A century ago, Ohio was known as the mother of presidents, having produced eight of them by 1920. One of them was a native of the Cleveland area, James Abram Garfield, the 20th president of the United States born in Orange Township in 1831. He was the last president born in a log cabin.
H&C Koevoets, NY, engraving of "The Canal Boy" in the front of the Horatio Alger, Jr. book, "From Canal Boy to President"Very much a self-made man, Garfield’s first job involved driving a team of mules drawing a canal boat along what was then a large network of canals, hauling freight and passengers.
Garfield was well educated for his time and place. A graduate of the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) in Hiram, he returned to join the faculty after a stint as a schoolteacher. He rose to lead the institution after graduating in 1856 from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Along the way he studied law and became an attorney. He developed excellent public speaking skills by preaching in local Disciples of Christ churches.
When the Civil War began, Garfield was quick to join the Union Army. He began his military service as Lt. Col. of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, rising quickly to the rank of Major General. He served in the Battle of Shiloh—a bloody Union victory in Tennessee fought in April 1862—and the deadly Battle of Chickamauga in northern Georgia at the end of the following summer.
Having been elected to the House of Representatives in 1863, Garfield resigned his military commission and entered into a career in Congress destined to last until 1880.
Home of James A. Garfield in Mentor Ohio taken in the 50’s, he purchased the home in 1876.In 1876 Garfield purchased a played-out farm on Mentor Avenue in Mentor. Starting with a very modest Greek Revival farmhouse, he and his wife, Lucretia, began an extensive renovation on the one-and-a-half story fame house that greatly increased the size the building—adding two more stories, increasing the living area from nine room to 20 rooms, and added a front porch.
Journalists dubbed the home Lawnfield during Garfield’s 1880 presidential campaign, because many of them camped out on the lawns while waiting for Garfield’s famous front porch campaign speeches, which brought thousands to the property.
Lucretia Garfield was adamant that she didn’t want the reporters in her house. A small frame structure known as the Campaign Office was built in the yard near the house, providing a telegraph and a place of refuge for them.
Inaugurated as the 20th President of the United States in March 1881, Garfield’s tenure was destined to be brief. On July 2, 1881, he was approached by a disappointed office seeker named Charles J. Guiteau.
Currier & Ives print of the assassination of James A. Garfield 1881In a Washington train station as Garfield prepared to travel to a college class reunion, Guiteau shot the President twice in the back—believing that by murdering Garfield he would be rewarded by the President’s successor with a high political office.
Gravely wounded, Garfield was gently borne back to the White House. Guiteau was arrested and taken to jail.
Garfield suffered a painful ordeal, lingering through the summer in increasing distress until he died in Elberon, New Jersey on September 19, 1881. Guiteau was then tried and convicted for murder and executed.
In the aftermath of her husband’s death, Lucretia Garfield returned to Lawnfield in Mentor and supervised the construction of new wing of the building to house James Garfield’s papers—making it the country’s first presidential library.
She never remarried. Surviving her husband by 36 years, she died at her winter home in Pasadena in March 1918 at the age of 85. She then joined her husband in his Lake View tomb.
After Garfield’s funeral, his body was temporarily placed in the mausoleum Levi Scofield designed for his own family in Lake View Cemetery. Garfield remained in that mausoleum for 10 years while plans were made for a grand memorial in his honor.
Planning for the tomb began immediately after Garfield’s death. The site of the proposed memorial was selected in June 1883. Hartford, Connecticut-based architect George Keller was chosen to design the structure, having won a design competition with a $ 1,000 prize. The $135,000 cost of the memorial was entirely defrayed by private donations—much of it in the form of pennies given by schoolchildren. The cost in today’s money would be nearly $4 million.
The Garfield Memorial at Lake View CemeteryThe James A. Garfield Memorial is a commanding presence among the cemetery’s other monuments, the structure’s round tower is 50 feet in diameter and one hundred eighty feet high.
Construction began in the autumn of 1885. The completed structure was dedicated on May 30, 1890, sharing a birthday with Cleveland’s beloved Arcade, dedicated on the same day.
The Garfield Memorial was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 11, 1973—one of the first Cleveland buildings to achieve this honor.
Over the past several years Lake View Cemetery has spent $5 million to refurbish the monument. A century of blackened industrial pollution was removed, enabling modern visitors to see the monument as it appeared on Decoration Day more than 125 years ago.
Recently retired after a 37-year career teaching public speaking, Tom Matowitz has had a lifelong interest in local and regional history. Working as a freelance author for the past 20 years he has written a number of books and articles about Cleveland’s past. He has a particular interest in the area’s rich architectural history.