Filed Under Museums

James A. Garfield National Historic Site

"Do you think my name will have a place in human history?" — James A. Garfield, 1881

In 1876, James A. Garfield was looking for a new home in his congressional district for himself and his family. He reflected in his diary, “Spent most of the day in examining some farms which are for sale. Made the Widow Dickey an offer of $115 per acre for her farm… and think it will result in a purchase. I must get a place where I can put my boys to work and teach them farming. I think this farm will always be worth the price I offer, and probably more by and by.” Mrs. Dickey sold her property to Garfield in 1876; a purchase Garfield never imagined would impact his family for decades.

In 1880, Garfield expanded the nine-room farm house to a twenty-room home. At this point in his career, he had been selected as the Republican candidate for the 1880 presidential election. As people learned of Garfield’s nomination, they started to come and visit. Initially, Garfield had been told by his political friends that it was not the responsibility of candidates to run their own campaign. Rather it was the political party’s job to run the campaign for him. Garfield ultimately decided to address the people coming to his home, and gave speeches on his front porch. As a result, Garfield is considered the first presidential candidate to run a front-porch campaign.

Garfield was inaugurated as president on March 4, 1881, and served until his death on September 19, 1881. Garfield was shot by an assassin Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881, and lived for another eighty days. During that time, a subscription fund was created to help support his wife and the children. On October 15, 1881, when the fund closed, Lucretia Garfield was given a total sum of $360,000. She placed a majority of this money into savings bonds, leaving her with more than enough money to live on and to support her family. Garfield was eventually laid to rest at the Garfield Memorial, located in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland. 

The former First Lady moved the family back to the Mentor home. She had become very concerned about Garfield’s legacy, and feared that people would not remember him. A new addition to the house would encompass a grand memorial library to store all of Garfield’s books, as well as his personal papers. Besides the memorial library, the addition would provide kitchen space, servants' bedroom space, and a full third story. Changes were made to both the interior and the exterior of the house, and additional buildings were also added to the property to create a "country" estate aesthetic. As the Garfield children settled down with their own homes and families, their mother became worried about what was to become of her home. Her son Harry later reflected, “As mother remarked to us at one time, she would not have us make a white elephant of a home that had yielded so much to us…”

Lucretia Garfield died in 1918. What to do with the home became a great debate among the Garfield children. Although the siblings wanted to keep peace among themselves, they managed to find flaws in each other’s suggestions. When their Uncle Joe, who had been living in the home, died in 1934, the children were forced to deal with the situation head-on. The children ultimately decided that the best thing for the home and its contents, was to donate them as a museum for the enjoyment and education of future generations.

The Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) accepted the donation of the home, in 1936. The home opened to the public in August of the same year. In 1938 the WRHS decided to form a new chapter of their group. The primary responsibility of the chapter would be for the “preservation of historical documents pertaining to the county and article of historic interest with the idea of housing them in one central place, the President Garfield Memorial Home…” as well as the, “…stimulation of greater interest in the national shrine.” By 1955 the Lake County chapter of WRHS was incorporated and its name changed to the Lake County Historical Society (LCHS). The main interpretation done at the home for the next several decades consisted of house tours and pamphlet interpretation for visitors, with a museum on the third floor of the home. LCHS also used the Garfield home as a headquarters building and as a space to interpret general county history. The organization hosted larger events such as Civil War battle reenactments, patriotic remembrances for President Day, and even large holiday celebrations with Victorian decor.

Congress authorized the establishment of James A. Garfield National Historic Site (JAGNHS) as a unit of the National Park Service on December 28, 1980. The act permitted the site to enter into an agreement with the WRHS to maintain, operate, and interpret the historic property. The National Park Service completed ten years worth of historical research and documentation of the site. In 1984 LCHS moved to a new location. This meant that the Garfield home and artifacts were intact and in the home, but still in the care of WRHS. In the 1990s, Congress allocated $12.5 million for the restoration of the home and property. This provided funding not only for the restoration on the interior and exterior of the home, but also for the adaptive reuse of many of the historic structures on the property.

The restoration of the Garfield home was completed in 1998, and the site re-opened to the public. The site continued to be co-managed by the NPS and WRHS for the next ten years. It was not until 2008, due to heavy financial constraints, that WRHS decided to relinquish their operation rights to the NPS. After this occurred the site finally became a true National Park. The NPS has designated the period of significance for the Garfield home to start with James A. Garfield’s campaign in 1880, continuing past his death and through most of his family’s life in the home, up to 1904. This allows the Park to tell not only Garfield’s story and his significance to history, but also that of his wife and children, and what they did to honor his legacy.

Images

James A. Garfield National Historic Site
James A. Garfield National Historic Site The home of the 20th President in Mentor, Ohio, still stands today as the James A. Garfield National Historic Site and is run by the National Park Service. The site, however, serves as more than just a telling of Garfield’s life. The house at the site stands as a symbol for the history of Ohio before Garfield, the importance of his wife and children continuing his legacy, and even as a case study for historic preservation and the role that museums play in our history. Understanding the house as it physically came to be, and how its story was told,  is just as important to understanding Garfield’s place in history. Source: National Park Service
The Dickey Farm
The Dickey Farm Warren Corning and his family became residents of Mentor Township in 1810. The core of the property at the time, which is bisected by historic route 20, modern day Mentor Avenue, was owned by the Corning family starting in 1811. When James Dickey married Harriet Corning, one of the Corning family daughters, on June 5, 1835, the land was given as a wedding present. James Dickey continued to buy surrounding property and by 1848 owned a total of 117.46 acres. The Dickey family also expanded their home from the two-room log cabin, which is presumed to have been built by the Corning’s between 1831 and 1832, to a nine-room farm home in 1847. James Dickey passed away in 1855 and his wife Harriet Dickey continued to operate the farm until 1876. Shown in the image above is that same nine-room farm home as well as the barns present on the property. Source: National Park Service Date: ca. summer 1877-summer 1879
Front Porch Campaign
Front Porch Campaign The nine-room home was a tight fit for the Garfield family. The family at that point consisted of James A. Garfield, his wife Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, their five children, Harry, James, Mary (Mollie), Irving and Abram, Garfield’s mother Eliza Ballou Garfield, and Lucretia’s father Zeb Rudolph. By 1880, Garfield had expanded the nine room farm home to a twenty-room home. Not long before the construction was completed on the home, the Garfield family made it back to Mentor on May 11, 1880. Garfield’s friend in Congress, Burke Hinsdale, reflects on this time in the Mentor home, “These were the grand years in Garfield’s life… They were years of reading, study, think and communion with friends and family. He was happy in his family, his friends and in his work.” Source: National Park Service Date: ca. Fall 1880
The House in the News
The House in the News As people learned of Garfield’s nomination, and of his newly constructed home, visitors started to go to the home. These visitors came by foot, came by carriage, and the train tracks that ran through Garfield’s land also aided in people’s ability to come to the site. The numbers started to increase as people learned that Garfield was addressing the public on his porch. There were instances where the people that came, did not want to travel back home by foot or they would miss their train back home. So many times people would camp out on Garfield’s lawn, take food from his orchards, and leave the next day. These events are what ultimately led the news reporters to refer to the house as Lawnfield. Many of the reporters were welcomed into the Garfield foyer for additional questioning and photographs of the home. In many instances however, the reporters may have had the opportunity to speak with Grandma Garfield and his daughter Mollie as seen in the image above.  Source: National Park Service Creator: Frank Leslie's Illustrated News Paper Date: 1880
Winter Evening at Lawnfield
Winter Evening at Lawnfield As the campaign continued the family ultimately decided to stay in Mentor as opposed to returning to Washington. Garfield continued to run his front-porch campaign well into the fall season of that year. Garfield ended up being in the campaign office on November 2, 1880, when he found out that he had won the vote for New York, ultimately giving him a total number of votes to win the election. The Garfield family then stayed in the home throughout the winter of that year, spending what ended up being the only Christmas together as a whole family in the Mentor home. Garfield reflects in his diary about this time in the home and what the future may hold, “I close the year with a sad conviction that I am bidding good-by to the freedom of private life, and to a long series of happy years, which I fear terminate with 1880.” Source: National Park Service Date: 1881
The Garfield Fund
The Garfield Fund During the time from after Garfield had been shot and his death, a subscription fund was created to help support what ultimately would be Lucretia and the children. The fund was created by Cyrus Fields, the founder of the Trans-Sub Atlantic Telegraph [and eventual Telephone] Line. Mr. Fields paid the money to have news reports posted in papers all across the country, encouraging people to donate to the fund what they could to help support the president’s young wife and children. Lucretia was forty-nine when Garfield died and the kids were all between eight and eighteen years old. The fund continued past the time of Garfield‘s death as well as past the time of the funeral and ultimately ended on October 15, 1881. News reporters constantly kept up to date on the donations to the Garfield Fund. This clipping from the New York Times shows the reporting on the total success of the Fund. Source: New York Times Date: October 18, 1881
Memorial Library Expansion
Memorial Library Expansion A majority of the construction for the new section of the home was done between 1885 and 1886, as pictured above.Lucretia continued to make changes to both the interior as well as the exterior of the house. Some of these changes included various versions of the front and east porches of the property, taking out original windows and adding bay windows, as well as adding stained glass in the home. She also added some ornamentation to the home with elements primarily in the Queen Anne style, to take it away from the original vernacular style farmhouse. Lucretia also changed the exterior by painting the home. During Garfield’s time, the house had always been white with black shutters and a black slate roof. Lucretia painted the house a grey color with grey-blue and red accents and a red wood shingle roof. These colors fell in line with a much more high Victorian color scheme. With this additional work done to the home, Lucretia also added additional buildings to the property. Source: National Park Service Date: 1886
J. Wilkinson Elliott Landscape Plan
J. Wilkinson Elliott Landscape Plan Part of Lucretia’s efforts to create more of an estate aesthetic to her property included a comprehensive landscape plan of the property. The plan that was created for the property by J Wilkinson Elliott, never actually came to full fruition. What did come about however, was Lucretia’s desire to connect all of her family’s properties together. Directly to the east was Harry Garfield’s home which the family referred to as Eastlawn. To the west of Lucretia’s home was the second oldest son, James R Garfield’s home, which was referred to as Hollycroft. The landscape plan provided the opportunity for all of the properties to be interconnected with garden paths. There was also a minimum number of entrances from the street to the properties. From Mentor Avenue, there are two entrances marked by large stone pillars. These pillars are at the far west and far-east of what would have encompassed all of the Garfield properties and were set far enough apart to allow carriages through them. There are also smaller, narrower set pillars that would have marked walking paths from the street onto the property. Source: National Park Service Date: June 1900
Lucretia Garfield and her Family
Lucretia Garfield and her Family Once Lucretia passed away in 1918, what to do with the home became a great debate amongst the Garfield children. Mollie Garfield reflects on the quarreling, “…it has turned out just as mother feared- the farm would become a white elephant or rather a creature that devours incessantly.” When Uncle Joe, Lucretia’s brother, passed away in 1935, the children were forced to deal with the situation head-on. The decision the children ultimately reached was that the best thing for the home and its contents was for it to be donated and run as a museum for the enjoyment of future generations. James R. Garfield served on the Board of Trustees for the Western Reserve and thought the group might be a good fit. The rest of the Garfield children were relieved and Mollie even reassured her brother that “… little mother would have approved.”  Source: The Garfield Collection, Cleveland Memory Project Date: 1917
The Western Reserve and Lake County Years
The Western Reserve and Lake County Years The WRHS quickly had to decide what they were going to do with the home and how the museum was going to be run. In the spring of 1936 the WRHS began preparations to the main house so that it could be open to the public for the summer. The WRHS during this time received an anonymous donation of $10,000 by a group of “Cleveland gentleman” to help alleviate the costs of the repairs that were necessary to prepare the home for visitation. The home opened to the public in late August. Over the course of the month of September, there were 2,500 visitors that came through the Garfield house museum. Source: The Garfield Collection, Cleveland Memory Project Date: 1936
Lawnfield Publicity
Lawnfield Publicity The interpretation of the Garfield home as done by the LCHS from 1938 to 1984 was done in contract with WRHS. The main interpretation done at the home did consist of house tours and pamphlet interpretation for visitors, and with a house museum made available to visitors as well on the third floor of the home. The main story being told at the site during this time was the life of James A. Garfield, hence the emphasis to the Lawnfield title for the site, and more broadly the time periods which he lived. LCHS also used the Garfield home as a headquarters building and as a space to interpret general county history. Source: The Garfield Collection, Cleveland Memory Project Date: 1891
Governmental Interest
Governmental Interest The site of the Garfield home was evaluated in a major governmental projects, including the national Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings. The survey documented a brief history of Garfield career, his relationship with the farm, and a physical analysis of the site. Another federal recognition the site received was its designation on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The nomination was completed by Frederick Crawford on behalf of the Western Reserve Historical Society. The site was also documented as a part of the Historic American Building Survey. The survey of Lawnfield, however, was done after the early run of the HABS program in 1931, and was not actually completed until 1985. This documentation included architectural renderings of the entirety of the home, many of the other structures on the property, and photographs, as seen above. With the site now having national recognition, it was brought before Congress to be inducted as a National Park. Source: Library of Congress Creator: Historic American Buildings Survey Date: 1985
Restoration of the Garfield Home
Restoration of the Garfield Home Congress allocated $12.5 million for the restoration of the home. At this point there were a series of researched options that the NPS could take to address all the restorations and other site concerns. The plan that was ultimately decided however was a compromise of all of the created plans but stuck to the original $12.5 million budget. This allowed for not only the restoration on the interior and exterior of the home to be addressed, as seen above, but also provide funding for the ground and adaptive reuse of many of the historic structures on the property to fit NPS needs. For example, the carriage house is now the Visitor Center for the site. The Tenant house is now the headquarters building for the NPS administrative staff, and the barn buildings have ben repurposed for both maintenance needs as well as additional classroom spaces for programming. Source: National Park Service Date: 1996
The Reopening of the Garfield Home
The Reopening of the Garfield Home The restoration of the Garfield home was complete in 1998, and the site re-opened to the public on June 19, 1998. The night before there was a Garfield Family Reunion, where over 100 members of the family spanning multiple generations came to celebrate the reopening of their ancestor’s beloved home. The main day consisted of a large ceremony with live music and people all over the site. There was an open house for visitors to finally see the finished interior, and when they were done people were able to enjoy the other historically restored buildings on the site. The line to get into the home wrapped around the whole east side of the house, and people were parking at the mall and walk down to the site. There were even people from the Post Office doing same day cancellations commemorate the event. Although the restoration had faced both good and bad press during the work itself, the reopening of the home was ultimately met with a positive response from the Mentor community and beyond. Source: National Park Service Date: 1998
The National Park Service Mission
The National Park Service Mission As the National Historic Site has developed over the past ten years, the NPS staff is striving to make sure the interpretation of the Garfield home is appropriate and accurate, but also engaging and thought provoking to the visitors of the site. The NPS has designated the period of significance for the Garfield home to start with James A. Garfield Campaign in 1881 and continuing past his death and through a majority of his family’s life in the home, up to 1904. This allows the Park Rangers to tell not only Garfield’s story and his significance to history, but also about his wife and the children and what they have done for his legacy. Part of this legacy includes the grand memorial library that Lucretia created. The historically recreated library, as pictured above, is today considered the first Presidential Memorial Library. Date: National Park Service

Location

8095 Mentor Ave, Mentor, OH 44060

Metadata

Rebekah Knaggs , “James A. Garfield National Historic Site,” Cleveland Historical, accessed April 24, 2024, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/856.