First Ladies Library in Canton gives the history of the women behind the men of power

First Ladies site offer view of White House

CANTON, Ohio - What used to be a bank building from the 19th century now is home for more than 40 women who held the title of first lady of the United States. In downtown Canton, one of the buildings of the First Ladies National Historic Site rises seven stories from the street.

Michelle Gullion, one of the archivists at the site, will greet visitors at the front door.

"Hi, I'm Michelle Gullion," she said, as I entered the massive doors with beveled glass at 331 South Market St. "Welcome to the First Ladies National Historic Site," she beamed, extending her hand.

A few steps away from the grand foyer of the building is a glass-enclosed case bearing the gowns of several of America's first ladies. It is an impressive look into the lives of the women who lived with men who held the power of the presidency as they lived in the White House.

"They know what makes him tick behind the scenes and they know what makes in tick in front of the scenes," said Gullion, offering her thoughts in the present tense as if all the nation's first ladies are alive and still living in White House. Stepping into the place is like stepping back into time because the emphasis at the historic site is all about history.

The First Ladies National Historic Site, which opened in 1998 and founded by Mary Regula, wife of the former Congressman Ralph Regula of Ohio, is owned by the National Parks Service. However, the library is operated locally.

A  few steps away is a home where President William McKinley and his wife, Ida Saxon McKinley, lived before he was elected to lead the nation in 1897. Many of their furnishings are in place as they were when the McKinleys lived in Canton.  In 1901, McKinley was assassinated, one of two presidents from Ohio who were murdered in office. The other was James A. Garfield of Mentor.

However, the emphasis in the library and home is on the women. Pat Krider, executive director, said the site actually chronicles the rise in power of women in the United States over the generations. She pointed to letters and documents showing how the first ladies pressed for equal opportunities for women.

Noting a letter written by Lucretia Garfield after the 1881 assassination of her husband, Mrs. Garfield mentioned the woman who was among the physicians who attended her mortally wounded husband.

"Mrs. Garfield noted the woman was paid less than a man and she said the disparity in pay should be rectified... She said the woman did the work so she should be paid at equal level," said Krider.

One of the tour guides through the library and McKinley home, Mimi Bogard, dresses as Lucretia Garfield. Bogard is emphatic she is not portraying the nation's 20th first lady, but simply displaying how Mrs. Garfield dressed.

"It's unfortunate her brief time in the White House didn't leave much of a mark on the memory of Americans because her husband was assassinated," said Bogard, dressed in a long print dress bearing a lace collar. Underneath, Bogard wore a bustle.

Throughout the site are photographs of all the first ladies, including Michelle Obama, who is the honorary chairwoman of the library. Whoever is the current nation's first lady is honorary chairwoman. Krider said Mrs. Obama has not visited the library in Canton, but has indicated she has plans to do so.

Since the library opened, Rosalyn Carter, Laura Bush and Hilary Clinton have visited.

"Mrs. Clinton spoke out on a stage in the middle of the street and there were about a thousand people here," remembered Krider.

Throughout the library and home are memorabilia from political campaigns, photographs and papers noting the history of the American presidency. There are tours conducted through both buildings.

Contact the library at 330-452-0876.

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