A President Was Lost but Not Forgotten


I Visited the Late President James A. Garfield’s Memorial Library

Late President James A. Garfield appears in a portrait that is available from the Library of Congress.  The James A. Garfield home is located in Mentor, Ohio, at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, which is operated by the National Park Service.

By Anna Krejci

United States President James A. Garfield’s life was lost to an assassin in 1881.  The country heeded with lament when the funeral took place. Years of mourning went by for his widow, Lucretia Garfield, who kept newspaper clippings written during the president’s final months, along with her husband’s letters and diary.

Lucretia had a monumental task before her.  She grieved for the loss of her husband, but she also felt driven to build a library in honor of him in the home they had shared together. Work on the Memorial Library began in 1885 and was completed shortly thereafter.  Lucretia lived among her late husband’s books, papers, and letters for a long time.  She worked at her own desk in the private library, tending to the matters of the home or writing letters on stationery with a black border – the border signaled her state of mourning.  Her labor in caring for her late husband’s work of the pen would become so valuable in preserving his story, their story, and a segment of U.S. history.

Garfield was inaugurated as the 20th president in March 1881. Before that, he was elected as an Ohio senator and served as a general in the U.S. Civil War, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Earlier in his life, in 1851, he studied at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, now known as Hiram College, and eventually worked there as a teacher and was head administrator of the college.

Garfield’s presidency was short, but his accomplishments up to the point of being elected were fascinating. He was assassinated and died only six months into serving his term as president. He died from an infection two months after being shot.

His family loved him and had such a sense of his importance in the anti-slavery movement and the Civil War, U.S. politics, and as a father and husband, that they built the home library in his honor. "Mrs. Garfield preserved not only her husband's personal library in the space, but also his personal and public papers which spanned more than thirty years,” said Alan Gephardt, a park guide at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, which is in Mentor.  “Mrs. Garfield's effort represents the first time that a space was constructed for the preservation of a president's papers. It is the predecessor of the modern presidential library."

And perhaps it is so fitting that Garfield’s life was the one to be documented in such a way after his “front porch campaign” where he and his wife opened their home and farm as the site of his 1880 campaign rallies.  He was famous among historians for such a campaign, which was the first where the presidential candidate spoke for himself rather than have others in his party represent him.  His was a personal race for the presidency.

President Garfield’s death was a huge loss for the country and his family. I stood in the Memorial Library at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, where the home of Lucretia and James A. Garfield has been made into a museum. I visited the site, now run by the National Park Service, in October.  From my tour, I learned the historical significance of President Garfield’s campaign and details of how the Garfield family lived. Lucretia wanted their home to be the most fitting and best monument to her husband that could ever be, and the library was a large part of it.  She had a fireproof vault built that held the deceased president’s writings. Also inside of it, was the wreath that was laid on the president’s casket for his funeral in 1881. It remained a private family library for decades to come. Only as the Western Reserve Historical Society took over the home in the 1930s it became part of a historical house museum dedicated to the Garfield family and open to the public. Lucretia died in 1918, but five of the seven children she and her husband had were still living when the home was opened. Around this time, it left the children with the matter of what to do with their father’s papers.

From 1931 to 1964, papers from the Mentor house library were sent to the Library of Congress, Gephardt said. He also said James A. Garfield’s children, and including in large part James R. Garfield, worked with the Library of Congress during their lifetimes to have their father’s papers transferred.

For the early presidents like Garfield, their writings are kept at the Library of Congress. Eventually presidential libraries dedicated to former U.S. presidents materialized. President Rutherford B. Hayes has a library in Fremont, Ohio, that opened in 1916, but belongs to the state of Ohio rather than part of the federal system, according to the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums website. Beginning with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the tradition of private fundraising for a library building that is then handed over to the National Archives and Records Administration began. FDR’s library opened in 1950 and set the trend for the other presidential libraries that today fall under federal oversight, according to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum website.

As for James A. Garfield and his Memorial Library, the man was represented in history by the papers he left behind. A diary that President James A. Garfield wrote and letters between Lucretia and the president are among the papers we have today. Before sending documents to the Library of Congress, the family first selected the official biographer for the late president, which was Theodore Clarke Smith. Smith wrote Life and Letters of James Abram Garfield, and it was published in 1925, according to an online summary for the James A. Garfield Papers collection at the Library of Congress. Smith took until 1925 to finish the biography. Joseph Stanley-Brown, who served as a secretary to President Garfield, assisted in gathering papers for the biographer and sending them to Mentor. Lucretia had a role in preserving her husband’s personal history. To me, Lucretia did a great service to us by so carefully housing the president’s written work. And she was willing to share so much of herself, her family and husband with the country.

I think when someone dies, the loss is most greatly felt by the family. Sharing the memories of a loved one is perhaps a way for some people to hold the deceased close to them. Those who remain living do not want their loved one to be forgotten. I am touched by President James A. Garfield’s life. His personal work effort, love for family and tragic ending to his life left the strongest impressions on me during my visit to his historic home. I have such respect for the people who cared to preserve his life story.




A Note About James A. Garfield Day in Ohio

Ohio state lawmakers and Gov. Mike DeWine have named Nov. 19 as James A. Garfield Day in Ohio. Garfield was born Nov. 19, 1831. It was decided with bipartisan support. DeWine signed the bill on Oct. 12, 2023. The first James A. Garfield Day in Ohio will be in 2024.

A Note About the Photo

I photographed the front of James A. Garfield’s home in Mentor, Ohio. The portrait of President Garfield was downloaded from the Library of Congress website at https://www.loc.gov/free-to-use/presidential-portraits/

President James A. Garfield half-length portrait, facing right. [Between 1870 and 1881, printed later] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/96522558/


Works Cited

“Frequently Asked Questions.” Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums at Spiegel Grove, 2023, https://www.rbhayes.org/about-us/frequently-asked-questions/

James A. Garfield. National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior, 2017, Pamphlet.

“James A. Garfield Papers: About This Collection.” Library of Congress, Retrieved Oct. 31, 2023, https://www.loc.gov/collections/james-a-garfield-papers/about-this-collection

“November 19 is Now ‘James A. Garfield Day’ in Ohio.” National Park Service, Oct. 31, 2023, https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/november-19-james-garfield-day-ohio.htm

“Provenance of the James A. Garfield Papers.” Library of Congress, Retrieved Oct. 30, 2023, https://www.loc.gov/collections/james-a-garfield-papers/articles-and-essays/provenance/#text53

“What Is a Presidential Library?” Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, 2016, https://www.fdrlibrary.org/what-is-a-presidential-library