Mentor, OH: Lawnfield (Home of James A Garfield)

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I promised you more about James Garfield in my Teddy Roosevelt post, and here ’tis!  I grew up probably equidistant between the McKinley Memorial and Garfield’s estate, and yet hadn’t managed to visit either until after I moved to London and was back home visiting (isn’t that always the way?).  So this was my first visit to Lawnfield, although I’ve been to the Garfield Monument inside Lake View Cemetery many times.  The main thing putting me off visiting Lawnfield in the past was the fact that it was run by the Western Reserve Historical Society, since I’ve never been overly impressed by them (long story, involving an ill-fated internship and the general decline of their museum over the years). However, a while back, Lawnfield was taken over by the National Park Service; as my experiences with the NPS have generally been quite positive, I was finally willing to check it out.

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Lawnfield is currently closed for the winter season, but will reopen in the spring of 2015, at which time my pricing information and tour times may no longer be accurate. When I visited, it was only $5 for the museum and a tour of the house, and tours seemed to run at least once an hour, or whenever they got enough people together for one.  The next tour wasn’t due to start for 20 minutes, so the ranger put on a video about Garfield’s life for us to watch in the meantime, which talked a lot about his faith, his education, his role in the Civil War, and his relationship with his wife, Lucretia (basically, he held off marrying her for ages because he didn’t want to commit, although I think he should have been glad to snag her as she was well-educated and quite pretty, and he was average looking at best and seemed like kind of a drip).  He lived a fairly average, albeit blameless life, and was picked for the presidency primarily because of his bland inoffensiveness – when no one could agree upon a Republican candidate, he was turned to as the least objectionable option.  After finishing the video, we headed off on our ranger-led tour along with another couple who had just arrived.

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The Garfields bought the property in 1876, and James was assassinated in 1881, so he didn’t spend a whole lot of time here, but they still managed to enlarge the house from a 9 room farm house into a 20+ room veritable mansion within his lifetime.  The family lived in Hiram before this, but Lake County was gerrymandered in the 1870s, so by moving to Mentor, Garfield was able to place himself back into a Republican stronghold.  It was here that he led the first “front porch” campaign (later emulated by McKinley), where he would give speeches on his front porch to reporters and members of the public who camped out on the lawn.  The interior of Lawnfield was fairly unassuming, which reflected Garfield’s modest background, but everything was furnished prettily and it came across as a place where people actually lived, rather than some kind of imposing, Rockefeller-esque monstrosity.

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The ranger had plenty of amusing anecdotes for us.  For example, although Garfield wasn’t an only child, he was obviously his mother’s favourite, as she chose to live with him, and her entire room was decorated with pictures of him.  Seriously, every available surface was plastered with his portrait, and I didn’t see any pictures of any of her other children anywhere. This kind of made me feel bad not only for his siblings, but for Lucretia, as I could picture an awkward relationship similar to that between Sara and Eleanor Roosevelt going on.

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I’d take a closer look at those fireplace tiles in the picture on the right if I were you, because they were painted by Lucretia and the Garfield children, and are really rather handsome (although the picture quality isn’t really good enough to pick out the detail, sorry about that).  Although their house was already large and nice, after Garfield’s death Lucretia expanded it even further, primarily for the purpose of creating a library in his memory (which is said to be the first presidential library, but lots of other presidential libraries make similar claims, and Garfield’s isn’t officially recognised as such or anything).

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The library initially housed all his books and papers, but his papers have since been moved to the safety of the Library of Congress.  However, Lucretia did her best to protect them whilst they were in the house, creating a special vault to put them in, which had a thick, fireproof door.  Today, the vault holds a wreath sent to Garfield’s funeral by Queen Victoria, which was dipped in wax to preserve it.

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His Congressional desk is also in this room (Garfield was in the House of Representatives prior to becoming president), and is dismayingly tiny, as Garfield was at least 6 feet tall (and rather portly too).  One wonders how he squeezed himself under it, much less used it to show off his famous displays of ambidextrousness, where he would write in ancient Greek with one hand whilst simultaneously writing in Latin with the other.

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Much of the rest of the tour was devoted to the children’s bedrooms, which were upstairs (the Garfields had a bedroom upstairs for winter, and downstairs for summer, when it would be the coolest place in the house, though nowadays the house is air conditioned – a relief as it was 90+ degrees on the day of our tour!).  There was only one girl in the family, and she got the largest bedroom by far; really, it was almost her own personal suite.

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The room I found most interesting, however, was Garfield’s study.  Take particular note of the chair (because I want one for myself!); it was specially designed for reading, so you would put your back against the flat side, and hang your legs over the low arm opposite.  Pretty nifty.  There was also a picture featuring the official portraits of all the presidents up to and including Garfield (he was the 20th), that had hung in the White House at one point.

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There was a small museum inside the house that the ranger left us to look over for as long as we wanted.  It contained short biographies of all the Garfield children, as well as of their uncle, who was caretaker of the house for a number of years.  It also told more about the history of the house, and contained some personal objects belonging to the family.

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Upon leaving the house, we came directly to a small outbuilding next door that served as Garfield’s campaign headquarters during the presidential election.  He even had his own personal telegraph machine so he could receive important messages, like the election results!  There’s also a windmill on the property, although there’s nothing inside anymore.  Even though the estate is very near a busy road (which was a major road even in Garfield’s day), the many trees around the property help to give it an air of seclusion (though it’s obviously nowhere near as gorgeous and private as FDR’s Hyde Park estate).

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There was an additional small museum inside the visitor’s centre, which was our next stop.  This one had wax figures of (“come on in, come to the place where fun never ends, come on in, it’s time to party with…”) Garfield and friends with a selection of audio recordings by actors to accompany the scenes they were portraying. And there were lots of Garfield’s personal effects, plenty of hats and clothes and things.

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The final room contained an array of objects mourning Garfield’s death (he was shot by the madman Charles Guiteau for what was essentially an imagined slight, and lingered on for two months, being “fed” by enemas for a large part of that time.  It was the misguided care of his doctors (dehydration from the enemas, plus the main problem of infection where they had decided to probe his wound with dirty fingers) that was probably more responsible for his death than the actual bullet.  If they had left well enough alone, he might have survived.  Recommended reading: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (yes, another excellent Millard book, I really wish she’d write some more!)).  Sad though it was, his death helped to unite the nation, precisely because it was so lingering and unfortunate.  The items on display included a letter of condolence from Queen Victoria to Lucretia, which I have to believe was heartfelt, as Victoria was certainly familiar with the pain of losing a beloved husband unexpectedly.

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I also think the gift shop was very good, probably better than the disappointing one in Hyde Park.  They had an array of books pertaining to Garfield and other presidents, postcards, magnets, and an Ohio Presidents mug, which I naturally purchased for myself (Ohio lays claim to 8 presidents, and while I would dispute some of them, like William Henry Harrison, who was a wealthy planter from Virginia who laid claim to Ohio primarily for the purposes of his “Log Cabins and Hard Cider” campaign, I still enjoy the hell out of my mug).  I was glad to finally see another piece of Ohio history, and was very happy with my experience here.  3.5/5.

I also have a couple of recommendations for you.  First, if you do go out to Mentor to visit Lawnfield, definitely stop at the East Coast Custard out here.  They have my favourite frozen custard in the world (it’s the proper kind that is creamy yet scoopable, rather than soft serve masquerading as custard), and it’s literally down the street from Lawnfield, on your way back to the highway.  Second, I also very highly recommend visiting Lake View Cemetery, where Garfield is buried (I’m including a couple pictures of his tomb so you can see how awesome it is).  It is a fascinating  and beautiful cemetery with famous people other than Garfield buried in it (like John D Rockefeller and Eliot Ness), and it has many creepy mausoleums and the spectacularly spooky Haserot Angel.  It is also right next to Cleveland’s Little Italy (because, Italian food) and is actually not that far from another East Coast Custard (just saying), and University Circle, where many museums are located.  It’s another way to appreciate this little-remembered president, especially while his house is closed for renovation.

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5 comments

  1. I love a good frozen custard (although I’ve only ever been to Scooter’s in Chicago). Ice cream or custard is such a good way to top off a museum visit: “you did something educational, now have an ice cream!”

    1. Hi Cynthia, thanks for commenting! It’s the black armchair looking thing in the centre of the picture on the left, right above the paragraph where I discuss it. It’s a little difficult to see in the picture how one side is flattened, but it made sense in person!

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