James R. Garfield, Gentleman from Mentor (Part I): Founding Mentor Library

“You will certainly have to come home and watch your husband – else our pockets will be very empty. Last night the Library Reception was a great success.”

It was April 25, 1891.

“… A cake was put up at auction & I modestly bid 17 cents, then 19, then 25. Mr. Guilliford [sic] & I found ourselves rival bidders and after a good deal of laughter & fun I got the cake for eleven dollars. I was obliged to give a note for $10 as I only had one with me. Mr. Guilliford endorsed the note as the auctioneer demanded security. Mr. Guilliford then said he would give the Library his highest of $10, so as you see the Board gets $21 for the cake.”[1]

James R. Garfield, the second son of President James A. Garfield and Lucretia Garfield, composed this amusing anecdote. His correspondent was his wife, Helen Newell Garfield. For the better part of the previous two years, the younger Garfield had been pursuing the goal of establishing a “free” public library in Mentor, Ohio, his home town.

For residents of Mentor, the establishment of the library is a notable part of local history. Garfield’s involvement in organizing a new, more widely available library was stimulated by his “vision of making Mentor a model village.”[2] He had only recently been elected to the village council, all of twenty-three years old. That’s not surprising. His father had been President of the United States, and his mother, still living on the farm, was a respected member of the community.

James R. Garfield

James Rudolph Garfield, second son of James and Lucretia Garfield, was a tireless champion for Mentor, Ohio’s public library.  [Public domain photo from Wikipedia]

Young James R., also living on the farm, may have been the face of the library project, but it was his mother who originated the idea. Lucretia Garfield had a lot of experience creating a library, as evidenced by the beautiful memorial to her husband, the late President of the United States. It had required a lot of thought, and heart, and planning. The result was beautiful, a place “where coziness and dignity [were] not incompatible.”[3] That library was in her home on Mentor Avenue.

Lucretia’s second son, like his brothers, had been educated at elite New England schools. He was trained in the law to serve clients honestly and capably. He had just formed a partnership with his older brother, Hal, and he had recently been elected to the town council. Soon after, he sought to bring into being a “free” library for Mentor. The idea had support in the community.

He believed that it was imperative to attract “good men” to all levels of government. Garfield is a perfect example of the “gentleman reformer” of the late 19th Century. He faced challenges, though.

First, Garfield regretted that the women of Mentor had no vote in the affairs of the community. He wanted to change that. Then there was a political tempest in a teapot over a new Mentor postmaster. Finally, even though many people agreed with Garfield, not everyone did. This last was especially disappointing to James R. because it came in part from unexpected quarters – one of his neighbors, a man who’d been a friend to his father. E. T. C. Aldrich been an enthusiastic, close-at-hand chronicler of James A. Garfield’s 1880 front porch campaign. In 1889, though, he thought the “free” library idea was wasted effort. It had been tried before. It had not come to anything then. It wouldn’t come to anything now. He was not alone in his belief.

Helen Newell - bride 1890

Helen Newell Garfield on the day of her 1890 wedding to James R. Garfield.  [Garfield family photo]

Meanwhile, Mentor’s political establishment was in a state of turmoil. A local political plum was up for grabs now that a Republican had replaced a Democrat in the White House. Local supporters of Republican President Benjamin Harrison wanted to replace the Democratic postmaster, James Angier, with a Republican postmaster.

It was just this sort of patronage brouhaha that left Garfield cold, causing him to confide to Helen that it was “not at all astonishing that decent men dislike to engage in Municipal affairs and yet their doing so is the only remedy for present evils and corruptions.”[4] Though a bona fide Republican, he supported the retention Mr. Angier because he had proven to be an efficient public servant.

The postmaster tumult left little room in early 1889 for any discussion of a replacement for the subscription library that had come and gone, and come and gone again. Discussion that did occur met with some opposition from at least the male members of the village, as represented by Mr. Aldrich.

This last reality led James R. Garfield to favor the political participation of the women of Mentor. He mentioned this idea to Helen in a June letter in which he urged, “If we can excite the interest of the women I feel sure our plans will succeed. I shall advocate giving them the privilege of voting of voting on all town affairs: this stand may still further increase the Republicans against me as many of them think Womens [sic] Rights nonsense.”[5]

A month later, Garfield reintroduced the topic.  “Tonight the Council meets,” he wrote on July 13. “One of the new features I wish to introduce is imposing the duty of voting upon women. This will probably meet with opposition.” Looking for Helen’s support, he wrote, “Do you not think that women should take an active interest in municipal affairs? I have always been prejudiced against the idea but I have no good idea for the prejudice – in fact every reason favors putting women on an equal stand with men.” He thought it would be a good experiment. “Why not try it in municipal affairs. Experience, here as elsewhere, will show the faults and advantages of such a change.”[6] Whether the women of Mentor were allowed to vote for the new library system is unknown at this time. Still, it interests this writer that young Garfield was willing to take that step, going against local sentiment as it did.


The original Mentor Public Library, designed by Abram Garfield, opened to the public in 1903.  The building is no longer the Library but still stands.  [Mentor Public Library]

Despite all these difficulties, and with support from other village residents, James R. Garfield persevered. Discouragement never got the better of him, as evidenced by his June 10, 1889 letter to Helen. “Our Town Meeting Saturday evening was really quite successful… I hope some definite action will be taken. At least it is good to see the people stirred up over something: if we keep working some good must result.”[7] Later that month he wrote, “…think of me standing before our citizens, trying to tell them what improvements can be made by working together for the public good.”

He proposed a monthly series of entertainments, “each time presenting something of general interest to the people.” Money for the library was raised from the sales of refreshments. Ice cream, cakes, tea and coffee, and strawberries were favored by one and all. From the records, it is known that many of the Garfields were involved the in entertainments and fundraising of books. Lucretia donated money and books. The piano she purchased played a vital role in the programs of Mozart and Schubert that were conducted at the village hall to raise funds.

Garfield’s aunt and uncle, Joe and Lide Rudolph, served refreshments after many such entertainments. Sister Mollie Garfield Stanley-Brown performed musical duets with a family friend, and directed a melodrama in 1890 entitled “The Sleeping Car.”[8] (It was one of the most successful of the fundraisers.) Mollie’s husband, Joe, a Yale-trained geologist, gave lectures on his experiences in the Alaska territory. Before long, yet one more family member would join the enterprise, but… read on.

The Mentor library was not simply a Garfield project effort, however. In addition to Mr. David E. Gulliford, whose competition with James over a cake introduced this article, the Mentor Postmaster, James Angier, and his wife, Mina Corning Angier,[9] were also involved. Several individuals, whose family names appear on street signs throughout today’s city, were on the library board. These include Harry and Nettie King, Turhand and Sarah Hart, and Mr. and Mrs. John Tyler. Jesse Healy Morley and his wife, Lucy, shared in the task, though they are better remembered for the library in Painesville, established in 1899, that bears their name.

Two final notes complete this writing. Note one: Prior to the free library, books could be taken from the subscription library which was located in what is today the Corning-White House on Mentor Avenue. It’s just a stone’s throw away from James A. Garfield National Historic Site and the current Mentor Public Library.

Note two: James’ youngest brother, Abram, made the most “concrete” contribution of any family member. A trained architect, he designed the original “library and reading room” building, a brick and mortar structure in the Federal style. It opened in 1903 at the corner of Center Street and Mentor Avenue, at the very center of the village and the center of the township.[10]

Confectionary Cupboard2

The original Mentor Public Library, located just around the corner from James A. Garfield National Historic Site.  Today it houses a bakery.  [Author photo]

For nearly forty years, James R. Garfield was the president of the Mentor Library board. The improvement to the community that he championed has stood the test of time. The Mentor free library remains an important cultural institution, meeting place, and repository for the reading community to the present day.


-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

[1] James R. Garfield to Helen Newell Garfield, April 25, 1891, MS 4571, Western Reserve Historical Society

[2] Thompson, Jack M. James R. Garfield: The  Career of a Rooseveltian Republican, 1890-1916, p. 17

[3] Joseph Stanley-Brown to Lucretia Garfield, September [?], 1883, Library of Congress, Garfield Papers

[4] James R. Garfield to Helen Newell, March 27, 1890, MS 4571, Western Reserve Historical Society.

[5] Ibid., June 19, 1889

[6] Ibid, July 13, 1889

[7] Ibid, June 10, 1889

[8] Verdabelle Abbott Spaulding, “A History of the Two Public Libraries in Mentor, Ohio,” unpublished Master’s Thesis, School of Library Science, Western Reserve University, 1950, p.20.

[9] Ibid., p. 14.

[10] Presently, it houses the Confectionary Cupboard at the intersection of Center Street and Nowlen Avenue.

James & Lucretia Garfield’s Love Story

What began as a marriage in November 1858 “based on the cold stern word duty,” turned into a 19th century love story.

James Garfield and Lucretia Rudolph probably should have never married.  They were of very different upbringings ~ and temperament.

Born in a log cabin in November 1831, James was the baby of the family, the youngest of the Garfield children, the one who was doted upon.  He was precocious and busy as a toddler.  His mother sang to him, held him on her lap and hugged him, and told him that he would grow up to be someone special.  He grew to be charming, with a good sense of humor, and loved to be the center of attention!


James Abram Garfield in 1848, the year he turned seventeen.  He got along well with nearly everyone, had an outgoing personality, and enjoyed being the center of attention everywhere he went.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Lucretia was born five months later, the eldest of the four Rudolph children.  She had chores and responsibilities ~ and was taught the virtue of “self-government” by her mother.  Neither of her parents openly showed much affection; she didn’t ever remember being kissed by her father.  Despite growing up in this rather serious household, she knew she was loved.  However, her nature was more quiet, shy, reserved, and some thought, “cold.”  She could express her thoughts and desires to her diary or in letters, but struggled with showing her emotions in person.

The two crossed paths in school.  Both families emphasized the importance of education and sent their adolescent James and Lucretia off to the Geauga Seminary in Chester Township, OH.  It was a co-educational (high) school where they both received the same classical courses ~ and lived away from home for the first time.  Lucretia roomed with other girls on the third floor of the school.  James found lodging with other boarders nearby.  They were just classmates, but Lucretia noticed the tall, blue-eyed, “strange genius” who had the look of “an overgrown, uncombed, unwashed, boy.”  They both had other love interests.


Lucretia Rudolph (right) with her siblings.  She had a very different upbringing than her future husband and was much quieter and more reserved.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Fate brought them together a second time: in the fall of 1851 at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in Hiram, OH.  This co-educational college, started by Lucretia’s father and other elders of their Disciples of Christ Church, is where their interest in one another grew.  Their Greek teacher became ill and James, far ahead of the other students, was asked to take over the class.  He began to notice the petite, delicate, pretty girl with the dark, deep-set eyes.  They both had intelligent, curious minds and loved learning, literature, and reading.

Their courtship officially began when James sent Lucretia the first of what would become 1,200 letters the two shared during their relationship.  He visited Niagara Falls in 1853 and wanted to convey his impressions to Miss Rudolph.  They shared their first kiss in 1854.  The courtship endured many ups and downs due to their very different personalities and expectations.  James wasn’t sure that Lucretia was the right woman for him, that she was passionate enough for his nature.


Lucretia Rudolph and James Garfield (right side in front row) in a Greek class photo at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in 1853.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

They finally decided to “try a life in union” during a buggy ride in the spring of 1858 and married on November 11 at the Rudolph home in Hiram.  At her family’s suggestion, the bride even sent an invitation to her groom (to be sure that he showed up)!  The newlyweds didn’t have enough money for a honeymoon or their own house, and instead moved into a rooming house near the Hiram college.  They always had someone living with them.

Separations soon put a strain on their marriage.  Due to his many jobs and duties, James was away from home for long absences ~ but also wanted to be away.  He wasn’t yet truly prepared to be a husband and father.  Even the birth of their first child in 1860 didn’t keep her restless, somewhat selfish, father home.  James and Lucretia called these the “Dark Years.”  During their first five years of marriage, they were only together 20 weeks.

Lucretia was trying to be “the best little wife and mother she could be,” but she admitted that her reserved personality was also to blame for their grim situation.  She showed her diary to James and he read about her true emotions for him.  They needed each other – they made each other better.


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

Many factors contributed to them drawing closer together: the importance of family brought home to James during the Civil War, the birth and loss of children, a regrettable affair for which James sought Lucretia’s forgiveness and guidance, a Grand Tour together, their mutual interests, their strong religious faith.  His political career allowed them to spend more time together as a family during sessions of Congress when he moved them all to Washington with him.  He became a “family man.”


James and Lucretia Garfield’s marriage produced seven children.  Their firstborn, daughter Eliza, and last born, son Edward, both died in childhood.  Their other five children-sons Harry, James R. Irvin, and Abram; and daughter Mollie-all survived to adulthood.  James’s mother, Eliza (see at far right in this image) lived with the family for many years as well, including during their tragically brief stay in the White House.  (Library of Congress)

Lucretia noted that “the forces drawing the two of us together were stronger than the differences pulling us apart.”  When President James Garfield died in 1881, the two were close to celebrating their 23rd wedding anniversary.  They were an established married couple who spent much time together as their children were growing up.  They were supportive partners ~ Lucretia was her husband’s most important political confidant and fierce ally.  They wrote about their loneliness for one another when apart ~ and of a new-found devotion to one another.

James to Lucretia – December 1867:

“We no longer love because we ought to, but because we do.  Were I free to choose out of all the world the sharer of my heart and home and life, I would fly to you and ask you to be mine as you are.”

Lucretia to James – September 1870:

“…I stopped amazed to find myself sitting by our fireside, the loved and loving wife, …lifted up from the confusions and out from the entanglements…I felt that we are not living on the same plain [sic] as heretofore, that we are scarcely the same beings, but like conquering sovereigns we live in high isolation, wedded in heart and soul and life.” 


Lucretia Rudolph Garfield (second from right) poses with her five surviving children in 1911, thirty years after her husband’s tragic death.  From left to right: Irvin Garfield; Mollie Garfield Stanley-Brown; Abram Garfield; Lucretia Rudolph Garfield; James R. Garfield; and Harry Garfield.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)


Postscript: “Dearest Crete” kept the letters from her “Darling Jamie” and shared them with her adult children to show the progression of the Garfields’ marriage.  She wanted them to understand the metamorphosis of the relationship and depth of their love.

-Debbie Weinkamer, Lead Volunteer