by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Historian of the National First Ladies Library
The presence of the current First Lady Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, as a part-time resident of the White House who aids her in managing the two presidential daughters received a great deal of attention when the Obama Administration began in 2009, but it is but only the most recent example of how family members have helped out First Ladies.
During William McKinley’s presidency from 1897 to 1901, newspapers so frequently made reference to “Mary Barber,” that the public came to know her by name. The sister of First Lady Ida McKinley, she was always known within the family by the nickname of “Pina,” as in little one.
While she was a frequent visitor to the White House, Pina lived at the Saxton-McKinley House, which she shared with her husband and seven children, the President and Mrs. McKinley during their visits back home to Canton, and her brother George Saxton, until his murder nearby the house in October of 1899.
Ida McKinley was especially close with her sister Mary. For a period of time the part of the time both Saxton sisters were boarding school students at Brooke Hall Seminary in Media, Pennsylvania.
In 1869, they together spent six months on a grand tour of Europe and Mary’s letters home provide much detail about Ida McKinley’s life during that period.
Just two days after the tragic death of William and Ida McKinley’s second daughter, the 5-month old “Little Ida,” Pina Saxton was married to her long-time boyfriend Marshall Barber.
Like her own family, the Barbers had been among the pioneer founders of Canton.
Marshall Barber had a lifelong love of the theater and he later worked as the manager of a local theater, among the inherited properties passed down to his wife, sister-in-law and brother-in-law upon the death of their father.
Although the newlyweds began married life in their own home, following the onset of Ida McKinley’s epilepsy in 1873, Pina Barber assumed a degree of responsibility for the care of her niece Katie who moved into the Saxton-McKinley House with her parents in September of that year.
Soon enough, Marsh and Pina moved into the Saxton-McKinley House, where her brother George and widowed father James had continued to live, following the April 1873 death of his wife Kate Saxton, mother to the three Saxton children.
Especially after the 1887 death of their father, Mary Barber learned the details of her sister’s epilepsy and, in the frequent absence of William McKinley, provided the necessary care during her seizures.
During the McKinley presidency, Mary Barber assumed all responsibility for the arrangements of the presidential visits to their shared home. She also coaxed her reluctant two eldest daughters Mary and Ida Barber to take leaves of absence from college and spend the winter social seasons at the White House as aides to their aunt the First Lady.
Pina Barber was extremely active in numerous Canton civic affairs.
She served as president of the local branch of the Needlework Guild and was a leader in the Associated Charities and in the Red Cross. She was also a member of the board of directors of the George D. Harter Bank, a board member of Aultman Hospital, and held various positions with the YMCA and YWCA.
During the Spanish-American War, Pina Barber led Canton’s efforts to send nourishing non-perishable foods and other items to the troop of local men, including her son, stationed in the Philippines.
Following the 1898 murder by gunshot of their brother George Saxton, Mary Barber assumed the sole responsibility for managing the properties and investments made by their father which she and the First Lady inherited, relying on the legal guidance of her brother-in-law President McKinley.
Upon word of McKinley’s assassination in Buffalo, Mary Barber sped there to provide companionship for her sister.
Following his death, she assumed control of her care at the direction of the widow’s physician.
This task proved difficult and often presented conflicts between emotional and practical choices, there being an indication that she tacitly approved of her sister’s attorney refusing to comply with the widowed First Lady’s desire to disperse some of her jewelry to friends and to financially help the late President’s brother.
The valuables and money were part of the anticipated inheritance which Mrs. Barber and her children would receive from Mrs. McKinley and which represented inheritance from her and Pina’s parents.
Pina Barber also received unwanted press coverage after being drawn into a breach-of-contract case brought by the divorced wife of her son George Barber who alleged that Pina had urged him to propose a deceiving settlement.
As the sole remaining heir of her parents, the Saxton-McKinley House became the sole property of Mary Barber.
Upon her death in 1917, it was Pina’s youngest child Kate Barber Belden who then assumed occupancy with her husband and children and became the last residents of the house.
Thus the Saxton-McKinley House is perhaps the only home in the United States which has passed down in one family through four generations of women.
Following the First Lady’s death, Pina Barber had also been drawn into a public contesting of her late sister’s will by relatives of the late President.
She had wanted to buy from them the McKinley “Campaign House” and turn it into a national home museum to honor the late President and his wife but the McKinley heirs would not sell it to her.
In that respect, the NFLL’s purchase of the Saxton-McKinley House and its subsequent restoration as a presidential historic site open to the public now fulfills her vision.