More Than a Library
One of the most important functions of the First Ladies National Historic Site is to house and make available the collection and library of books and other materials collected about the First Ladies … from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama. This library is the only one of its kind, focusing solely on the First Ladies of the United States. But aside from the amazing resource this park houses, there are two interesting and historical buildings that house this National Historic Site.
The First Ladies National Historic Site is comprised of two separate buildings, located within a block from one another in downtown Canton, Ohio. The first is the Ida Saxton McKinley Home. Aside from being a beautiful Victorian style building it's the last remaining home with direct ties to President and Mrs. McKinley in their hometown of Canton. It was originally the childhood home of President McKinley's wife - Ida Saxton. While it remained in her family, it was also the primary home for Mr. and Mrs. McKinley from 1878 to 1891 while Mr. McKinley served in the United States House of Representatives.
As is the case with many historic houses, the Saxton McKinley Home was constructed in several sections. The rear of the home is part of the earlier structure and was built in 1841 by George DeWalt, Ida McKinley's maternal grandfather. Ida's Grandmother DeWalt would later will the home to Ida's parents Katherine DeWalt and John Saxton. In 1870 Ida's father John added the front section onto the home to make room for his large family, which included his wife Katherine, Ida and her two siblings, and their Grandfather DeWalt.
After her 1871 marriage to Major William McKinley, a civil war veteran, Ida and her husband would move into a house several blocks north, which was a gift to the couple from her father, a prominent Canton banker. The next 6 years would prove to be very difficult for Ida, who had grown up quite happy and privileged. She would give birth twice, and lose both children. In addition the sudden loss of her mother weighed heavily upon her. It was at this time that several health conditions began troubling Ida Saxton McKinley, including migraines and (then little understood) epilepsy.
In 1877 the couple's surroundings would begin to change several times over. When William was elected to congress the couple occupied a suite in a Washington D.C. hotel. In 1890 William lost his Congressional seat but in 1891 was elected Governor of Ohio and the couple moved to Columbus.
Then in 1895 William and Ida moved back to the home Ida's father had purchased for them in Canton. It was at this home that William McKinley would conduct his front porch campaign for the Presidency. After his election as President and his inauguration in 1897 the McKinley's home became the White House and would remain so until William McKinley's assassination in 1901. In total, the couple lived in this historic home for 13 years; the home was, therefore, their primary residence through the majority of the McKinley's married life.
Prior to the assassination of President McKinley, Ida's sister, Mary, and her husband had occupied the family's large home in Canton. After the death of her husband, Ida would move back to Canton and would heavily rely on Mary and her family. Ida McKinley passed away in Canton in 1907.
In the more recent past, the Saxton McKinley house became the home of the National First Ladies Library in 1998, with its dedication ceremony being attended by former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.
As stated earlier, the library here is incredibly unique in and of itself. But the Saxton McKinley house is even more interesting because of its restored history. The National First Ladies Library has taken great care in carefully restoring the home to its past glory with the help of Dr. Sheila Fisher. After being put in charge of the restoration process of the Saxton McKinley house, Dr. Fisher described the job as being one of "historic restoration and historic renovation." In a book published by The National First Ladies Library called This Elevated Position, Dr. Fisher tells us "Restoration has involved finding an actual item that was in the house - even if it is not in the best condition - that would be carefully restored to its best possible condition and then placed back just where it was. Renovating has been a process of reconstructing a room back to its approximate look and choosing furniture and furnishings that give it the look of the era without actually being the original items that were in that room."
Today, visiting the Saxton McKinley house is like taking a step back in time. A good deal of original furniture and period pieces have been brought together to give the public a vision of what the home looked like during the life and times of Ida and William McKinley. The décor, from wallpaper to accent pieces, reflects the opulence that the well-to-do Saxton family would have accumulated and displayed.
Take a tour of the Saxton McKinley home, which is delivered by a costumed docent of the National First Ladies' Library or by National Parks Service park rangers. While all the rooms are beautiful, some of the most impressive include the downstairs formal parlor, the third floor ballroom, and the front entry hall and staircase.
Once you're finished with your tour, the second floor houses a well appointed gift shop containing a bevy of interesting items, including books, Victorian décor and an assorted First Lady inspired gifts.
It is nothing short of impressive to consider the Saxton McKinley home's humble beginnings, rough past, and current reincarnation. One could only hope that Ida McKinley and her family would look upon it today with a sense of pride. If your interest is peaked, then continue your exploration by visiting The National First Ladies Library's online history of the home (found here). The interesting and well photographed restoration effort is described in the Library's book This Elevated Position which is also offered for sale at the park's gift shop.
Tours are conducted Tuesday thru Saturday from 10:30am to 2:30pm and start at the Education and Research Center. Parking is located in a gated lot just north of the Saxton McKinley house. Posted signs will lead you north to the Education and Research Center for orientation.