Well, I finally (and happily) got to visit another presidential home and museum! I was back home for a visit in early May, and if I could, I would have driven down to Cincinnati to visit Taft’s house, but because I never learned how to drive (I really should work on that one of these days), I am dependent on the goodwill of others in places with no public transport. And since Marcus wasn’t accompanying me on this trip, this basically meant going wherever my mother was willing to take me. In fairness to her, she is of course always happy to go places with me, but three and a half hours each way is a lot to ask of someone who isn’t particularly interested in presidential history. So instead, I opted for Rutherford B Hayes’s former home and museum, located about an hour and a half away from NE Ohio, in Fremont, near Sandusky (still a bit of a trek, but doable as a daytrip).
Now, although Hayes appears in the list of “mediocre presidents” in the Simpsons’ song of the same name, he has something going for him that most other presidents don’t: he was smoking hot as a young man. I’ve made no secret of my fondness for a young Rutherford (even the bearded version had a certain twinkle in his eye, as seen above), so even though he doesn’t loom as large in the mind as poor Taft (who by all accounts, actually had quite an unassuming (cough, dull) personality, and would be terribly embarrassed by my rude attempt at a pun), I was not at all upset about visiting Rutherford’s house instead, especially because they had plenty of evidence of his pre-beardy hotness on display. The site is split between Spiegel Grove, his former home; and his presidential library and museum (which share a building). It costs $13 to visit both, which is what we did, but you have to buy tickets inside the museum so they can set you up with a tour time for the house, which is viewable only by guided tour.
Since we got there right before a tour started (they are every half an hour), we started with his home, which is lovely, though sadly does not allow photography inside. The person at the admissions desk said the tour would take around an hour, though it ended up being more like an hour and a half, which was fine, because our guide was pretty knowledgeable and had a good sense of humour. It was actually just me, my mom, and an older man on our tour (we got talking to him after the tour, and he was very nice, but he was one of those people who was like, “Oh, I wish I had done a history degree,” and then goes on to name whatever super successful career they had instead that they never would have gotten with a history degree. Not that I’m bitter), which was also fine, since I don’t like a crowd – also it meant that no one was asking stupid questions. You are only allowed inside the first two floors of the home (which has four floors, though I know it only looks like three in that picture), but the top floor is literally just full of windows, which the Hayes’s specifically had built to let in light and air. I won’t bore you with a complete rundown of everything inside, but they were able to restore it to its 1880s (after Hayes’s presidency) appearance because the Hayes family allowed someone (I think a relative) to photograph all the interiors in 1885. The bathroom was probably my favourite room, because it not only had plumbing of sorts (they collected rainwater in a tank on the roof, which would run through the pipes), but Rutherford turned it into a hiding place as well. It had all the normal bathroom accoutrements, but also bookshelves and a comfy chair, and apparently when they had guests he didn’t like, he would just hang out in there for hours reading (presumably sitting on the chair rather than the toilet), which I can definitely get behind (ha). There was also a saw on the wall, which they specifically placed there because it had appeared in one of the 1880s photos. I don’t know if you all are familiar with the story of the poop knife from Reddit (and I don’t know if I want to lead you down that path if you’re not), but that’s immediately where my mind went when I saw it. Poop saw!
Rutherford (or Rud, as his family called him, and I will refer to him henceforth) inherited the house from his uncle, who actually built the house with the intention of living in it with Rud and his family (Rud’s father died when he was very young, so his uncle essentially adopted him). They named it Spiegel Grove after the German word for mirror because apparently when it rains, pools form on the lawn which look like mirrors (I would think a lawn that flooded that easily wouldn’t be ideal, but what do I know?). He and Lucy had eight children: seven boys and a girl, though three of the boys died in infancy. Their daughter was named after his beloved sister Fanny who died relatively young, and as the only girl, she was quite spoiled. In fact, the boys all had to sleep together in one room, but she got her own room with really nice matching furniture. The house had a gorgeous staircase running up the middle, installed at great expense, and an extremely hideous antler chair made by a mountain man Rud was friends with (mountain man also made one for Lincoln), who also appeared in statue form in the house. Lincoln and Washington were Rud’s favourite presidents, so he collected memorabilia relating to them, which was spread between the house and the museum. It was definitely one of the more enjoyable presidential home tours I’ve been on, and since both Rud and Lucy died in their bedroom, three or four years apart (she died first when she was only 57), that’s another famous person deathbed I can say I’ve seen.
Speaking of their deaths, they are buried around the back of the house in a fairly modest (by presidential standards) tomb, along with their son, Webb, who was responsible for establishing the site as a presidential library and was a Medal of Honor recipient (the Hayes children mostly had terrible names. There were also Birchard, Rutherford Jr (both family names, as was Webb, which was Lucy’s maiden name), and Manning Force. Only Joseph, George, and Scott got off easily name-wise, and Joseph and George both died in infancy (as did poor Manning Force)). Family pets are buried around the fence enclosing the tomb, and there are also some very friendly squirrels hanging around (apparently too friendly, as we were told they rush at you if you have food).
We then headed back to the museum, because it was already getting fairly late in the day, and it looked like a biggish museum, so I wanted to make sure I had time to see it all! It looks to have been renovated not very long ago, as the layout was very eye-catching and modern, and there were even a few little interactive bits and bobs thrown in. It opened with a short video and small display on the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, which was a World’s Fair, and looked awesome, like all old fairs. 1876 was the year of Hayes’s election, which was an election of great controversy. His opponent, Samuel Tilden, a Democrat, won the popular vote, but neither man took the electoral college, and after a lengthy negotiation, the Democrats agreed to accept Hayes (a Republican) if he agreed to withdraw troops from the South, thus ending Reconstruction (which meant that African-Americans were left unprotected by the federal government from Southerners’ wrath, which was the opposite of what Rud had supported when he was Congressman).
The museum gave a very comprehensive rundown (almost too comprehensive, since I didn’t really have time to read everything) of the major events of Hayes’s presidency, and though he is one of the least well-known presidents, his term was still full of things that we would see as controversial, particularly some of the “Indian” policies that were enacted under his administration, like the beginning of off-reservation schools for Native American children where they were forced to cut their hair, accept Christianity, and were forbidden from speaking their tribal languages, which obviously had a terrible effect on traditional tribal culture (which was basically the whole point).
I have to say that although his administration was responsible for some terrible things, Hayes himself seemed like a decent enough guy, at least by the standards of the time (and I’m not just saying that because he was handsome). He clearly deeply loved Lucy and his children, and had a sense of humour that comes across in his diaries and letters. And despite Lucy’s somewhat stick-in-the-mud reputation, she actually seemed like a pretty cool lady. She was college-educated (the first First Lady to be a college graduate), followed Rud to camp (with their children, which led to Joseph dying of dysentery, but she still persevered for the greater good) whilst he was serving in the Civil War to nurse soldiers, was an abolitionist and supporter of civil rights, and had an awesome set of china commissioned for the White House (see above) depicting native flora and fauna (and I just found out her birthday is the day after mine). And honestly, I’m not a big drinker myself, so I can get behind the temperance thing (and apparently, it was actually Rutherford who banned alcohol from the White House, not her! Lucy didn’t drink herself, but was OK with others doing it in moderation). Not the Christian aspects of it, but I do think it would be nice to be able to socialise with people in ways that don’t involve drinking (especially in the UK, where it seems to be the only way people want to socialise!).
The upstairs part of the museum was more about Rud’s presidency, but the basement held loads of their personal possessions, including Rud’s collection of weapons and artillery (not what I would have chosen, but I would absolutely have his collection of presidential memorabilia), and some delightful tableaux depicting their service during the Civil War (Rud was seriously wounded in the arm and only survived because Lucy’s brother, who was an Army doctor, found out about it and personally took care of him – otherwise they probably would have amputated his arm and gangrene or disease would have gotten him). Before the war Rud was a lawyer, but he never ended up returning to his practice because despite his refusal to campaign until the war ended, he was elected to Congress in 1864, and later became Governor of Ohio (elected to three terms, but only served two and a bit before being elected president).
This floor also explained more about Rud and Lucy’s courtship – they met at a popular gathering spot (some kind of fishing hole?) at Ohio Wesleyan University (Lucy graduated from their female college, because women weren’t allowed to earn a degree from the main university, though they could attend classes), but Lucy was only 15 at the time, and Rud, to his credit, decided she was much too young for him (he was 23). But his mother thought she was a good match for him (Lucy had also lost her father at an early age (he died from cholera after travelling south to free some slaves he had inherited), and they both seemed to have fairly formidable mothers), so she encouraged him to contact her again after Lucy graduated from college, and they ended up falling in love and marrying two years later (when Lucy was 21). Above is Lucy’s wedding dress, and a delightful depiction of their first meeting (though they both look much older than they would have been!).
The museum contained two temporary exhibits, one on Bhutanese-Nepalese immigrants to the area, and the other on Jacob Riis’s photography. I didn’t get to spend much time looking around these because my mother had finished looking around and I didn’t want to keep her waiting too long, but they looked interesting, and I enjoyed reading a few tidbits on Bhutanese customs. At this point, we thought we had seen everything, and headed up to look around the shop (which disappointingly had no souvenirs with young Rud on them), when I spotted a postcard with a dollhouse on it, and was like, “wait, I never saw a dollhouse!” The woman working there explained where it was, and it turned out we had missed a whole section of the museum (the entire original museum building, as it happened)! So we rushed back to see it.
And I’m so glad we did, because in addition to not one, but two dollhouses (only one of them actually owned by Fanny Hayes though), and a cracking bust, this was also where most of Rud’s collection of presidential memorabilia was kept.
This was pretty great. The highlight was definitely Lincoln’s goat (antelope?) slippers, which he wore the day he died (not actually to Ford’s Theatre, though I kind of wish he had. Poor man should have at least been comfortable before his assassination), the gloves he was wearing when he was assassinated, and a cast of his hand. There was also one of George Washington’s canes, a ring containing some of his hair that he originally gave to “Mrs. Alexander Hamilton” (Eh-liii-zaa…and Peggy. No wait, just Eliza), and some bricks taken from Mount Vernon (none of his dentures, but not to worry – I just saw a pair elsewhere, which you’ll get to see in a few weeks too!).
I was also pretty excited to see a copy of the famous Resolute desk, which was first given to Hayes by Queen Victoria, and used by many subsequent presidents. You could even sit behind it and pretend to be president (I should probably never be president, because I have dictatorial tendencies, but I guess I couldn’t be any worse than Trump). After this last little bit of excitement, we’d finally seen everything (except the library, which I had no real reason to visit, unless they had more pictures of young Rud in there), so we headed off (and were subsequently disappointed that the Mexican bakery in Fremont we had planned on visiting afterwards had apparently gone out of business), but I was so glad we’d ended up visiting, because this site was excellent. The museum, the house – everything was great, and I liked that they didn’t shy away from the more controversial parts of Hayes’s presidency (which is admittedly easier to do with someone who has been dead for more than a century than more recent presidents, but still). Highly recommended, and there are other museums in nearby Sandusky and Tiffin that look interesting (I was hoping to visit the Civil War Museum of Ohio in Tiffin, but we didn’t have time), but plan on spending at least three hours around the Hayes site, because there’s so much to see! 4.5/5 – a really nice day out, capped off by a stop at Krieg’s Frozen Custard in Amherst on our way home (which weirdly, Yelp says is closed, and it claimed the Mexican bakery was open, so the moral of the story is, don’t trust Yelp, but do eat frozen custard)!