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Briefly, Garfield was our president



Published: Sun, August 19, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



MENTOR -- He was the 20th president of the United States, but during James A. Garfield's brief term in office, Americans scarcely had a chance to get to know him before he was killed by an assassin's bullet in 1881.

Today, 21st-century Americans can get an intimate glimpse into the life and times of this Ohio-born Republican when they visit the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, about 90 minutes northwest of Youngstown.

While touring the eight-acre grounds, visitors can ramble through Garfield's lavish home, see the campaign office from which he won the presidency and learn about his rise to the highest office in the country and his sudden and tragic descent into an early grave after only six months in office.

About his home: Garfield's former home, nicknamed Lawnfield because of its large expanse of lawn, was a dilapidated farmhouse when the former president purchased the property in 1876.

Today it is a three-story Victorian mansion with ornate woodwork, sprawling porches, colorful stained-glass windows and lavish decor.

The home includes most of the Garfield family's original furniture and features one-of-a-kind details, such as a dining room fireplace with tiles that were hand-painted by Garfield's wife and children.

Although the former president was responsible for much of Lawnfield's renovation, the house did not reach its present state of grandeur until after Garfield's death when his wife, Lucretia, added a large wing to accommodate a library in memory of her late husband.

After Lucretia's death in 1918, the Garfield family retained the home until 1934, when it was turned over to the Ohio Historical Society.

During the course of its extensive renovation, the Garfields added about 20 rooms and two and a half stories to what was originally a tiny, two-room, circa-1830 farmhouse.

Although many of Lawnfield's original outbuildings were torn down, the grounds still feature a granary, barn, chicken coop and a 75-foot-tall, circa-1893 windmill that was used to generate water.

Although the house is magnificent and grounds are beautiful, perhaps the most interesting aspect of a Lawnfield tour is learning about Garfield's life.

Biography: Born in a log cabin in Orange, Ohio, in 1831, Garfield lost his father when he was just 18 months old, struggled for an education and served as a general in the Civil War.

He graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1856 and returned to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College) as a professor of Latin and Greek. Within a year, he was made its president.

Before he became U.S. president in 1880, he was a teacher, lawyer and congressman.

Garfield's conduct while serving in the Civil War impressed President Lincoln so much that he persuaded Garfield to run for Congress.

Garfield met Lucretia, a native of Hiram, at Geauga Seminary in the village of Chesterland in 1849, and the two were married nine years later. The early years of their marriage were rocky, but they eventually made a success of the union.

They had seven children, but only five survived to adulthood.

While touring the house, visitors can take a peek into the children's former bedrooms. Visitors can also see the former bedroom of Garfield's mother, Eliza Ballou, who lived with her prominent son and his family. This is the room where Ballou died in 1888.

How Garfield died: U.S. citizens were shocked when Charles Guiteau, a mentally ill attorney angry at not being appointed to a consular post in Paris, gunned Garfield down July 2, 1881. Americans waited on tenterhooks for more than two months while their president clung to life.

Garfield finally died Sept. 19, 1881. The official cause of death was blood poisoning brought about after doctors probed Garfield's body with unclean instruments in search of bullets.

Modern medical professionals attest that the former president would have lived and recovered rapidly had his wounds been treated with properly sanitized medical tools.

Guiteau, who shot Garfield in the back and arm, was hanged in 1882.

If you go: For more details about Garfield's life and death, visitors can watch a brief film before departing on a tour of the home and grounds. Tours last about an hour and the cost of admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for ages 6 to 12.

Lawnfield is open year-round, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.

For more information, call (440) 255-8722.




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