality were attractive to both male and female voters, the latter voting in the presidential election for the first time, and Harding handily won in the largest landslide to that point.

His administration developed the first arms treaty, passed a bill creating a national budget, and oversaw medical assistance to veterans who returned from World War I without benefits. Returning from visiting the completion of the Alaskan railroad, Harding died of heart failure on Aug. 2, 1923, at the height of his popularity. A 50-foot-high Harding Memorial was erected a mile from his home, but by the time it was completed, no president wanted to come and dedicate it. Herbert Hoover finally arrived in 1931.

Harding didn't live to hear his administration blasted as the most corrupt ever. First was the infamous Teapot Dome scandal, in which Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall took more than a quarter-million dollars in bribes to lease federal oil fields to private companies. Then Veterans Bureau chief Charles Forbes went to prison for taking millions of dollars in kickbacks. Though Harding was not directly linked to these frauds, renowned writers of the time, including H.L. Mencken, vilified him. Adding fuel to the fire was that Harding was a well-known philanderer. Muckrakers were beginning to write that his wife had poisoned him. They should have followed the credo Harding once posted to his fellow journalists: ''Bring out the good in everybody, and never recklessly hurt the feeling of anybody."

What is remarkable about his four-bedroom, five-bath house is that it barely has been touched since Harding's wife willed it to the city in 1926 with almost all their original belongings. In the kitchen is the first thing the Hardings bought as a couple: an electric toaster. There's also a handcrafted ice cream maker and waffle iron. A bike Warren bought in 1889 leans against a hallway wall. Upstairs, the medicine cabinet holds the president's razor.

Privileged to enter such a private spot, one can't help but be a voyeur, one whose curiosity is sated not from the notebooks of historians, but from entering the actual houses and lives these prominent men lived.

Stephen Jermanok is a Newton-based writer.

Grant Boyhood Home

219 E. Grant Ave.

Georgetown, Ohio


Open Wednesday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Memorial Day-Labor Day. Other times by appointment. Admission $2 for adults, $.75 for children 12 and under.

William Howard TaftNational Historic Site

2038 Auburn Ave.



Open daily, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Free.

Harding Home

380 Mt. Vernon Ave.

Marion, Ohio

740-387-9630 or 800-600-6894

Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Wednesday-Sunday, May 25-Sept. 1. Other times by appointment. Admission $3, children 6-12, $2.00.

Rutherford B. Hayes

Presidential Center

Spiegel Grove

Fremont, Ohio


Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Sundays noon-5.

Admission $10.50, seniors $9.50, children 6-12 $4.

National McKinley

Birthplace Memorial

40 N. Main St.

Niles, Ohio


Open Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-8 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 9-5:30; Sundays 1-5. Free.

James A. Garfield

National Historic Site

8095 Mentor Ave.

Mentor, Ohio


Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday noon-5. Admission $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and $5 for children 6-12.

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