CANTON – If Americans were tested on their knowledge of the history of the women who have occupied and presided over the White House, it’s not likely they would score an A+.
Who knows much, if anything, about Frances Cleveland, other than that she was married in the White House to a sitting president much her senior, and that her first child, Ruth, inspired a candy bar.
Most people are aware of Dolley Madison’s heroic role in saving the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington during the War of 1812, but less well known is the part Elizabeth Monroe played in saving Lafayette’s wife from the guillotine during the French Revolution.
Lucy Hayes entered the White House under the cloud of the election of 1876, but she made herself much admired. She accompanied her husband on visits to state reform schools, prisons, and asylums, and pioneered the “semi-public” role that brought women into political life.
Florence Harding, who ran her husband’s newspaper while he developed his political career, prided herself in being a suffragette, and bragged that she was the first first lady to have voted for her husband.
Lou Hoover was a graduate of Stanford University, and as first lady was active in the Girl Scouts movement and in promoting physical fitness and sports for women.
Mary Regula, wife of U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula of Canton, has been laboring over the past 10 years to bring these women into their rightful place in history.
It has been her dream to reintroduce these women to America by making information about them readily available.
The National First Ladies’ Library Regula established in Canton in 1998 is now part of the National Park System as the First Ladies’ National Historic Site.
Being included in the national park system, she said, will increase the general visibility and credibility of the historical site. It will make a difference in the number of people who come to visit and tour.
But being a part of the park system also ensures the site’s future, she said.
Regula has come a long way on perseverance, donations, contributions and volunteerism since she began her effort to make America’s first ladies more visible. National park status, she feels, now puts the First Ladies’ Library on the same footing as the Presidential libraries.
And that, she believes, is exactly where these women belong. Their roles in the affairs of the nation during their own times were far more important than merely being first spouse and serving as White House hostesses.
Regula came to her interest in first ladies by developing an interest in Mary Todd Lincoln, and Mrs. Lincoln remains closest to her heart. But as she learns more about the other first ladies, she finds that each has a unique story of her own.
For instance, she said, Martha Washington had always been sort of a blank for her. But now Regula has come to find out that Washaington was a strong and independent woman in her own right.
“Not only did she marry the first time against her parents’ wishes,” Regula said, “but when she was left a widow with small children, she found herself a husband who would be a good father to her children.”
During the Revolutionary War, Martha Washington spent a lot of her time with her husband in the field, and rode from camp to camp delivering messages.
And while many of the revolutionaries were paying a high financial price for their service during the war, Martha Washington was able to manage her land and keep the plantation running.
Regula first became aware of how little information was available on first ladies when she attempted to do research on Mary Lincoln in order to give a Lincoln Day address.
She knew there must be letters and journals that could help her understand Mary Lincoln, but she could find none of those things in her local library.
Several years later, after she and her husband were in Washington, she attempted to find a bibliography for material on first ladies in the Library of Congress. There was no such thing.
She knew there must be a wealth of material scattered through the Presidential libraries and other depositories, but there was no listing that might help anyone locate any of these materials.
In 1990, historian Carl Anthony published the first collected work, First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power, based on his extensive research into all of these sources.
Regula organized a group of 13 women in Canton who were willing to help her raise funds to begin the First Ladies’ project. She wanted to hire an historian who could create the bibliography she could then put on-line and make available to everyone.
With funds available, she called Anthony and asked him if he would be interested in taking on the project. More than a year and 40,000 entries later, a database that outlined what is available, where it is located, what subject it deals with and what social issues might be related, was completed.
When it was on-line and ready to go, it was unveiled by Hilliary Clinton at a White House press conference in 1998.
During the same period, the National Park Service acquired the childhood home of Ida Saxon McKinley in Canton.
Once scheduled for demolition because it was in such bad shape, the home had been saved by Marshall Belden, the grandson of Ida McKinley’s youngest sister.
The park service removed a brick store front shell from around the house and restored the exterior to its Victorian original. It then went on the auction block.
The First Ladies’ Library acquired the home, and at that time, still thinking it was to be primarily the caretaker of the database, reserved a room for itself and leased the remainder of the house to the Canton Foundation.
But with the library growing, it soon became evident that the entire building would be required for its activities, and the decision was made to restore the house and use it as the museum and events center for the National First Ladies’ Library.
With increased corporate and private funding, portions of the home have been restored to the period in which Ida McKinley would have lived there. Restoration will be completed after the Canton Foundation lease expires.
The front entryway and staircase of the house are complete, along with the adjoining parlor. In this area there are 23 wallpaper patterns, duplicating the fashion of the 1870s.
Upstairs, working from actual photographs, the sitting room and bedroom where Ida McKinley lived after her husband had been assassinated, have been restored in precise detail.
The same is true of the third floor office that McKinley used when he and his wife lived in the house from 1878 until he was elected president.
And in the restored third floor ballroom hang portraits of all the women who served as first lady or as official hostess for each of the presidents of the United States, with accompanying information on their lives, families, and accomplishments.
The ballroom also has several cases for rotating exhibits of photographs and personal objects of specific first ladies.
The current exhibit focuses on Edith Roosevelt, second wife of Theodore Roosevelt, and the only person the energetic president was said to have been afraid of.
“When we first started, I was determined to stay away from clothing,” Regula said. “After all, for years the First Ladies’ had been represented in the Smithsonian by the dress they had worn to one party.”
But Regula says she has found that it is the personal things, like the afternoon suit, hat, and shoes of Edith Roosevelt that are currently on display, that seem to hold most fascination for visitors to the museum.
“Looking at something that they knew she wore seems to create a personal connection,” Regula said.
The library recently acquired the National City Bank building located a block north of the McKinley House. It plans to renovate the building and turn it into the resource library and research center that will make first ladies’ materials more readily acceptable.
Renovation will begin soon with a $2.5 million matching grant from the Save America’s Treasures millennium council. Match is being provided by the City of Canton, the state of Ohio, and several foundations and private donors.
Now, the library is concentrating on collecting copies of every out-of-print book concerning, about, or written by the first ladies. It also recently acquired 2,000 negatives of portraits and photographs that are held by the Library of Congress and the presidential libraries.
Before the work is completed, Regula said, the resource center should have available copies of almost every item that is included in the First Ladies Bibliography.
That will make it easy for every American historian to include the first ladies in whatever history they are writing as easily as they now include the presidents.
The National First Ladies’ Library is located in the Ida Saxton McKinley house at 331 S. Market in downtown Canton. Tours are by appointment only. For information call 330-452-0876.
The First Ladies’ Web site containing the First Ladies’ bibliography and biographical information on each of the first ladies, as well as information about the library, is at www.firstladies.org.