by Carl Sferrazza Anthony, Historian of the National First Ladies Library
The National First Ladies Historic Site consists of two buildings, a bank building of the McKinley era which has been converted into a state of the art education and research center, and the restored Saxton-McKinley House. Both are located on South Market Avenue, a block apart from each other, and open to the public for tours.
Certainly the grand estates of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Franklin D. Roosevelt are the most legendary historic sites among past presidents. Along with Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Hermitage and Springwood, however, the Saxton-McKinley House now ranks as an historic presidential home. It took almost one hundred years from the last time President William McKinley lived here until the historic site was restored and open to the public, making it the new home of an old President.
Some people still repeat the incorrect claim that President McKinley only briefly “stayed” here for intermittent periods of time during his adult life.
As one traces his movements, year by year and even day by day, from the time he first married Ida Saxton on January 25, 1871 until his death on September 14, 1901, however, one discovers the Saxton-McKinley House is where William McKinley lived longer than at any other residence. Born on January 29, 1843 in Niles, Ohio, McKinley only lived there until 1852, when his family relocated to Poland, Ohio.
He left for Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania in 1859, returned to Poland in 1860, and enlisted in the Union Army in 1861.
Three months after the Civil War ended in 1865, he moved to study law in Youngstown, Ohio. A year later he went to law school in Albany, New York.
Finally, in 1867 he settled in Canton and began practicing law. When he first moved to Canton William McKinley lived in a rented space with his unmarried sister Anna, already established in town as a teacher. A year later they, along with their unmarried sister Helen in Cleveland, William and Anna McKinley bought a modest Canton home on Tuscarawas Street, inducing their elderly parents to move in with them.
Thus none of the homes where William McKinley lived before marriage exceeded a residency of nine years.
The single greatest myth about this President’s residences is that after returning to Canton from their honeymoon to cities along the East Coast, William McKinley and Ida Saxton bought the home from which he conducted his famous 1896 front-porch campaign for President.
It’s easy to understand how the press and the public were misled into believing this.
There were not only hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles with photographs showing William and Ida McKinley greeting delegations on the front-porch of this house, but also souvenirs which depicted “The Home of McKinley,” such as china plates, silver spoons, and postcards which have survived to this day.
Newspaper reporters and magazine writers did no research into the matter but simply reported that the McKinleys had called this house their home for 25 years.
This incorrect “fact” is also understandable.
In February of 1896, six months before McKinley won the Republican nomination for President and began giving speeches from the front-porch to thousands of voters who poured into Canton, the McKinleys had hosted two days of parties in the house to belatedly celebrate their silver wedding anniversary.
Press stories about the parties were published across the country with details about the powerful political guests who attended, how the rooms looked, what food was served and what music was played.
The press stories also included the facts that the McKinleys had begun their married life together in this very same house and that their two daughters had been born there.
It was a natural jump in assumption that the McKinleys had been living here continuously for a quarter of a century.
Knowing that this all appealed to voter sentiment and only further helped establish his public persona as a devoted husband, William McKinley made no effort to correct the false impression that this had been his permanent, long-term home.
Nor did he tell anyone that all of the furnishings had just been bought to make the house look well-lived in, except for his black leather office couch, a table made from native Ohio wood, and the childhood rocking chairs of his wife and daughter.
In truth, McKinley was only renting the house to use for the campaign, having started on February 1, 1896 and running for one year and one month. McKinley’s lease on the campaign house ended on March 1, 1897. Luckily, he had won the presidency. The owner already had new tenants who would be moving in that month. On the very day that their rental agreement ended, he and Ida left Canton for Washington where three days later he was inaugurated and they moved into the White House.
If McKinley had not won the election, it’s quite likely that he and Ida would have returned to the house they had called home for most of their married life – the Saxton-McKinley House, also located on Market Avenue, twelve blocks south of the Campaign House.
Here are the facts about the “Campaign House” and William McKinley’s association with it:
William and Ida McKinley never bought or owned the “Campaign House” as newlyweds. It was purchased by Ida’s father James Saxton and he leased the house to them. Upon returning to Canton after their honeymoon, the couple lived in the local St. Cloud’s Hotel in Canton for about two months while the “Campaign House” was being furnished for them by Mr. Saxton.
From what can be determined by circumstantial documentation, it was about April 1, 1871 when they first moved in.
Their two daughters were born there, Katie McKinley on December 25, 1871 and Ida on April 1, 1873.
“Little Ida” died there on August 20, 1873 at only four months old.
On August 30, 1873, just ten days after “Little Ida” died in the “Campaign House,” James Saxton sold the building and William and Ida McKinley moved out of it.
They would not return there for another 23 years, until their one-year rental agreement began on January 1, 1896.
The birth and death of their baby marked a period of tremendous change for the family.
On March 14, 1873, just two weeks and three days before the little girl had been born, Ida McKinley’s beloved mother Kate had died.
On August 22, 1872, just two days after the little girl died, Ida McKinley’s sister Mary married Marshall Barber.
This meant that the family of four who had been living at what was at the time just known as the Saxton House were suddenly reduced to just two, Ida McKinley’s father James Saxton and her 23-year old brother George.
The March 1873 death of her mother had marked the period when Ida McKinley’s chronic disabilities of epilepsy, nerve damage to her leg and weakened immune system had begun.
The loss of both her mother and her daughter in just four months was shock enough. For a woman who had been physically fit to an unusual degree in that era, however, the sudden onset of these bewildering health problems quite understandably compounded her emotional balance and a deep and debilitating depression set in.
Not only did Ida McKinley’s father begin working with William McKinley in searching for medical care for her, but he was suffering from great loneliness in the Saxton House, both because his wife had died five months earlier and his daughter Mary had married and moved out.
It only made sense that William, Ida and Katie McKinley would come live in the Saxton House.