Welcome to the brand new blog of James A. Garfield National Historic Site! In our first post, we thought it appropriate to provide some background on how the site became a part of President Garfield’s family and later a part of the National Park Service.
Throughout Garfield’s seventeen-year career in the U.S. House of Representatives, he spent the year divided between a number of homes in Washington D.C. while Congress was in session and in his native northern Ohio during the summer break. After years of summers spent at his wife Lucretia’s family home in Hiram and the recreational resort on Little Mountain near Painseville, Garfield desired a permanent family residence and a home to which he could retreat when his duties in the capital were finished.
In 1876, the Democratic state legislature redrew the lines of Ohio’s congressional districts and Garfield’s listed residence in Portage County fell outside the newly redrawn 19th district lines. With the help of his friend and Cleveland businessman Dr. John P. Robison, Garfield discovered the Dickey farm in the safely Republican township of Mentor. The farm was traversed by the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern railroad as well as the city’s main highway that connected Cleveland with Buffalo, New York, serving as the chief line of communication between the east and the west. On September 26, 1876 Garfield made the widow Dickey an offer of $115 per acre for her 116-acre farm, and on Halloween the acquisition of the property was complete.
“So, at last, I am to be a farmer again. As a financial investment, I do not think it very wise; but as a means of securing a summer home, and teaching my boys to do farm work, I feel well about it.” (JAG Diary, October 31, 1876)
The family did not move to the Mentor farm until the spring of 1877, so Garfield had his good friend Dr. Robison act as agent for his new land – managing construction projects, overseeing animal husbandry, and hiring the farm’s workers. By the end of the year, Garfield owned roughly a 160-acre farm for which he paid a total of $17,500 – a hefty sum in the late 1870s – by taking out a mortgage on the property and borrowing money from Dr. Robison.
When congressional duties demanded his presence in Washington, Garfield often wrote to Lucretia about his yearning to be with the family in Ohio. In May 1877 he penned in a letter how “sweet and inviting the dear, new home beckons to me away among the green fields of Mentor.” When he was able to return to the farm, Garfield spent much of his time in the fields with his sons and farm hands tilling the soil and conducting a variety of agricultural experiments. Ever the enthusiastic farmer, Garfield wrote, “I long for a time to study agricultural chemistry, and make experiments with soils and forces.” (JAG Diary, Sept. 24, 1879) He equipped the farm with the latest machinery and supplies, including a Champion Drill to sow wheat and a Peerless Mower and Reaper. He also improved the quantity and quality of the livestock, purchasing pure Durham cows and heifers, horses, pigs, and chickens.
By the spring of 1880, Garfield and Lucretia decided to make some much needed changes to the house. The original Dickey farmhouse was a small, 1 ½-story structure, clearly too small a home for the nine people who would reside there by 1879 –James and Lucretia Garfield, their five children, Lucretia’s father Zeb, and the future president’s mother Eliza. That year, the Garfields enlarged the home to 2 ½-stories, added eleven rooms, constructed a front porch, and refurnished the interior.
The year 1880 proved to be a busy one at the Mentor farm for that summer Garfield held his ‘front-porch’ presidential campaign from the property, nicknamed “Lawnfield” by the newspaper reporters who camped out on the grounds. During the campaign summer, the Garfields welcomed numerous visitors to their home, such as former President Grant (and his right-hand man Roscoe Conkling, Garfield’s greatest political opponent), and the all-black Fisk University Jubilee Singers.
Sadly, once inaugurated as president, Garfield never returned to his Mentor home. After his death on September 19, 1881, Lucretia and the five children returned to Mentor. In 1885-6, Lucretia added a back wing to the home that included several extra bedrooms and the first presidential memorial library, where she preserved her husband’s papers. She also oversaw the construction of a windmill to pump water up to the third floor of the home and a new carriage house. The Mentor farm remained in the Garfield family until 1936 when the Garfield children, by then grown with families of their own, donated the house to the Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1980, Congress designated James A. Garfield’s home as a National Historic Site within the National Park Service. While the artifact collection is still owned by WRHS, the National Park Service has maintained full operations of the site since 2008.
Lucretia once wrote to her youngest son Abram, “I somehow feel that the house here is a much more interesting monument to your father’s memory than anything that can be built merely as a monument, and I want it to be worthy of him.” (November 13, 1892). We hope that the James A. Garfield National Historic Site today fulfills Lucretia’s wish.
P.S. We are launching this blog on July 2, 2012, the 131st anniversary of President Garfield’s shooting. While some may call this morbid, we view it as a commemoration of his lasting legacy!
-Stephanie Gray, Park Guide