An Afternoon with James A. Garfield

Koritansky Hall, Hiram College. Site where James Garfield preached.

Some things are worth the wait. Last weekend, I set out on my first Chasing Presidents tour of 2023. I turned back after only a half hour. I was to visit five new presidential sites and three I have been to previously. But it was ‘misting’ when I left home and ‘drizzling’ when I turned on Historic Route 20. Such is Ohio weather in January. Some days are ‘stay inside’ weather and we natives listen to such advice.

I am glad I waited, as a week later I glanced out the window and saw blue sky above us for the first time in many days. It was not long before I showered and dressed and was readying the car for a short adventure. I narrowed my itinerary down from eight sites to four, concentrating solely on a man I believe would have rivaled Lincoln for his oratory and accomplishments- the nation’s 20th President and Ohio’s fourth (and third in a row), James Abram Garfield.

It is strange I have not been to these sites before, as Garfield is one of my favorite presidents. But that question is for another time. Smack dab in the middle of my first three day weekend of 2023- I am on the road Chasing Presidents and could not have been happier. I decided to visit the furthest site first- a little strategy to make a long trip seem less so. Hiram College, here I come.

James Garfield was one of the few teachers who became president, the other is Lyndon Johnson [Update- In the book I am reading about Grover Cleveland I discover he taught for one year]. Garfield studied at Hiram and then remained as faculty and eventually became its Principal. The Garfield house on the campus is the house still standing where Garfield spent the most time.

Lawnfield, the Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, is grand and beautiful and filled with History (including the 1880 Front Porch Campaign), but it doesn’t have the worn paths by Garfield that Hiram can boast. The setting is breathtaking. My Pennsylvania friends who complained constantly of Ohio being ‘flat’ have not been to Hiram (or any place south of the Turnpike for that matter). This is nice.

The air was crisp, hovering just above freezing. But the sun that beckoned me outdoors shone brightly in Hiram. You can mistake a cold day for warm just by raising your face to the light. For college students, I understand such days are for staying inside. I didn’t see too many collegians as I walked the sidewalks. There were a few dragging themselves somewhere- head down, heavy backpack draped across their shoulders. It is quite possible that backpack was the only thing keeping them from tumbling over. I remember those days, some wicked slumber interrupted by a piercing alarm signaling it was time to go to class.

Hiram has a few Garfield related stops for the Presidential Enthusiast. The Garfield House, Koritansky Hall where he preached, and a statue beside the Hall in front of massive pine trees. The statue lost its head in 2003, but thankfully the two decades in between have camouflaged the stark difference in stone color to make it appear he had his wits about him all along.

The statue was dedicated in 1914, and is a very 1914 looking monument. (Sad face) The accompanying plaque reveals a minor error. It reads Garfield was president from 1880 until his assassination in 1881. This is wrong. Garfield was elected in 1880 and was inaugurated on March 4, 1881. He served until his death on September 19 of the same year. He was shot on July 2, making his administration the second shortest in our history, following William Henry Harrison’s thirty days.

I am sure the plaque writer wanted to make his days as President as long as possible. It is unfortunate that Garfield was not better protected (in public and by his medical team). You may know that bullet could have been left alone and he would have survived and served out (most likely) two terms.

After visiting Hiram, I stopped briefly at the gravesite of Garfield’s parents in Solon and then proceeded to his birthplace in Moreland Hills, Ohio, not too far from Hiram. Unfortunately, the birthplace is only open for a very short time period on Saturdays beginning in June. And the police officer that staked out nearby when I pulled into the municipal building parking lot made me think better of ‘visiting’ the site regardless of whether it was open or not.

I shall return.

By Eric Ebinger

Constantly feeding the passion of studying presidents with reading, writing and walking humbly in their footsteps. Constantly- except for the 50 hours a week I serve as Human Resources Manager for a wonderful manufacturing company in north central Ohio. 

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