Wednesday, June 27, 2012

James Garfield House -- a Porch, a Tree, and Windmill

Recently I got the chance to see the James Garfield historic site in Mentor, Ohio. It's a beautiful building in a park-like setting.

Gray Queen Anne-style house with red roof, porch all along the front
Garfield, elected president in 1880, spent the campaign season on this porch. Up until this time, candidates did not campaign; instead, surrogates would speak on their behalf. Garfield was best known as an orator, however, and so he played to his strength by speaking from the porch, with crowds and the press gathered on the lawn. Historians consider this to be the beginning of modern campaigning. (Thanks a lot, Jim.)

Two of the most striking elements of the site's grounds are not the house itself, beautiful as it is. First, there's this tree:

Twisted and weeping tree, next to gray and red house
It's a weeping European beech (Fagus sylvatica pendula), about four stories tall, and, according to a National Park Ranger I talked to, it's about 110 years old.

Close up of tree leaves, twisted twigs
Probably the most beautiful tree I've ever seen.

Second was the windmill:

Craftsman-style windmill with cedar shake shingles, stone base
It was built in the 1890s by Garfield's widow, Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, to create a "feature" on the property as well as pump water out of the ground. The middle of the tower houses a tank that held 500 barrels worth of water. Underground pipes connect to the house, where the water was pumped to a 300-gallon tank on the third floor so it could be gravity-fed to the bathrooms, kitchen, and laundry room.

Garfield and his house were prominent in Sarah Vowell's book Assassination Vacation, in which she recounts her visits to sites connected to presidents who were assassinated.

Garfield's story confounds me just a bit. I've been reading his Wikipedia entry, trying to figure out how a 30-year-old man with no family money or military training managed to get commissioned as a colonel in the Civil War, serve two years, get elected to Congress, and then buy this huge house and estate (plus a house in Washington). He was basically a smart, well-spoken guy who went from college straight into politics.

Where did the money come from? Members of Congress in 1865 were paid $5,000 a year, the equivalent of $70,000 today, so that's not it.

I guess next time I'll have to plan my visit when the site is open so I can ask these questions of the Park Rangers.


Michael Leddy said...

I’m passing this post on to my son, who has recommended Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic to everyone in our fam.

Daughter Number Three said...

Sounds like a good book. I'll add it to my list.

I've always had a vague affection for Garfield because of a book I read when I was in junior high. I don't know its title or author, but it took place at the time of his death, and the narrator strongly admired him.