By Rebecca Sloan

Research center, historic site focus on presidents’ wives

One of the most popular displays has gowns worn by first ladies.

CANTON — The elections are over, but for many of us, political interest remains at a fever pitch.

If you’re looking for something to satisfy your patriotic zeal, pay a visit to the National First Ladies’ Library Education and Research Center and the First Ladies Historic Site in downtown Canton.

These Stark County attractions boast two buildings dedicated to American first ladies: a seven-story education and research center at 205 Market Ave. S., and a three-story Victorian mansion at 331 Market Ave. S., which is the former home of President William McKinley and his wife, Ida Saxton McKinley.

Guided tours start at the Education and Research Center, which is housed in Canton’s former City National Bank — a beautifully restored 1895 building that includes a library, a Victorian theater and numerous exhibits featuring campaign memorabilia, personal items and gowns worn by former first ladies.

It’s the gowns that first catch visitors’ eyes when they step inside the opulently-decorated building.

Displayed in grand glass cases, each gown is a testament to a different chapter in fashion and political history.

There’s a peachy-pink silk day dress worn by Helen Taft in 1911, a pink cocktail dress worn by Mamie Eisenhower in the 1950s, a black beaded gown worn by Florence Harding in 1920 and an Oscar de la Renta pantsuit worn by Rosalynn Carter during the 1980s. (Carter was the first American first lady to wear pantsuits.)

There’s also a cheery lemon yellow dress worn by Lady Bird Johnson during the 1960s when she helped her husband’s campaign efforts by traveling across the South aboard a train.

Executive Director Patricia Krider said visitors really enjoy seeing the clothing of former first ladies.

“It helps them visualize the first ladies and makes them seem more real,” Krider said.

More gowns will be on display from Nov. 25 to May 29, 2009, when the Education and Research Center presents an exhibit titled “Caring Hearts: The Health of a Nation.” This exhibit will focus on first ladies’ health-related causes. A featured component of the exhibit will be The Heart Truth’s First Ladies Red Dress Collection. The purpose of the collection is to raise awareness about heart disease and will include seven red dresses worn by first ladies.

“We’re proud to be the third place to have this exhibit,” Krider said. “It was previously at the Kennedy Center and Reagan Library.”

Krider said dresses worn by Laura Bush and Lady Bird Johnson are among those in the collection.

First lady-elect Michelle Obama’s photograph greets visitors as they enter the Education and Research Center and prepare to explore current exhibits on the roles of first ladies in presidential campaigns.

Krider said exhibits at the center change frequently, but some of them are on display permanently.

One permanent exhibit features a collection of White House china. The earliest piece dates from 1817 and was used by President Monroe.

The Education and Research Center’s impressive library is also a permanent fixture.

On the second floor, the comfortable yet elegant library contains more than 6,500 books written by and about first ladies and 500 videos and audio recordings about first ladies.

“In earlier years, books weren’t written about first ladies. The president was the focus. These resources are intended to fill the gap,” Krider said, adding, “These materials focus on the contributions the first ladies have made to our country.”

The library is open by appointment.

Take the elevator to the lower level of the Education and Research Center, and you’ll discover a splendid little Victorian Theatre.

The theater seats 91 people, and from its pressed tin ceiling to its plush, old-fashioned seating, looks like something from 1900s Broadway. But don’t let nostalgia fool you. The theater is state-of-the-art with all the latest technology.

Programs performed at the theater focus on first ladies and other notable women in history such as Dr. Mary Walker, a female surgeon during the Civil War, and famed pilot Amelia Earhart.

Education and research center volunteers perform plays for adults as well as pupils, and Krider said different plays are geared toward different age groups.

For instance, “Christmas at the White House” is a film geared toward kindergartners through sixth-graders, while “Two Dear Abbies” is a play about Abigail Adams and Abigail Filmore that’s intended for junior high and high school pupils.

“We get a wide variety of visitors of all ages,” Krider said.

Sometimes the education and research center gets famous visitors as well. Political notables such as Lynne Cheney and Cokie Roberts have stopped by.

Laura Bush was here in 2003, and Hillary Clinton came in 1999.

Krider said many first ladies, including Clinton, have been especially supportive in helping establish the National First Ladies’ Library Education and Research Center and First Ladies National Historic Site.

“[Hillary] was impressed by the idea of [the National First Ladies’ Library and Historic Site]. She invited us to the White House and was very warm and welcoming,” Krider said.

The idea for the National First Ladies’ Library Education and Research Center and First Ladies National Historic Site came about when founder Mary Regula, a congressional spouse and mother, wanted to fill the educational void relating to first ladies and other women who’ve made significant contributions to American history.

Regula formed a board of 13 people to help raise funds and create a 40,000-entry bibliography on first ladies from Martha Washington to Laura Bush. The effort started the National First Ladies’ Library, which was established in 1995.

In 1998, the completed restoration of the Ida Saxton McKinley House, also known as the First Ladies National Historic Site, was another chapter in the growth and success of this nonprofit organization.

This three-story brick mansion one block from the education and research center was the family home of former first lady Ida Saxton McKinley.

The mansion was constructed in the 1840s by Ida Saxton McKinley’s grandfather and was expanded by her father in the 1860s.

Ida lived in the home as a girl and then again as wife of William McKinley during the 14 years McKinley served in Congress.

Krider said the home belonged to the Saxton family until the 1910s when it was sold and used for various purposes.

“It had many different uses. It was a general store. There are even rumors it was a brothel,” Krider said. “At one time a brick storefront entirely covered the ornate porch you see today.”

As the house passed from one owner to the next, it deteriorated and was in sorry condition when it was saved during the 1980s by a Saxton family descendant. An extensive interior and exterior renovation produced the marvelous mansion that exists today.

Richly-patterned Victorian wallpaper, costly chandeliers, Saxton and McKinley family portraits, lavish furnishings and a spiral staircase are just a few of the things that make the home special.

A first-floor parlor includes Ida McKinley’s piano, and a hall tree on the first floor is on loan from the Smithsonian.

A third-floor ballroom contains framed images of every American first lady as well as personal items that belonged to Ida Saxton McKinley.

One of Ida’s former gowns is on display, and a pair of slippers she knitted sits next to a photo of her as a teen-ager.

Another portrait shows Ida as a breathtaking young woman.

“Ida Saxton McKinley was epileptic and often not in good health,” Krider said. “She had two children who died young, and their deaths really devastated her.”

After a tour of the home and the education and research center, visitors will feel better acquainted with Ida as well as many of America’s first ladies.

Campaign memorabilia and hundreds of little mementos bring these ladies to life and make them seem less like shadows standing behind their husbands and more like flesh and blood women with feelings, ideas and remarkable causes of their own.

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