One of the best ways to absorb history is to visit a historic home.
A few weeks ago my husband and I headed for Marion, Ohio, for what turned out to be a fascinating visit to The Harding Home Presidential Site, the residence of Warren G. and Florence Harding. Thanks to a terrific guide — the museum’s assistant director Shannon Morris — we spent an entertaining morning at the home learning interesting tidbits about our 29th president. The Hardings lived in the house from 1891 to 1921, just before they moved to the White House.
Although President Harding was extremely popular during his own lifetime, he’s typically rated among our worst presidents because of political scandals revealed after his death. Teapot Dome, a bribery scheme, occurred during his administration and his extra-marital affairs were also discovered.
“One of our goals in restoring the house and building and adding a new presidential center is to get people to think about what actually happened during his administration and reevaluate whether he belongs at the bottom of the list,” says Elizabeth Nelson, who heads the collections management department for the Ohio History Connection (formerly known as the Ohio Historical Society).
The renovation is about to begin, so if you want to visit you’ll need to go before Sunday, Sept. 3. The new library and the renovated home are slated to reopen on May 4, 2019. The Harding Memorial, where the president and Mrs. Harding are buried, will remain open.
Harding was well known for his “Front Porch Campaign.” Instead of traveling from coast-to-coast by train as was the custom at the time, Harding invited voters from across America to come to Marion to listen to him give speeches at his house. (It wasn’t the first time an Ohio presidential candidate had opted for the format: former presidents William McKinley and James Garfield also had Ohio front porch campaigns.) It’s fun to sit on the very porch where he conducted his campaign.
TOURING THE SITE
The tour begins in what’s known as the Press House. It’s the small white house behind the home that was constructed from a kit in 1920 for the campaign and took only two days to build. It was assumed that the little house, which the members of the press called “the shack,” would be dismantled after the campaign but it still stands and will also undergo a facelift. It will be renovated to tell the story of the newspaper reporters who helped tell the nation about the man who would become president. In the meantime, it houses some interesting memorabilia, a small gift shop and a 15-minute introductory video presentation that’s well worth watching.
Next to the press house is a mobile voting booth. Voting booths like this one were used from 1880-1930 throughout the Midwest on Election Day.
THE FRONT PORCH
My favorite part of the tour was sitting on the front porch and listening to our guide spin amusing stories about the Hardings and the last front porch campaign in American history. It was fun to imagine thousands of people gathered in the yard and on the small town street in front of us. An estimated 600,000 visitors came to Marion during the campaign.
“People would come here by train from all over the country and would be met by a local band,” Morris told us. “There were no microphones then. It was a very different way of running a campaign. Harding would sit on the porch casually and talk about his ideas.”
He also traced Florence Harding’s amazing life. “We find ourselves admiring Florence more than Warren, ” said Morris. “She had a rough life and stayed strong.”
Nelson was involved with the inventory of more than 5,000 items everything from sets of beautiful china to drafts of speeches in President Harding’s own handwriting. “The majority of these things belonged to the Hardings. It’s unusual for presidential sites to have such a large number of possessions from the family. That’s partly because the Hardings didn’t have children together so when Florence died, most of the contents of the home were transferred to Harding Memorial Association with the intent that they would eventually be on display in the museum.”
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The home opened to the public just three years after President Harding died from a heart attack in 1923. Mrs. Harding died just 15 months and in her will made arrangements for the home and the bulk of the contents to be transferred to the Association.
“It seems like a fairly ordinary house,” says Nelson. “It was nice for its time, but when you think of a president’s house you may think of something more like a mansion. This is an ordinary house in Marion.
As you walk through the rooms, in addition to furnishings and accessories, you’ll also see original clothing that belonged to the couple. “I like all the things that had to do with Laddie Boy, their Airedale terrier,” said Nelson. “There’s a portrait of him on display in one of the bedrooms.” Because Harding often used a cane — although he didn’t need one — he received a lot of hand-carved canes as gifts.”
What you may not know about Warren Harding
- Warren Gamaliel Harding was born Nov. 2, 1865, in Blooming Grove, Ohio. He attended Ohio Central College in Iberia, Ohio, then joined his family in Marion after graduation. He considered being a lawyer, tried teaching school and selling insurance before entering the newspaper business. At the age of 19, Harding bought The Marion Daily Star and owned it for nearly 40 years.
- Harding married Florence Kling DeWolfe on July 8, 1891, in their new home on Mount Vernon Avenue, the house now known as the Harding Home. The new Mrs. Harding had a 10-year-old son, Marshall, from a first marriage. You’ll see Marshall’s bedroom in the home.
- Harding entered politics in 1899, serving first in the Ohio Senate, then as lieutenant governor. He represented Ohio in the U.S. Senate from 1915-1920. The Republican Party chose him to represent them in the 1920 presidential election. The Democratic Party chose James Cox, owner of the Dayton Daily News, who was Ohio’s governor.
- Harding won the 1920 Presidential election earning 60.3 percent of the popular vote and 404 electoral votes, the largest margin of victory to that date in American history.
- Harding was 55 years old when he entered the White House in March 1921, with Calvin Coolidge as his vice president. Among his accomplishments: He started the Budget Bureau so the federal government would spend its money wisely; he arranged the first world peace conference. The accomplishment of which he was most proud was giving World War I veterans medical care for the rest of their lives. He started what is now known as the Veteran’s Administration.
- President Harding died in office in August 1923, 29 months into his first term as president.
What you may not know about Florence Harding
- Florence was the oldest of three children and was first married to Henry (Pete) DeWolfe, whom she divorced.
- Florence attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and was an excellent pianist.
- After her marriage, Florence helped improve the circulation department of the Star, organizing the newsboys, disciplining them when needed and offering a guiding hand. She loved the business world and was comfortable talking about politics and world affairs, unlike many women of her generation.
- She suffered from chronic kidney disease and was critically ill several times in her adult life. In the fall of 1922, she was bedridden for three months and nearly died in the White House.
- Mrs. Harding had a well-known interest in astrology, superstitions, séances and fortune telling. She loved to travel and had a sense of adventure. She was the first First Lady to ride in an airplane — a two-seater. Prior to living in the White House, she and Warren visited Europe three times, as well as Egypt, Hawaii, Central America and the Caribbean. Italy was her favorite destination.
- She was an accomplished horsewoman. She also loved dogs.
- Florence was very interested in women’s rights, rights for veterans, minority rights, and animal rights/protection. As First Lady, she held press conferences with female journalists for the first time and was a strong supporter of women’s athletics. She invited accomplished female athletes, musicians, writers and scientists (including Madame Curie) to the White House.
- Florence was the first First Lady to vote for her husband. Women’s suffrage passed just three months before Harding was elected president.
- Mrs. Harding opened the doors of the White House to the public. Shortly after President Harding’s inauguration on March 4, 1921, the gates of the White House were opened for the first time since 1917, and people were permitted to tour the grounds. For the next two years, the public was invited to many events on the White House grounds and could shake the hands of President and Mrs. Harding on public receiving days.
- Florence died on Nov. 21, 1924, at the age of 64, just 15 months after her husband’s death. She is buried with the president in the Harding Memorial in Marion. Mrs. Harding enjoyed tending a rose garden at her Marion home, and her garden is part of the upcoming renovation.
“This home really looks as if the Hardings just walked away and we came to snoop,” says Morris as we climb the steps to the historic home’s bedroom floor. “The closets are still filled with clothing and the attic and basement are still filled as well. We’re always discovering something new.”
WANT TO GO?
What: Harding Home Presidential Site
Where: 380 Mt. Vernon Ave., Marion, Ohio. Located at the intersection of Vernon Heights Blvd. and Delaware Avenue.
Hours: Open from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Last tour starts at 4 p.m.
Admission: Adults (18+): $7; Seniors (60+): $6; Full-time college students and students ages 12-17: $4; children ages 6-11: $3. Discount admission through AAA Membership: $6. Ohio History Connection Members and active military and their families are free. Veterans: $6.
For more information: See www.hardinghome.org or call 800-600-6894
PLEASE NOTE: The Harding Home will be closing on Sept. 3, 2017 to go through extensive restoration work including a new Presidential Library on site. The home and library are scheduled to reopen May 4, 2019. The Harding Memorial is not affected by the restoration work.