Preparing to leave for Williams College, the 49-year-old walked with his secretary in the Washington, D.C. train station. He was traveling to Massachusetts to introduce his two sons to his alma mater.
It was July 2, 1881.
As James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, strolled toward the train platform, he was shot in the back by an embittered attorney, Charles J. Guiteau. Garfield died less than two months later of blood poisoning and complications from the shooting.
Guiteau had killed Garfield because of the president’s refusal to appoint him to a European consulship. On the day Garfield died, Guiteau wrote to now President Chester A. Arthur, "My inspiration is a godsend to you and I presume that you appreciate it."
Guiteau’s madness left a nation in mourning, a widow with five children and a legacy without a chance to be known.
As school children, we memorize the U.S. Presidents and their contributions. But until I visited Garfield’s home and stood among his possessions, I never fully understood the complexities of this man and how his widow was able to carry on without him due to the generosity of a nation.
It’s unusually warm this autumn day as a group of eight walk toward Garfield’s last residence — Lawnfield — in Mentor, Ohio. Following a National Park Service Ranger’s instructions, we stand momentarily to the side of the building where we’re presented a short biographical glimpse of the man who held office for the second shortest time in the history of our nation (after William Henry Harrison).
Garfield, the last of the "log cabin" presidents and the first to have his mother see him inaugurated, was born in nearby Cuyahoga County in 1831. Fatherless at two, his dream was to be a sailor which resulted in him working on the canal boats that shuttled commerce between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The ranger said his mother somehow scrapped together enough money to enroll her son in college while other accounts say he earned the money working on the canal.
Either way, he ended up graduating in 1856 from Williams College. He then became a classics professor at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute — now known as Hiram College — in Hiram, Ohio. Within a year he was made its president.
Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859 as a Republican; served the union during the Civil War as a brigadier general and later as a major general of volunteers. When President Abraham Lincoln was re-elected in 1864, he persuaded Garfield to resign his commission, saying it was easier to find major generals than to obtain effective Republicans for Congress.
Garfield repeatedly won re-election for 18 years, and became the leading Republican in the House. He was elected President of the United States in 1880, taking office in 1881.
Touring the home
Up the porch steps and into the home, we gather in the front hallway as our tour guide talks a little more about the house itself. The front porch was Garfield’s stage, we are told. Here, the presidential candidate spoke to thousands of visitors traveling to the farm.
A temporary train stop at the back of the property was established and visitors wanting to meet their candidate walked up the narrow lane to the house to hear Garfield speak. It was the news reporters, camping out on the spacious lawns, who nicknamed the place "Lawnfield."
Garfield, and his wife Lucretia, bought the nine-room farmhouse near the shores of Lake Erie in 1876. To accommodate their five children, they added 11 rooms.
Using money donated by the American public in memory of the martyred president, Mrs. Garfield transformed Lawnfield into a memorial to her husband, as well as a country estate and a place to enjoy her children and grandchildren. She added a new wing to the house that included a library and vault to protect her husband’s papers — a predecessor to the presidential libraries of today.
The first two floors have been restored to the period when the Garfields lived in the house — 1880 to1904 — by the Western Reserve Historical Society and the NPS.
Since the house was occupied by Garfield descendants until 1936, 80 percent of the artifacts are original pieces including a floral wreath sent to the President’s funeral by Queen Victoria.
The first floor rooms include an entrance hall and a reception hall, the Garfield’s summer bedroom, a parlor, dining room, and James’ mother Eliza’s bedroom. A stairway from the hall leads up to the Memorial Library.
The library is breathtakingly beautiful and ornate with beamed ceiling and white oak walls. The room commemorates the president’s love of books. We were invited into the vault where family treasures are located including the wreath sent to the funeral by the Queen of England. To preserve it, it was dipped in wax.
Garfield’s presidential campaign office is located behind the house. Here he wrote letters and sent out telegraph messages. The office remains much as it appeared in 1880.
After touring the home, and admiring the Victorian furnishings and decorative touches, we returned to the 1893 Carriage House which is now used for the Visitor Center, museum and administrative offices.
The museum includes exhibits highlighting Garfield’s life including his career as a politician — his inauguration, his nomination at the Republican Convention and his death. Also featured are documents, clothing, and funeral memorabilia.
An 18-minute video, describing President Garfield’s life and career, is included with admission.
If you go:
The Garfield birth site and a replica of the Garfield log cabin are located in nearby Moreland Hills on Village Hall grounds. The birthplace memorial is open June through September on Saturdays from 10 a.m to 1 p.m.
James and Lucretia’s Gravesite and the Garfield Monument are located at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.
Construction of the monument began in 1885 and was completed in 1890. When
it was dedicated, President Benjamin Harrison, former President Rutherford B. Hayes, and members of Garfield’s family were in attendance.
A combination of Romanesque, Gothic and Byzantine architecture, the structure has been called the first true mausoleum in America, combining both tomb and memorial functions. The monument, pinnacled by a three-tiered circular tower 50 feet in diameter, is 180 feet in height.
The exterior of the base is decorated with five life-size base relief panels depicting Garfield in different phases of his life and career.
A white Carrara marble life-size statue of Garfield stands inside the monument in the memorial room. The caskets of Garfield and his wife, Lucretia, and urns containing the ashes of his daughter and son-in-law lie in a crypt directly beneath the memorial hall.
Because Interstate 90 and Route 2, a limited access highway, slice through the county, there are restaurants and accommodations to fit event budget. Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites LaMalfa, 5783 Heisley Road in Mentor, for example, is located near all county attractions including the Garfield historic site. For more information call (440) 357-0384 or check the website at http://www.lamalfa.com
For more information on Lake County and it’s many other attractions, call (800) 368-LAKE or check the website at www.lakevisit.com