“The Vanishing First Lady”-or Am I?

First Lady Lucretia Garfield lived for 36 years after her husband, President James A. Garfield, was assassinated in 1881 by Charles Guiteau.  During that time, she became a beloved figure in America, though she shunned publicity.  She created the first Presidential Memorial Library and became the matriarch of a large, close-knit and affectionate family.  Debbie Weinkamer, who portrays Lucretia, is a Garfield researcher, first-person living historian, and the Lead Volunteer at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.  Here she presents how Lucretia would speak for herself in answering the critics if she had the chance.  Not always self-assured, except in the company of friends and family, nevertheless, Lucretia had always met adversity head on, facing her responsibilities. 

I appreciate this opportunity to write to you in order to clear up some misconceptions about me.  Many of you have not heard much about me since my husband’s assassination and death in 1881.  Even the newspapers have called me the “Vanishing First Lady” and “Discreet Crete.”  I must admit: I have ducked all publicity, for I feel that in no way am I personally famous.  The name I bear is honored and honorable, but I am just an ordinary woman devoted to her husband and children.

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Mrs. Lucretia Garfield, ca. 1881.  (Library of Congress)

I did enjoy my husband’s rise to prominence in politics, contrary to many historians’ opinions of me.  At the beginning of his political career, I wrote to him that, “I feel so much anxiety for you that your public career be never marked by the blight of a misdirected step.  I want you to be great and good.”  I was one of his most-trusted confidants and advisors.  I didn’t expect him to be nominated for President in the political climate of 1876-1880, but thought that his time would eventually come.  However, after he received the “dark horse” nomination at the 1880 Republican Convention in Chicago, I wanted him to win the election – even though I knew that it would bring political difficulties to my husband and a terrible responsibility to our entire family.

My quiet, shy nature made me very reluctant to take over the social duties of First Lady, even though I had been a Congressman’s wife for 17 years and had lived in Washington with my husband and family during sessions of Congress since 1869.  However, I was very fortunate to receive the good advice and assistance of my friend Harriet Blaine, wife of my husband’s Secretary of State and “an experienced Washington grande dame.”  I came to rely on her fine judgment regarding many etiquette matters, including how to establish my calling hours at the Executive Mansion, and effective ways to handle newspaper correspondents and petty criticisms.

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A young James Garfield and Lucretia Rudolph around the time of their engagement.  They married on November 11, 1858.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

(Here, I must pause to reveal some interesting correspondence regarding the Blaines…In April 1875, I received a letter from my husband concerning a rumor that when James Blaine was getting married to Harriet, the couple’s “warm blood led them to anticipate the nuptial ceremony,” and their first child was born about six months after their marriage.  My husband asked, would this fact “have weight with the people in the Presidential Campaign?” [Mr. Blaine was being considered by some for the presidency.]  

I replied, “It was a queer piece of gossip you gave me of Mr. Blaine.  I scarcely believe it.  But if it is true, it ought not to affect the voters very much unless it would have been considered more honorable by the majority to have abandoned the woman—seduced.  My opinion of Mr. Blaine would be rather heightened than otherwise by the truth of such a story: for it would show him not entirely selfish and heartless.”)

During his brief presidency, my husband paid me the best compliments a political wife can receive: that I was discreet and wise, that my “role as his partner in the presidential enterprise was essential to him,” and that I “rose up to every occasion.”

I have led a quiet, yet social, life since that terrible tragedy in 1881.  I created a “country estate” from my farm property in Mentor, Ohio and embarked on several building projects.  A “Memorial Library” addition was built onto the back of the farmhouse, complete with a fire-proof vault to hold my husband’s papers from his public career (and more than 1,200 letters shared between us).  I’ve been told that it may inspire others to create presidential libraries one day!

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Lucretia Rudolph Garfield in her later years, in a portrait by John Folinsbee.  This portrait hangs in the Garfield home at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio.  (National Park Service)

My children have completed college, married, and now have children of their own.  I am so pleased to say that they have grown up to be distinguished citizens in their own right.  We all gather at the Mentor farm every summer, and I can be found wintering in South Pasadena, California.  I love to travel to New York City for the opera season and to visit my 16 grandchildren at least once a year.

I try to keep well-informed of science, cultural, and political events, both at home and abroad.  I have co-founded a ladies’ literary group (based on one that my husband and I attended in Washington) called the Miscellany Club, where monthly meetings are held in members’ homes and we take turns speaking on subjects related to a year-long topic, like “American History.” I often correspond with my oldest sons about political matters, which can get quite interesting since one is aligned with Woodrow Wilson and the other with Theodore Roosevelt!

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Mrs. Lucretia Garfield (center, seated) surrounded by grandchildren on her Mentor, Ohio property.  (Lake County Historical Society)

My five children have been a continual joy and inspiration to me.  And with the memory of my dear Husband and our little ones who didn’t stay with us very long…I have had a remarkable life.  For does not life grow richer as the years go by?  Even our losses lead us into wider fields and nobler thoughts.

Very respectfully,

Lucretia R. Garfield

 

-Debbie Weinkamer, Lead Volunteer

(This article originally appeared at http://kennethackerman.com/guest-blogger-debbie-weinkamer-on-lucretia-garfield-the-vanishing-first-lady-or-am-i/ on March 30, 2012.)

 

 

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James A. Garfield and the Centennial Exposition of 1876, Part II

By May of 1876, Congressman Garfield appears to have become much less skeptical of the worth of the Centennial Exposition as a means of exciting the minds of visitors. On May 11, 1876, he noted in his diary that he and his wife Crete

“went again to the Expositions Grounds and spent three hours in Memorial Hall and Art Hall. We saw enough to determine us to visit the grounds again – later in the season and if possible bring the children. I have no doubt of two things; first that the Exposition will not be a financial success; second, that it will be [a] great success in the way of education and stimulous [sic] to the people who participate.”

 

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Art Hall at the 1876 Centennial Exposition.  (Jim Davis collection.)

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Memorial Hall at the 1876 Centennial Exposition.  (Jim Davis collection.)

Mr. and Mrs. Garfield did return to the Centennial in August, and they did bring their children with them, as will be seen shortly.  Based on the diary entry for August 25, it appears that Mrs. Garfield and her children had already arrived at No. 9, Woodland Terrace, when the Congressman arrived at that address at 11:00 p.m., “glad to find all my dear ones well.” The next day, the Garfields, joined by Mr. and Mrs. Chase, who apparently were also staying at Woodland Terrace, made their first visit as a family to the Centennial. What they saw there must have fascinated and delighted them, for they visited the grounds together every day for nearly a week.

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Exterior view of the Main Exhibition Building, 1876 Centennial Exposition.  (Jim Davis collection.)

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Interior view of the Main Exhibition Building, 1876 Centennial Exposition.  (Jim Davis collection.)

Exhibitions of everything from to machines, to art, to plants and livestock were presented in five primary buildings: the Main Exhibition Building, the Art Hall, Machinery Hall, Horticultural Hall, and Agricultural Hall. The Art Hall featured a 150-foot dome, containing “a colossal figure of Columbia.” There were numerous other buildings besides, including restaurants, a Dairy, and exhibit buildings for individual American states, and foreign nations.  The scale of these buildings was impressive, as the images included in this article show.

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Cotton display in Agricultural Hall.  (Jim Davis collection.)

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Interior view, Agricultural Hall.  (Jim Davis collection.)

 

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Exterior view of Agricultural Hall.  (Jim Davis collection.)

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Exterior view, Horticultural Hall.  (Jim Davis collection.)

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Interior view, Horticultural Hall.  (Jim Davis collection.)

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Fountain seen outside Horticultural Hall.  (Jim Davis collection.)

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Interior of Canada Display.  (Jim Davis collection.)

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Exterior of the Kansas Building.  (Jim Davis collection.)

The Main Exhibition Building covered twenty-one acres, and like London’s Crystal Palace, was vast and made of glass. It had a central nave that was nearly 1700 feet long.

In Machinery Hall were to be found many new labor-saving devices, alternative fuels, and other technological innovations. Within the great hall was one of the greatest attractions of exhibition, the Great Corliss Engine. It weighed 700 tons and could do the work of 2500 horses. It was so large and heavy that sixty-five railroad cars were required to transport it.

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Exterior view of Machinery Hall.  (Jim Davis collection.)

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“The Great Corliss Engine,” which supplied power to many of the buildings at the 1876 Centennial Exposition.  (Jim Davis collection.)

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Interior view of Machinery Hall.  (Jim Davis collection.)

A number of restaurants were constructed to satisfy a variety of tastes. There were establishments catering to the American southern cuisine, German specialties, and French cookery. The Turkish Coffee House satisfied many.

James Garfield mentioned the Vienna Bakery and Coffee House in his diary. Twice, on August 29 and 31, the family lunched at the Dairy. It was located in one of the most picturesque spots on the grounds, according to Frank Leslie. The main building was about 360 feet long, built of rough-hewn logs, and decorated with grapevine branches. Many people were impressed with the richness and purity of the cream and milk served in it, and also the high quality of its butter, though Garfield says nothing on this score in his diary.

On August 26, Garfield, accompanied by his wife, his daughter Mollie, Mary McGrath, one of the servants, and “the three boys,” visited the Women’s Pavilion.  (Presumably the “three boys,” in this case were Irvin, Abram, and Edward – the presence of “the baby” being noted earlier in Garfield’s entries. Edward, the last of the Garfield children, called “Neddie” did not survive the year.) Memorial Hall, Machinery Hall, and the Government Building were seen and seen again by James Garfield, his wife Lucretia, and their children while they were at the Centennial.

What might the Garfield’s seen in the Women’s Pavilion? According to Frank Leslie they saw objects made by women from all over the earth, including needlework, paintings, furniture, painted china, fish-scale jewelry and labor-saving devices.

 

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Exterior of the Women’s Pavilion, 1876 Centennial Exposition.  (Jim Davis collection.)

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Inside the Women’s Pavilion, 1876 Centennial Exposition.  (Jim Davis collection.)

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Interior view of the Women’s Pavilion, 1876 Centennial Exposition.  (Jim Davis collection.)

Mrs. Garfield spent at least some time at the “Japanese Department,” in the Main Building, on August 30. Her visit there leads to some unanswerable questions. First, did Congressman Garfield continue to think that the “international aspect” of the Centennial was a mistake?  Second, given that the Garfield home in Mentor, Ohio has more than a few objects of Japanese style, was Mrs. Garfield’s interest in Japanese design inspired by her visit to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, and did she decide to reflect that interest in the Mentor farmhouse purchased later that year?

There are five objects in the Garfield home today that do have a connection with the 1876 Centennial. They are the “Barge of Venus” in the dining room, and the four bentwood chairs, two of which are located in the parlor, and two in the reception hall.

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These two bentwood chairs are seen in the Reception Hall of the Garfield home at James A. Garfield NHS.  (NPS photo.)

The Barge of Venus now sits on the Garfield dining room table in the home at James A. Garfield NHS.  (NPS photo)

The Barge of Venus now sits on the Garfield dining room table in the home at James A. Garfield NHS. (NPS photo)

One of the attractions that Congressman Garfield did not mention seeing was the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Although the Statue was intended to commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary of the founding of the United States, it was not yet complete. Only the arm bearing the torch of liberty could be seen at the Centennial Exposition.

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The arm of the Statue of Liberty as seen at the 1876 Centennial Exposition.  (Jim Davis collection.)

Among the inventions and new products that were seen at the Centennial were Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, Hire’s Root Beer, and the typewriter. Over ten million people came to the Centennial, or roughly twenty percent of the population of the United States at the time, so it wasn’t the flop that Garfield thought it might be. In fact, the Centennial was profitable, and proceeds from it were used to construct the second of the Smithsonian museums, the Arts and Industries Building.

Perhaps there is a bit of irony in the fact that the first public event in the new Smithsonian museum building was the Inaugural Ball of President Garfield, held there on March 4, 1881.

 

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The Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian, site of President James A. Garfield’s March 4, 1881 inaugural ball.  (Wikipedia.)

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Arts and Industries Building of the Smithsonian Institution.  (Wikipedia.)

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“Statue of America” inside the Arts and Industries Building, representing “the skill, genius, progress, and civilization of the 19th century.”  (Smithsonian Archives.)

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Ballroom inside the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries building decorated for the Garfield inaugural ball.  Note the JAG and CAA cyphers on either side of the arch.  (Smithsonian Archives.)

In the latter part of 1881, the contents of sixty train cars filled with donations from the Centennial were displayed in the Arts and Industries Building – exhibits on geology, metallurgy, zoology, medicine, anthropology, art, history, and technological innovations in printing, ceramics, transportation, fisheries, agriculture, and textiles.

But in 1876, having “visited many places of interest” at the Centennial, it was time for James Garfield to return to Ohio on August 31st. He “bade goodbye to the dear ones, and took the train for N.Y. [alone]…”

It would seem that despite his earlier misgivings, Congressman Garfield, accompanied by his cherished family, did indeed enjoy the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It was interesting and educational. It promoted the success of the American democratic experiment, and the resulting prosperity of the people of the United States. It had attracted millions and was profitable. It made him proud of his country.

(Special thank to Mr. Jim Davis of Dallas, Texas for use of of stereopticon images in this article!)

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger