When I was a kid and we would drive down Back Run Road, just a few miles from our home, someone would always point out that the old shack across the creek was the log cabin where President Garfield had taught school. This announcement was intended to make an impression upon us, and I remember being duly impressed with our neighborhood’s brush with fame.
This fall when back home in Ohio for a visit, I began thinking about the Garfield school house again. Was there any truth to the legend? If so, why was Garfield in Muskingum County? What could I find out about this special moment of history?
As I began digging among the sources, I quickly struck a gold mine of information. James Garfield began writing a diary at the age of 16 and continued it throughout his life. The diary has been published in four volumes.
James A. Garfield kept a regular diary for much of his life. This page shows his handwritten entry for March 4, 1881-the day he became the 20th President of the United States. Harry James Brown and Frederick D. Williams edited the Garfield diaries for publication for Michigan State University Press in 1981. (Library of Congress)
Throughout Garfield’s life, from his birth in 1831 until his assassination as President in 1881, his life was grounded in his northeastern Ohio origins. However, he had roots in southeastern Ohio as well, in Muskingum County, both in Zanesville and in the southern part of the county. His parents were married in Zanesville. Both Abram Garfield and Eliza Ballou had recently immigrated to Zanesville from the east coast with their families. The two had known each other as children and were reunited in Ohio. They were married February 3, 1820, and headed north to establish their common life in northeastern Ohio.
It was there that their children were born. James was the last child arriving, born on November 19, 1831. His mother had a heavy burden placed upon her when Abram died. James was 18 months old at the time. Even though he was recognized as a precocious learner, James’s early formal education was sporadic. Only after a brief stint towing boats on the Erie Canal was he able to begin a serious pursuit of an education.
Eliza Ballou Garfield raised her youngest son, James, and his older siblings alone after her husband died in 1833. She was a strong influence on all of her children, and she encouraged the future President of the United States to pursue an education. (Western Reserve Historical Society)
In March 1849 James enrolled in Geauga Seminary, a Free Will Baptist school in Chester, Ohio. For the next two years he alternated between attending school and teaching school, presumably to pay for school costs.
At the end of his second teaching stint, we have the first mention of two different locations that become important to him. The February 24, 1851, diary entry includes, “I have given up going to Hiram and am going to Zanesville with Mother.” His mention of Hiram indicates almost certainly that he was considering enrolling in the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, a school in Hiram that later became Hiram College. He delayed beginning his studies at the Institute until August. In the meantime he accompanied his mother to Zanesville.
On February 27 the pair began their journey, traveling first to Cleveland, then taking the train to Columbus, the stage to Zanesville, and finally a skiff down the Muskingum River to Gaysport, arriving March 1.
Their destination was the home of Henry Ballou, brother of Eliza, where they would stay while in Muskingum County. However, there is no indication in the diary as to the location of the house. Garfield simply writes that he and his mother walked to the home from the river. Then he returned to the river with his cousin Orrin to retrieve their trunks.
Because there is no indication of the location of the home, most Garfield biographers have simply referred to Muskingum County as the location of the visit. However, Brown and Williams, the editors of the Garfield diary, in an attempt to be more specific, write in their introduction that it was at “Blue Rock in the Muskingum Valley where he and his mother had gone to visit her brother”. (page XVIII)
However, the evidence is decisively clear that neither Uncle Henry’s house nor the school where Garfield taught was in Blue Rock. The name Blue Rock is derived from the bluish tint of the stone in the area. Blue Rock Township lies east of the Muskingum River. Gaysport, the town where the Garfields disembarked, as well as the town of Blue Rock is in Blue Rock Township. Today, Gaysport is a tiny unincorporated village clustered near the bridge that crosses the river. However, there is one present day reminder of a more illustrious past. The newly built North Star Restaurant stands on the location of the former North Star Hotel, a prominent landmark that operated when the steamer ships hauled passengers and freight up and down the river and when Gaysport really was a port. The biographers apparently located Garfield in Blue Rock because it is the name of the area around Gaysport and Gaysport is the geographical locator in the diary.
However, the local tradition is that the house where the Garfields stayed is a brick house on Virginia Ridge Road which is west of the Muskingum River in Harrison Township. The two-story brick house is a classy home, typical of the kind of houses built by the well-to-do in the 19th century. The present owners, who are well informed about the Garfield saga, say that the house was built in 1849.
A modern view of the home built by Henry Ballou in which James A. Garfield and his mother, Eliza, stayed while James taught at Back Run School. (Author photo)
In order to confirm that the house is “the Garfield house”, I did some research in the Muskingum County Recorder’s Office. I found that on January 22, 1839, Henry Ballou was granted the deed to 160 acres of land at the location where the house is today. With this information I am able to conclude that Henry Ballou did not live in Blue Rock, even though Brown and Williams placed him there. However, I was unable to determine a date for the construction of the house. Garfield’s May 26 diary entry suggests that the house has been built but is not completed. He writes, “Working nights and morning on the house and appurtenances.”
The skiff carrying the Garfields would have docked at Gaysport, and they would have disembarked there. Then they would have caught a ride across the river to Harrison Township and begun walking up the hill on Virginia Ridge Road, continuing for a mile to what is now 785 Virginia Ridge Road.
I was able to learn additional information about Henry Ballou in the 1892 edition of Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Muskingum County, Ohio. He and his sister Eliza Garfield were born in Cheshire County, New Hampshire. They immigrated to Muskingum County with their mother and three siblings in 1814. Henry eventually married and settled in Harrison Township and built a “permanent home”. He is listed as an outstanding citizen of Harrison Township where he was a farmer and township officer. He and his wife Phoebe had three sons – Jacob, Ellis, and Orrin. All three, along with their father, are mentioned in the Garfield diary. Most of James’s activities and travels during his Muskingum County stay, which include such things as working on the farm, traveling to McConnellsville, and going to meetings (church services), were done with his cousins.
However, the main activity of Garfield during his stay in Muskingum County was teaching school. On March 13 James wrote that he went with Uncle Henry “to see about getting the school in this place.” He writes that he “has a contract to teach school for three months. He will be paid $16 2/3 per month and will begin on March 19. First he must have a teaching certificate, and so he and Ellis take the team to Zanesville where he is examined and certified for two years to teach ‘the common branches and algebra.’”
On the first day of class he identifies the school as “the log schoolhouse on ‘backrun’.” The schoolhouse, which still exists today, is only a 5-10 minute walk from the house. That is apparently why he refers to it as “this school”.
The two structures are less than a half mile apart; however, they are separated by a very steep hill. The return walk back up to the house requires approximately twice as much time as walking downhill to the school. This hill and those nearby obviously made an impression upon the flatlander from northern Ohio as he writes that the schoolhouse is “on the bank of a rock-girt stream and surrounded by the everlasting hills of Muskingum Valley.”
There are two roads in the area today just as there were in the 19th century. They both run east and west and are relatively parallel. The house is on Virginia Ridge Road which follows the top of the ridge. The school house is on Back Run Road which follows along Back Run Creek in the valley. Even though the two buildings are in close proximity, it is an almost three-mile drive from one to the other.
The map below shows the relative location of the town site of Gaysport on the east side of the Muskingum River, the contemporary bridge crossing the river, and the two roads leading west from the river bottom, one along Back Run and the other rising to the top of Virginia Ridge. The location of the school and house are denoted. The slightly skewed red grid lines on the map provide a scale of distance as they demark one-mile by one-mile township sections.
This map denotes the locations of the home in which James and Eliza Garfield stayed and the school in which James taught during their stay in Muskingum County. (Author image)
The school house is a small log structure approximately 18 feet long and 15 feet wide. There is no information concerning its date of construction, but it was apparently in poor condition even in 1851. In private correspondence Garfield refers to it as a “miserable old log school-house … as smutty as a blacksmith shop.” (Garfield – Allan Peskin, page 21) After its school-house life ended, it was converted into a home. Currently a new owner, John Coler, is restoring it back to its original form as a school. It has been stripped of all additions, and the owner is planning on replacing some foundation stones, some of the logs, and the roof.
Garfield’s diary reveals that his stint at Back Run School was neither easy nor pleasant. On March 14, even before he began to teach, he wrote, “It will not be a very pleasant school, the scholars will be so small.” They were few in number as well. He started with seven students, but gradually attendance increased to a maximum of 23. There are several entries referring to conflicts with parents. The parents objected to the way he conducted his classroom, and he grumbled about their efforts to override his leadership of the school.
Garfield’s journal entries are full of interesting teaching experiences. He comments about a boy who can recite his letters down but not up. He describes in detail the subterfuge two of his pupils undertook in order to elope without their parents discovering their plans. He discusses discipline in the classroom, the need to impose more order and eventually the need, as a last resort, to use the rod on two of the boys. He reports that this treatment was quite effective.
The April 16th diary entry is a window into Garfield’s self-perception as a teacher:
“It is indeed trying to my patience and also my stomach to have so many little scholars about me. I believe it is the province of females to teach little scholars the rudiments of education. Their nature seems to be more adapted to the culture of the infant mind thanthe nature of man. I want something that has the thunder in it,more than this has.”
The meaning of the word thunder used in this way is not certain, though he probably is reflecting on the drudgery, dullness, and lack of challenge that he felt as a teacher of young children. However, it is clear that he was not satisfied with his teaching job at Back Run School. (Immediately before coming to Muskingum County Garfield had taught at Warrenville, Ohio, in a two-room school. He had taught the older pupils which would have been more to his liking.)
Local historian Jim Swingle(left) stands by the Back Run School (currently under restoration) with his brother and author of this blog article Albert Swingle on the right. (Author photo)
Even though Garfield had contracted to teach for three months, he closed the school on May 20 after just over two months. By then corn planting season was in full swing and most of the students had deserted “book learning” and were working in the fields. It seems clear that after teaching at Back Run for two months, James was ready to move on. He and his mother, after concluding their visit with good-byes to friends and relatives, left Zanesville on May 30, returning home by canal boat on the Erie Ohio Canal, a section of which his father had helped build.
Three months is a short period in anyone’s life, but this Muskingum Country trip gives us a quick glimpse into the life of a remarkable 19-year-old young man on his way to maturity. Moving into unfamiliar territory with unfamiliar people, Garfield demonstrated considerable curiosity as he energetically plunged into his new surroundings, whether they were new towns to explore, new forms of worship in the various meeting houses, or challenges he faced at the Back Run School. As he touched base with his extended family we see this Muskingum County visit as a short interlude for a young man in a hurry. He had not yet decided the direction of his adult life, but he knew that education would be the means of getting to his yet unknown destination.
Muskingum County was an opportunity for Garfield to expand his vision and to test his influence as he widened his horizons on his way to adulthood. In his illustrious life he did experience considerable thunder, and he created considerable thunder as well.
As a postscript to this visit, we have a record of at least two other trips Garfield made to Muskingum County. The November 9, 1877, diary entry records his train trip from home to Washington DC. The train stopped in Zanesville just long enough for a brief visit with his cousin Orrin Ballou and family. Orrin was the sheriff of Muskingum County from 1877-1880.
Few who knew or attended classes with teacher James A. Garfield during his stay in Muskingum County likely expected him to one day become President of the United States. (Library of Congress)
By 1878 Garfield was in full campaign mode for the Republican Party. After a speaking tour on the east coast, he had just three days at home to supervise the sowing of the wheat crop on his Mentor farm before taking a swing around southeast Ohio. On September 20 he was on the train heading for Zanesville but missed his connection in Dresden (in northeastern Muskingum County). The Zanesville town fathers saved the day by sending a special train to Dresden to retrieve him. He arrived just in time for his evening address. He records in his diary: “Addressed large audience in Hall for 1 ½ hours then went homewith Cousin Orrin Ballou and spent the night. He is the county sheriff. 27 years ago he was my pupil in the school I taught in Back Run, Harrison Township, Muskingum County. He is a strong Democrat, inheriting his politics from his father, my Uncle HenryBallou.”
Two years later in 1880 James Garfield would be elected the 20th president of the United States.
-Albert Swingle, Washington, D.C.