By Vince Guerrieri
There’s no better place to celebrate President's Day than Ohio. One of the state’s nicknames is “Mother of Presidents.” A total of seven presidents were born in the state of Ohio, and although William Henry Harrison was born in Virginia, he was the first President from Ohio.
Harrison served as U.S. Congressman and Senator from Ohio before being elected President, and had a home in North Bend. He became the first president to die in office (of the eight presidents from Ohio, four died in office – including two that were assassinated) after catching pneumonia during a lengthy inauguration speech on a cold day. He died after 30 days in office and is buried in North Bend.
Ulysses S. Grant went to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and embarked on a lengthy military career, including leading the Army as a four-star general during the Civil War. He lived in Illinois before being elected President, and died in New York, but he’s an Ohio native. He was born in Point Pleasant, near New Richmond and grew up in Georgetown. Both have museums dedicated to Grant, although the boyhood home is undergoing a renovation.
Grant was the first of three consecutive Ohioans elected President. He was succeeded by Rutherford B. Hayes, a native of Delaware, Ohio, who had also served as a general in the Civil War. Hayes was governor of Ohio and practiced law in Fremont and Cincinnati. After serving one term as President, Hayes returned to Fremont to his home, Spiegel Grove. The home was donated to the state of Ohio in 1915, and was established as the first presidential library in the United States. The gates around the grounds are old wrought-iron gates from the White House, which became outdated with the advent of auto travel. Hayes’ son Webb asked President Warren G. Harding – another Ohioan – for them, and eventually got them. President Hayes, his wife Lucy and Hayes’ horse Whitey are all buried on the grounds.
Hayes, in turn, was succeeded by James Garfield, another Ohio native and former Civil War general. Garfield was born in a log cabin in Moreland Hills, Ohio, a replica of which sits on the municipal hall grounds. Garfield served eight terms in Congress representing districts in Northeast Ohio when there was talk to appoint him to the U.S. Senate (before passage of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, state legislatures appointed U.S. Senators) in 1879. But in 1880, he was nominated as the Republican candidate for President. Unlike today, where candidates travel throughout the country, Garfield had a “front porch” campaign, not venturing far from his home in Mentor. That home is now the James A. Garfield Presidential Site. Garfield was shot in a Washington D.C. train station less than four months after taking office, and died three months after that – more from unsanitary conditions than the actual bullet wound. (Garfield’s assassination is discussed at length in the book “Destiny of the Republic.”)
In the election of 1888, Benjamin Harrison – William Henry’s grandson – defeated Grover Cleveland (who, ironically enough, was from New York). Harrison was born in North Bend, studied at Miami University and practiced law in Cincinnati.
William McKinley was the last Civil War veteran elected president, in 1897. He was born in Niles, but settled in Canton after the war. There’s a monument to his birthplace in Niles – including a great hall and the Niles Public Library – as well as a reproduction of a home of the era. McKinley and his wife Ida are interred in the McKinley Memorial in Canton. The building is visible from Interstate 77.
Lawyer Alphonso Taft moved from Vermont to Cincinnati to practice law. He bought a home on Auburn Street, and his wife Louise gave birth to a son, William Howard, there in 1857. William Howard Taft grew up to be President and Chief Justice of the United States, and his boyhood home is now a historic site, open for tours and containing a museum to William Howard Taft. (Taft was the featured speaker at the dedication of the McKinley Monument in Niles in 1917.)
The last president from Ohio – at least, so far – was Warren G. Harding, who is probably most notable today for being the head of a corrupt presidential administration in “Boardwalk Empire.” Harding and his wife Florence married in the home they bought in Marion – where Warren was the owner and publisher of the Marion Star, today the town’s only newspaper – and lived there until he was elected President in 1920. Their home was bequeathed to start a museum, but there was no presidential library to be had: Florence Harding burned all her husband’s papers after learning of his death.