The Front Porch Campaign of 1880

In 1880, the “surprise” presidential nomination of Ohioan James A. Garfield by the Republicans resulted in a campaign that, unlike any before it, regularly brought citizens and candidate face-to-face. It was conducted on the front porch of Garfield’s home.

Prior to 1880, it was considered undignified for anyone to actively seek the presidency. Nominees did not travel from state to state or city to city to tell voters that they had the solutions for the country’s problems. Expected to emulate the example of George Washington, they were to remain above the fray.  The sitting president, Rutherford B. Hayes, spoke to this tradition when he advised Garfield to “sit cross-legged and look wise until after the election.”

Traditionally, it was the Congressmen, Senators, and party workers who did the heavy lifting during presidential campaigns. It was they who traveled, they who spoke, they who organized evening torchlight parades, and more. Garfield honored these traditions. Meanwhile, he stayed home; he stayed put. But his 1880 campaign departed significantly from past practice.

JamesGarfieldOval

In 1880, James A. Garfield had represented his Ohio district in the U.S. House of Representatives for 17 years.  He was also a U.S. Senator-elect when the Republicans chose him to be their presidential candidate that year.  (Library of Congress)

Arriving at his Mentor farm after his nomination at Chicago, Garfield was greeted by crowds of citizens. People who had known him from his days as a student, teacher, and Civil War officer came to wish him success. Newspaper reporters camped out on his lawn. Their accounts of the welcome Garfield received stimulated interest in his candidacy.

Farmers and businessmen, college students and women (unable cast ballots in 1880), immigrants and Union veterans, including a number of black veterans, came to see, came to hear, and came to meet the Republican nominee.

In the little campaign office behind his home, Garfield and his aides exchanged letters and telegrams with the leaders of groups to fix dates and times of arrival, and to exchange information, so that when they met, a group’s spokesman and Garfield could address each other with appropriate remarks.

CHWestView

This is a modern image of the small exterior library building that James A. Garfield turned into a campaign office during his 1880 presidential campaign.  It is located just behind the main Garfield home, and visitors to James A. Garfield NHS are invited to step inside and see the office’s interior.  (NPS photo)

An estimated 15,000 to 17,000 citizens traveled to Mentor, Ohio (population: 540) to see and hear Garfield. From a train platform specially built to bring the people to the candidate, they literally walked a mile-and-a-half up a lane that extended the entire length of Garfield’s 160 acre farm. They walked up that lane in good weather and in bad, in sunshine and in showers.

Often, a “Garfield and Arthur” band was playing near the front porch when visitors arrived, adding excitement to the air. Poets read and singers sang. A Congressman, Senator, or local official would hail the Republican Party and Garfield.

Soon, the candidate would pass through the vestibule doors leading from the interior of his home to his porch. A designated group leader addressed him respectfully. Garfield would respond, eschewing political issues. He spoke instead to the identities and the aspirations of those gathered before him. His remarks were often brief, sometimes lasting no more than three or four minutes. From the porch serving as his podium, Garfield discussed “The Possibilities of Life,” “The Immortality of Ideas,” and “German Citizens.”

As a teacher, soldier, Congressman, and Republican presidential nominee, James Garfield wrestled with the matter of race. It was as difficult an issue for his generation as it is for ours.  Still, he supported the right of African-Americans to be free, to be equal with whites in the eyes of the law, and to be treated with justice. In his remarks on “The Future of Colored Men,” Garfield spoke to 250 such citizens assembled on his lawn in October 1880.

BlackVetsatLawnfield

These African American Civil War veterans visited James A. Garfield’s Mentor, Ohio property during the 1880 “front porch” presidential campaign.  The Garfield home is visible in the background.  Garfield was one of the few Republicans still openly talking about race and civil rights as late as 1880.  (NPS photo)

“Of all the problems that any nation ever confronted,” he said, “none was ever more difficult than that of settling the great race question… on the basis of broad justice and equal rights to all. It was a tremendous trial of the faith of the American people, a tremendous trial of the strength of our institutions…” that they had survived a brutal and bloody civil war; that freedom had been won for the enslaved as a result; that the promise of fair treatment was to be the inheritance of the freedmen.

When, late in the campaign, he stood before his “Friends and Neighbors” from Portage County, Ohio, he revealed the tender side of his nature, and his appreciation for the life he’d been given. To this audience, composed of the many who had helped to form the fabric of his being, he offered these thoughts:

“Here are the school-fellows of twenty-eight years ago.

Here are men and women who were my pupils twenty-

five years ago… I see others who were soldiers in the

old regiment which I had the honor to command… How

can I forget all these things, and all that has followed?

How can I forget…the people of Portage County, when

I see men and women from all its townships standing at

my door? I cannot forget these things while life and

consciousness remain. The freshness of youth, the very

springtide of life… all was with you, and of you, my

neighbors, my friends, my cherished comrades… You

are here, so close to my heart… whatever may befall me

hereafter…”

GarfieldsOnPorch

A common scene during the 1880 front porch campaign: Garfield and family members sitting on the front porch of their Mentor, Ohio farmhouse.  Left to right: Eliza  Ballou Garfield (James Garfield’s mother); James Garfield; Mollie Garfield (President and Mrs. Garfield’s 13-year-old daughter); and Mrs. Lucretia Garfield.  (Western Reserve Historical Society)

And then, as he had so often done before, James Garfield invited his guests to linger in friendly communion: “Ladies and gentlemen, all the doors of my house are open to you. The hand of every member of my family is outstretched to you. Our hearts greet you, and we ask you to come in.”

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

(Park Ranger Alan Gephardt wrote this article in January 2016 for the blog of PBS’s American Experience to coincide with the February 2 national broadcast of Murder of a President, their excellent documentary about President Garfield and his tragic 1881 assassination.)

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Mourning President Garfield

“The waves of emotion that swept over the country, moreover, were fed not only by the fact that America’s president had been attacked…but that that president had been Garfield.”
-Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
President James A. Garfield was only in office just four short months before Charles Guiteau’s attempted assassination. While his time as President was brief, his effect on the nation was not. Out of the many things that stand out about James A. Garfield, his effect on the nation is one that must not be over looked. His death has been compared that of John F. Kennedy. Both were bright, articulate, hopeful presidents who had set out to unite America.
On July 2, 1881, President Garfield became the second president to be shot. Walking through Washington, D.C.’s Baltimore & Potomac train station, heading toward his New England-bound train, President Garfield was shot twice by Charles Guiteau, a man who until recently had hoped to work for the President.

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881.  Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked.  Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield.  (

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881. Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked. Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield. (Library of Congress)

In 1881, Presidents did not have guards surrounding them or security escorts when traveling. Americans believed the President should be accessible to everyone. The only guard between the President and the people when he was at the White House was his secretary, Joseph Stanley- Brown. Even President Garfield, desperate to cling to any remaining freedoms after taking office, argued that he needed no more protection than the average American.
This mindset, the ability to relate with the general public, was one of the things the nation loved about Garfield. He was human to them, someone with whom nearly everyone could identify. He had grown up in extreme poverty in northern Ohio. His father had died young, and that left only his mother to raise him and his older siblings. He attended school, much of which he paid for by working before and after his classes. Entering the army during the Civil War, he rose up the ranks to become a Major General, only leaving to take a seat in Congress to which his fellow Ohioans had elected him while he fought. However, he remained a farmer and a family man, constantly challenging his children both physically and intellectually. These facts made him different than many of the presidents before him. His life story made him relatable to the average citizen. He welcomed all to his farm in Mentor, Ohio. During his campaign he spoke to all with the same tone of respect, regardless of their place in society.

1880 view of the Garfield home and property, which became the focal point of Garfield's 1880 presidential campaign. (Wash drawing by delineator L.C. Corwine, Library of Congress)

1880 view of the Garfield home and property, which became the focal point of Garfield’s 1880 presidential campaign. (Wash drawing by delineator L.C. Corwine, Library of Congress)

It was Garfield as a person, not a president, that made his death heartbreaking to many Americans. With his death, Americans united with a common feeling of loss, and a common sense of patriotism that had not been seen since before the Civil War, if ever before that.
For many, President Garfield represented not just who America was, but also what it hoped to become. With his death, Americans lost the figurehead they had made Garfield, and that loss was felt by all, regardless of race, gender, or statehood. He was someone who would not tolerate discrimination but also managed to make many in the South feel as though the government was their government, too. This was something they had not felt in years. His background allowed him to connect to the pioneers heading west, while also relating to the immigrants arriving from the east. James A. Garfield was someone that many Americans not only trusted, but loved almost as family.
For 80 days, from the shooting on July 2 to his death on September 19, the public read every newspaper and waited for each bulletin from the President’s doctors hoping for news of Garfield’s recovery. With the announcement of his death, the entire nation mourned, and many traveled to the Washington, D.C. Over 100,000 people went to the nation’s capital to view the President’s body. Everyone from poor farmers to wealthy women and African American laborers came to pay their respects. Mollie Garfield, the president’s daughter wrote in her diary about how the whole city was covered in black. From the White House to the poorest homes, the city was in full mourning. Many who could not afford anything more tore up black clothing and hung it in their windows.

The White House with mourning decorations in September 1881, after the death of President James A. Garfield.  (Library of Congress)

The White House with mourning decorations in September 1881, after the death of President James A. Garfield. (Library of Congress)

Americans were not inactive in their mourning. Over $300,000 was raised to help Lucretia and her children. Hundreds of people wrote letters sending their condolences to Lucretia, many of which she kept in the Memorial Library she created after her husband’s death. Large amounts of memorabilia for the late president were also made, and could be seen in many homes across the country. His monument at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio was one of the biggest and most elaborate mausoleums of its time. People wanted a lasting memorial to Garfield, much like his wife wanted when she created the Memorial Library at their home in Mentor.

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband's book collection and memory for herself and their children.  She added the

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband’s book collection and memory for herself and their children. She added the “Memory Room” to store the papers of his public career, thus creating the nation’s first presidential library. (NPS photo)

Garfield was the last president to be born in a log cabin. He was the last of many things, but the first of many more. More important than any of Garfield’s achievements during his brief presidency was the impact he had on the American people. His death truly united citizens as Americans. A man who in life had made everyone feel welcome in the United States in death made them feel as though they truly were the United States.

-Rachel Gluvna, Volunteer

The President James A. Garfield Death Mask

On display in the James A. Garfield National Historic Site visitor center is the bronze death mask and hand of President James A. Garfield. The mask weighs 7 1/2 pounds, and the hand 2 1/2 lbs.

It was common practice into the 20th century for a plaster facial impression to be made moments after the death of a famous person. Sometimes the hand was cast as well. The purpose was to capture the last image of the person to use in later portraits or statues. After President Garfield died on September 19, 1881, the family asked the famous sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to make a death mask of President Garfield. 

This death mask of Presdient Garfield was sculpted by renowned sculptor Augusts St. Gaudens after the President's death on Sept. 19, 1881.  The President's face appears gaunt; he had lost about 100 pounds between being shot on July 2 and his death.  This death mask can be viewed in the visitor center museum at James A. Garfield National Historic Site.  (Photo courtesy of Jim Steinhart)

This death mask of President Garfield was made by renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens after the President’s death on Sept. 19, 1881. The President’s face appears gaunt; he had lost nearly 100 pounds between being shot on July 2 and his death 80 days later. This death mask can be viewed in the visitor center museum at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. (Photo courtesy of Jim Steinhart)

To create the mold, Saint-Gaudens would first have covered the deceased President’s face with lard and then painted several layers of plaster over it. When the plaster dried, the sculptor would have removed the plaster impression and taken it to his studio and used it to create a mold, which would later be used to create another mold that would be cast in bronze. The family had the last mold destroyed so that no other copies could be made.

Saint-Gaudens was an Irish-born American sculptor of the Beaux Arts period. He designed monuments to Civil War heroes such as William Tecumseh Sherman, Abraham Lincoln, and Robert Gould Shaw. He designed the $20 double eagle gold coin and the $10 Indian head gold coin.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, show here in his studio, is probably the best-known American sculptor (though he was born in Ireland).  Today, you can visit his home and studio, which are preserved as Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire.  Find it online at www.nps.gov/saga.  (Smithsonian Institution American Art Museum)

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, show here in his studio, is probably the best-known American sculptor (though he was born in Ireland). Today, you can visit his home and studio, which are preserved as Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire. Find it online at http://www.nps.gov/saga. (Smithsonian Institution American Art Museum)

Masks have been in existence since the time of the Egyptian pharoah Tutankhamun, whose solid gold burial mask is an object of extreme beauty. At the end of many remarkable lives, historic figures such as Shakespeare, Washingon, Napoleon, Newton, Beethoven, Lincoln, and Lenin were immortalized with death masks.

Since the 13th century, death masks have helped sculptors of tomb effigies, but in medieval France and England real death masks were used for the royal funeral effigies that lay in state. Only Britsh examples still exist, because those in France were destroyed during the French Revolution.

This plaster of one of Saint-Gaudens' most famous sculptures is on display at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire.  It depicts Col. Robert Gould Shaw (on horseback) leading the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the all-black unit famously depicted in the popular film "Glory."  (Boston College)

This plaster of one of Saint-Gaudens’ most famous sculptures is on display at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire. It depicts Col. Robert Gould Shaw (on horseback) leading the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the all-black unit famously dramatized  in the popular film “Glory.” (Boston College)

Before the widespread availability of photography, the death mask was also used as a forensic tool to aid relatives in identifying a desceased body if the loved one was a missing person who had already been buried. One such mask recorded the face of an unidentified 16 year-old woman found drowned in the Seine in Paris in the 1880s. She was considered so beautiful that reproductions of the mask became very popular. In 1960, the face of ResuciAnni, the world’s first CPR training mannequin, was modeled after this drowned young woman.

-Pat Coil, Volunteer

Serving as a National Park Service Volunteer

If you would have asked me this time a year ago about being a National Park Service Volunteer, I would have said “What are you talking about?” Ask me now, and I will tell you it is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

My name is Andrew Mizsak, I am a resident of Bedford, Ohio, and I have been a Volunteer here at James A. Garfield NHS for nearly a year. I am involved at the site in historical interpretation, where I give tours of the home of President Garfield, work with Boy Scouts, and give large-scale presentations every few months. As a history and government teacher, I look at what I do here at the Site as not only a way to serve my country, but also as an extension of my teaching.

The National Park Service volunteer logo incorporates the agency's iconic "arrowhead" logo but is distinctive enough to generate pride in those who wear it.  (NPS image)

The National Park Service volunteer logo incorporates the agency’s iconic “arrowhead” logo but is distinctive enough to generate pride in those who wear it. (NPS image)

It is truly a privilege to work with such a great group of individuals who are dedicated to the preservation of our nation’s historical treasures, and honoring the legacy of the Garfield Family. There is an esprit de corps here amongst the Rangers and Volunteers that is contagious, and the overarching values of teamwork and remaining focused on our mission of serving as good stewards of our nation’s history guide all we do.

What I really enjoy about serving as an NPS Volunteer is that this is a position where you can really make it your own. Your level of involvement is completely up to you. I am fortunate where I can spend many of my Saturdays here at the Park, and give a couple of tours, or work whatever special event is going on. The staff here at JAGA is very supportive of the research I have conducted for the programming I have presented, and have been very generous with their support and assistance.

During my time at JAGA, I have been able to conduct research about James A. Garfield and how the Constitution of the United States affected aspects of his life, as well as research into his tenure as an Ohio State Senator from 1859-61. During my research on Garfield and the Constitution, I found that President Garfield in January, 1865, as a Member of the US House of Representatives from Ohio, had a significant role in the debate in the U.S. House of Representatives regarding the 13th Amendment – that was the debate that served as the plot of the movie “Lincoln.” However in the movie, there is not a single mention of him.

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolished slavery in the United States.  James A. Garfield, a Republican Congressman at the time and strong anti-slavery voice since before the Civil War, participated in the heated January 1865 debates on this amendment.  The fight to pass this amendment is the main plot of Steven Spielberg's Academy Award-winning film "Lincoln."  (National Constitution Center)

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution formally abolished slavery in the United States. James A. Garfield, a Republican Congressman at the time and strong anti-slavery voice since before the Civil War, participated in the heated January 1865 debates on this amendment. The fight to pass this amendment is the main plot of Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning film “Lincoln.” (National Constitution Center)

I also learned, during my research into Garfield’s time as a State Senator, that he and his roommate, Jacob Dolson Cox, who would also serve as a Civil War General and later as an Ohio Governor, would practice military drill on the front lawn of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus after Senate Session. Garfield would then go home and read the works of Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Garfield would come to revere, and claim that he learned how to be an officer by studying Napoleon. For those of you who have been on the House Tour, you know that there are portraits of Napoleon on either side of the fireplace in the Reception Hall, as well as one in the Memorial Library between the portraits of General William Tecumseh Sherman and Otto Von Bismarck. 

Being a National Park Service Volunteer at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, or at any other National Park, is something I recommend if you are interested in helping to preserve our nation’s historical, natural, or cultural treasures, and like to tell their story. In my short time here at JAGA, I have made some wonderful friends, been able to really get back into what I love doing, and contribute to a cause that I believe in.

If this sounds like something that is a good fit for you, then come join our ranks. I would be more than happy to talk to you about serving as a NPS Volunteer.

-Andrew Mizsak, Volunteer

James A. Garfield NHS has numerous opportunities for volunteers, including leading public tours of the beautifully and accurately restored Garfield home.  (NPS image)

James A. Garfield NHS has numerous opportunities for volunteers, including leading public tours of the beautifully and accurately restored Garfield home. (NPS image)

James A. Garfield and “Rain Follows the Plow”

James A. Garfield pursued many vocations during his relatively short life of 49 years and ten months, including canal worker, janitor, minister, college professor and president, lawyer, soldier, congressman, and President of the United States. Less well-known, though, is his lifelong interest in agriculture, which prompted him to purchase a 120-acre farm in Mentor, Ohio in 1876. “I must get a place where I can put my boys at work, and teach them farming,” he wrote in his diary on September 26, 1876. After purchasing the property, Garfield wrote his wife, Lucretia, “So, my darling, you shall have a home and a cow.” Today, about eight acres of that farm and its buildings are preserved as James A. Garfield National Historic Site. Here Congressman Garfield grew wheat, rye, and barley, and also had an orchard of apple and peach trees.

In early June 1880, Garfield traveled to the Republican National Convention in Chicago to nominate fellow Ohioan John Sherman as the party’s presidential candidate for that November’s election. The next time he saw his Mentor farm, Garfield himself was the somewhat surprised Republican presidential nominee, and the farm became his campaign’s headquarters. Even as a candidate for the nation’s highest office, Garfield meticulously tracked the work being done on his farm. On July 31, 1880 he recorded: “Men continued threshing until noon. Had the oats hauled in from the field and threshed as they arrived. Result 475 bushels. Not so good a yield as last year.  All spring grain seems to be lighter this year than the fall sown crops.”

This image shows James A. Garfield's property as it appeared during his 1880 presidential campaign.  The barn and other farm buildings are visible.  The expansive lawn around the house led reporters covering the campaign to nickname the property "Lawnfield."  (Lake County Historical Society)

This image shows James A. Garfield’s property as it appeared during his 1880 presidential campaign. The barn and other farm buildings are visible. The expansive lawn around the house led reporters covering the campaign to nickname the property “Lawnfield.” (Lake County Historical Society)

Two weeks later, on August 13, he noted, “Have agreed to send my wheat, about 200 bushels of it, to Cleveland for sale at 90 cents per bushel.” On September 19: “Did not attend church, but made a tour over the farm, inspecting the cattle and crops.” On Election Day, November 2: “Arranged for plowing and seeding garden east of house, and starting a new one in rear of engine house.”

Garfield won the election, and from November 1880 to late February 1881, he hosted many visitors seeking an audience with the new President-elect. On January 26, 1881, Garfield recorded in his diary, “Profs. C.D. Wilber and Aughey of Nebraska came at noon, and spent the night…I sat up too late with Wilber for my health.” So just who were these Nebraskans who stopped by to visit and spend the night in the President-elect’s home?

Naturalist and geologist Samuel H. Aughey was a faculty member at the University of Nebraska who published widely on the natural features of his adopted state (he was a Pennsylvania native). He was also a shameless booster of settlement on the Great Plains, encouraging homesteaders and other land seekers to settle in Nebraska. During an unusually wet period in 1880, Aughey asserted that prairie sod being broken by plows was the reason for the increased rainfall. It stood to reason, then, that more settlers turning over more acres of soil would lead to ever more rainfall, and drought on the Great Plains would never be a problem as long as farmers continued to plant and harvest crops. The prairie soil would, according to M. Jean Ferrill in Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, “absorb the rain like a huge sponge once the sod had been broken. This moisture would then be slowly given back to the atmosphere by evaporation. Each year, as cultivation extended across the Plains…the moisture and rainfall would also increase until the region was fit for agriculture without irrigation.”

Samuel Aughey was a faculty member of the University of Nebraska and a vocal promoter of western settlement who developed the theory eventually encapsulated in the phrase "rain follows the plow."  He eventually left the University of Nebraska to become the state geologist of Wyoming.  (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Samuel Aughey was a faculty member of the University of Nebraska and a vocal promoter of western settlement who developed the theory encapsulated in the phrase “rain follows the plow.” He eventually left the University of Nebraska to become the state geologist of Wyoming. (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Journalist and author Charles Dana Wilber picked up on Aughey’s theory and included it in his 1881 book The Great Valleys and Prairies of Nebraska and the Northwest. It was Wilber, in fact, who coined and popularized the phrase “rain follows the plow,” which made Aughey’s bizarre theory more easily accessible to the public by breaking it down to a single phrase: 

“God speed the plow…. By this wonderful provision, which is only man’s mastery over nature, the clouds are dispensing copious rains … [the plow] is the instrument which separates civilization from savagery; and converts a desert into a farm or garden…. To be more concise, Rain follows the plow.”

Wilber also offered divine allegories for man’s besting of the natural environment in the area once labeled “the Great American Desert”:

“In this miracle of progress, the plow was the unerring prophet, the procuring cause, not by any magic or enchantment, not by incantations or offerings, but instead by the sweat of his face toiling with his hands, man can persuade the heavens to yield their treasures of dew and rain upon the land he has chosen for his dwelling… The raindrop never fails to fall and answer to the imploring power or prayer of labor.”

For western settlement boosters like Aughey and Wilber, “rain follows the plow” provided an easy response to those who worried about drought in western states and territories. The theory also appealed to those who put stock in ideas about America’s “Manifest Destiny,” the opinion that the United States had a God-given right and obligation to expand from the Atlantic to the Pacific. “Rain follows the plow” could easily be interpreted to justify removing American Indians from their traditional lands since few western tribes lived as sedentary farmers and therefore, according to many, were not using the land to its full potential. Even railroad companies got in on the act, using the theory to draw settlers to their land grants. (Railroad land available for purchase by settlers was often of far higher quality than that available from the federal government for free under the Homestead Act.) The Burlington and Missouri River Railroad eventually went so far as to have a stenographer in the crowd when Samuel Aughey spoke so that copies of his speeches extolling the virtues of western lands could be printed and distributed to prospective immigrants in Europe.

Aughey and Wilber's "rain follows the plow" theory encouraged many to try their hands at homesteading and farming in western states like Nebraska.  New settlers often found dry, barren land and built their first homes from prairie sod.  This famous photo by Solomon D. Butcher shows the Sylvester Rawding family in Custer County, Nebraska.  (Nebraska State Historical Society)

Aughey and Wilber’s “rain follows the plow” theory encouraged many to try their hands at homesteading and farming in western states like Nebraska. New settlers often found dry, barren land and built their first homes from prairie sod. This famous photo by Solomon D. Butcher shows the Sylvester Rawding family in Custer County, Nebraska. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

“Rain follows the plow” fell by the wayside when the Great Plains endured severe droughts in the 1890s that even the steel plows and increasingly mechanized implements of farmers could not prevent. Today, the theory is considered junk science, on par with phrenology, séances, and fad diets. But in January 1881 when they visited President-elect James A. Garfield, Samuel Aughey and Charles Wilber were just entering the period that would make them and their now-discredited theory famous. What fun it might have been to be a fly on the wall and eavesdrop on the conversation on the night of January 26, 1881, when the President-elect “sat up too late with Wilber for my health.”

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation and Education

Welcome to The Garfield Observer!

       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)

Dr. John P. Robison from History of Cuyahoga County, Ohio, 1879.

       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 Garfield Farm” floor plan, from the New York Herald, September 26, 1881.

       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. 

1880 view of Lawnfield. (Wash drawing by delineator L.C. Corwine, Library of Congress)

The windmill added to the property by Lucretia Garfield was responsible for the home’s water supply. NPS.

       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. 

James A. Garfield National Historic Site, NPS.

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