Ohio’s presidential history includes six first ladies

Ohio, sometimes known as “The Mother of Presidents”, was also the birthplace of six presidential wives.

So on this day dedicated to mothers, let’s take a look at the Buckeye ladies who became first ladies, and the historical sites where they are celebrated.

Here’s an unfortunate trivia: no Ohio-born first lady has held the White House for two full presidential terms. Two had single-term husbands. Three were widowed when their husbands died in office, two by assassination. And one, Caroline Scott Harrison, is one of only three first ladies to die during their husbands’ tenure.

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Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison, born in Oxford, Ohio, wife of US President Benjamin Harrison, also from Ohio.

Caroline Lavinia Scott Harrison

Born in 1832 in southwestern Ohio, Caroline Harrison, like her husband, Benjamin Harrison, attended school at Oxford; she at the Oxford Female Institute, he at the University of Miami. A historical marker on South College Avenue in Oxford (www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=107675) today commemorates Caroline and the Female Institute.

Ohio-born First Lady Caroline Scott Harrison is featured on this sign in Canton that guides visitors to the First Ladies National Historic Site.

After the wedding, the Harrisons lived for a short time in North Bend before moving to Indiana. Today, their Indianapolis home is the Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site (www.bhpsite.org) and offers public tours.

Caroline died of tuberculosis in 1892 at the age of 60.

The Harrisons’ daughter, Mary, served as hostess to the White House after her mother’s death.

(The other two first ladies to die in office were Letitia Tyler and Ellen Wilson.)

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Helen Herron Taft, wife of US President William Howard Taft, born in Ohio.

Helene Herron Taft

Helen Herron Taft, known as “Nellie”, was born in Cincinnati in 1861 and met her future husband William Howard Taft while on a sleigh party.

The Tafts lived in Cincinnati when not traveling the world on his career.

Although Nellie Taft suffered a stroke early in her husband’s presidential term, her sisters helped her with her hosting duties until she recovered.

She was quite progressive for her time, becoming the first first lady to drive, smoke cigarettes, and publish her memoirs. He is also credited with leading the campaign to plant the famous Washington D.C. Japanese cherry trees.

Although Nellie Taft never lived there, her husband’s childhood home in Cincinnati is now the William Howard Taft National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/wiho/index.htm).

Nellie Taft died in 1943 and is buried next to her husband in Arlington National Cemetery.

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Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, wife of US President James A. Garfield, originally from Ohio.

Lucrezia Rudolph Garfield

Lucretia Rudolph Garfield was born in 1832 in Portage County and met her future husband, James Garfield, at Geauga Seminary. She was only first lady for six months, from her husband’s inauguration in March 1881 until his death in September, two months after being shot by an assassin.

She returned to the couple’s Mentor House and devoted much of the rest of her life to her husband’s memory, organizing his papers and documents and establishing what became one of the first presidential libraries. She died in 1918, 37 years after her husband.

Today, the home in Ohio where James and Lucretia lived is the James A. Garfield National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/jaga/).

Born in Chillicothe, Lucy Ware Webb Hayes was the wife of US President Rutherford B. Hayes, also from Ohio.

Lucy Webb Hayes

Lucy Webb Hayes is one of the few first ladies whose birthplace has been preserved as a historic site in its own right.

Her family home in Chillicothe, where she was born in 1831 (https://bit.ly/3vWJOop), is now a museum with memorabilia and information about the family and Lucy in particular.

Future First Lady Lucy Webb Hayes was born in this Chillicothe home in 1831.

His later life is also explored at the Presidential Library and the Rutherford B. Hayes Museums (www.rbhayes.orglisten)) in Fremont in the Spiegel Grove estate where she and her husband lived before and after his presidential tenure.

The first presidential wife to graduate from college (at Cincinnati Wesleyan Female College) and the first to be widely known as “First Lady”, Lucy Hayes was reportedly an excellent hostess, although no alcohol was served during official White House functions during Hayes’ Term. She died in 1889 at the age of 57 and is buried next to her husband in Spiegel Grove.

This portrait of first lady Florence Kling Harding hangs in the Warren Harding Presidential Library and Museum in Marion.

Florence Kling Harding

Despite her husband’s complicity, Florence Kling Harding was, by most accounts, a devoted presidential wife until Warren G. Harding died in office in 1923.

She was born in Marion in 1860 and would become the first divorced First Lady – she ran away as a teenager and was later abandoned by her first husband.

Her father fiercely opposed her second marriage to Harding newspaper publisher. Although upset by her husband’s affairs, she helped run his newspaper Marion and launch his political career.

Hugely popular with the public and the press as first lady, Florence Harding hosted lavish White House galas and opened the house to large groups, often serving as a tour guide.

She died a year after her husband and is buried next to him at Harding Memorial in Marion. Their Marion House is now the site of the Harding Presidential Library and Museum (www.hardingpresidentialsites.org).

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The house where Ida and William McKinley once lived in downtown Canton is now part of the First Ladies National Historic Site.

Ida Saxton McKinley

Ida Saxton McKinley was born in 1847 in Canton, where she lived with her well-to-do parents in a downtown Victorian mansion. The house became a wedding present for her and her new husband, William McKinley.

Their former township home, the Saxton-McKinley House, is preserved as part of the First Ladies National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/fila/), a monument to all presidential wives. The house has been restored to its appearance during the McKinleys’ occupation and includes some of their original furnishings.

Ida Saxton McKinley, wife of US President William McKinley, President of Ohio.  She was born in Canton, Ohio.

The city’s historic National Bank building, built in 1895, is also part of the site. The seven-story, neo-Richardson-style commercial building now serves as the First Ladies’ National Library, with exhibits and an orientation film on the first floor; and the upper floors, each named after an Ohio first lady, containing a research library, offices, and archives.

William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Ida McKinley died in 1907. Both are buried in Canton at the McKinley National Memorial.

Steve Stephens is a freelance travel writer and photographer. Email him at [email protected]

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