First Ladies National Historic Site | SAXTON HOUSE TOUR

Saxton House, part of First Ladies National Historic Site

Saxton House, part of First Ladies National Historic Site

The Saxton House is the birth home of Ida Saxton, the 25th First Lady of the United States. Her husband, William McKinley, served as President of the United States from 1897 until he was assassinated on September 14, 1901, six months into his second term.

Access to the house is by guided tour only. These are held on Tuesdays through Saturdays from May 1st until the end of October, and on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from November 1st through the end of April. Tours last an hour and are typically held at 10 AM, 12 PM, and 2 PM, though before heading to the park, be sure to get the latest tour times on the National Park Service’s official Saxton House Tours web page for First Ladies National Historic Site.

Guide conducts a tour of the Saxton House at First Ladies National Historic Site

Guide conducts a tour of the Saxton House at First Ladies National Historic Site

Tickets for tours of the Saxton House are available at the Visitor Center on a first come, first served basis on the day of the tour. There is a fee, and those with an annual National Park pass get a discount. Those with a National Park Military or Access pass get in free. The reason why standard National Park Passes are not honored in full is because the day-to-day operations of the park are handled by the National First Ladies Library and Museum, Inc. (NFLL), a nonprofit organization that works with the National Park Service. (Note that the previous name of the group was the National First Ladies Library, Inc. The name was changed to include Museum in November 2023.)

Group tours (8 or more people, including charter bus groups) of the Saxton House are handled directly by the NFLL. Arrangements must be made at least three weeks in advance. See the NFLL’s Visit the National First Ladies Library and Museum web page for details.

Tours meet at the Visitor Center, and from there the guide takes participants down the street to the house, a walk of 150 yards. Those in wheelchairs and with mobility problems can attend, as there is an elevator in the house and all doorways are wide enough for wheelchairs.

Front porch of the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

Front porch of the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

The original section of the Saxton House, the two-story Federal Style rear section along 4th Street, was built in 1841 by George Dewalt, Ida Saxton’s maternal grandfather. Ida was born in 1847 in the house and lived there for a couple years before she and her family (parents James Saxton and Catherine Dewalt and sister Mary) moved to another house owned by the Dewalt’s, possibly the house next door. When George Dewalt died in 1850, the family, which now included a brother, George, moved back into the Saxton House shortly thereafter to live with Ida’s grandmother, Christina.

James Saxton expanded the house to its current size sometime between 1865 and 1870. Catherine inherited the house from her mother (Christina) when she died in 1870, and it is this date that is often used as the construction date, though there are no exact records. The addition is the three-story section built in the Second Empire Style that fronts Market Avenue. Walk around to the south side of the house on 4th Street to see the difference in the two sections (mainly the mansard roof of the 1870 addition).

Ida married William McKinley in 1871, and the two moved into a house at 143 North Market Street in Canton. Ida’s mother died in March 1873, followed by her newly born daughter in August. (The couple did have another daughter, Katie, who was nearing two years old at the time. Katie died in 1875 at age four.) According to family history, these two deaths prompted the McKinleys to move out of their current house and into the Saxton House where they converted the third floor ballroom of the 1870 addition into a bedroom suite. Ida’s father James, her bachelor brother George, and her sister Mary, along with husband Marshall Barber and their children, lived in the house on the second floor.

William and Ida lived in the Saxton House full time from around August 1873 until he was elected to the United States’ congress in 1877. During his two terms as congressman (March 1877 to March 1891), the couple split their time between Canton and Washington. When McKinley became Governor of Ohio in 1892, he and Ida moved to Columbus, thus ending their residency at the Saxton House. Mary and Marshall Barber continued living in the house with their children (their father had died in 1887).

An interesting side note is that Ida’s brother George turned out to be somewhat of a womanizer and was eventually shot dead by Anna George, a married woman he had promised to marry if she got divorced, which she did. When he didn’t keep his word, she killed him. The people in town were so glad she shot him that she was acquitted despite everyone knowing she pulled the trigger—multiple times.

The Saxton House tour starts in the parlor where guests of the Saxtons were entertained. Original furnishings include Ida’s piano and a music box she purchased in Switzerland in 1869. The rest of the furniture is period antiques. This is one of the few rooms in the house that historians are certain of its purpose. At the door is a plaque identifying the room. Such plaques are only placed at rooms where the use was known for sure.

Period antiques decorate the parlor of the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

Period antiques decorate the parlor of the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

Ida Saxton's piano on display in the parlor of the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

Ida Saxton’s piano on display in the parlor of the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

The family had its own parlor (the use of this room is also known). In this room is a photo of John Saxton, Ida’s father, above the fireplace. The chandelier, while not the original, is very similar to the original, and it may have been made by the same company in Cleveland. It was found in an antique store in Florida. Photos of the room exist, so while most of the furniture is just period antiques, the curators do attempt to find pieces that are a close match to the original furniture.

Period antiques decorate the family parlor of the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

Period antiques decorate the family parlor of the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

Photo of John Saxton above the fireplace in the family parlor of the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

Photo of John Saxton above the fireplace in the family parlor of the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

The bookcases and chair in the library are original to the house, and the rug on the floor was owned by the McKinleys.

Bookshelves and rug in the library of the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

Bookshelves and rug in the library of the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

There is a room decorated as a dining room and one as a kitchen, but nobody knows for sure what these rooms were used for.

Room in the Saxton House decorated as a dining room, First Ladies National Historic Site

Room in the Saxton House decorated as a dining room, First Ladies National Historic Site

Room in the Saxton House decorated as a dining room, First Ladies National Historic Site

Room in the Saxton House decorated as a dining room, First Ladies National Historic Site

The tour continues upstairs on the third floor of the 1870 addition to the house. The first stop is at McKinley’s office, which is decorated per a photo taken of the room. Original items include a safe, a small table McKinley used in the White House, a trunk of his used for travel, and a mirror plaque given to him during his 1896 campaign for president. The rest of the furnishings are antiques and reproductions that closely match the furniture in the photo (which is also on display in the room).

William McKinley's office in the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

William McKinley’s office in the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

The main room on the third floor was originally used as a ballroom for parties and other events. When the McKinleys moved back into the house, they converted it into their private bedroom suite. Today the room has a conference table and sideboards that have nothing to do with the room. In fact, the conference table is just that—a table used for staff meetings. The National Park Service and the NFLL hope to one day furnish the room as bedroom suite.

Ballroom on the third floor of the 1870 addition to the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

Ballroom on the third floor of the 1870 addition to the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

The final stop is on the second floor, which largely consists of family and guest bedrooms. This is where Mary’s family lived when Ida and William stayed in the house as a married couple. The photo below shows a room decorated as Ida’s bedroom, but not her bedroom in the Saxton House. McKinley had purchased their original house on North Market Street (which was torn down in the 1930s), and the couple planned to live there when he retired, but that never happened due to his assassination. Ida did return to Canton and lived in the North Market Street house. This bedroom in the Saxton House has been decorated similar to her room in the North Market Street house.

Bedroom on the second floor of the 1870 addition to the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

Bedroom on the second floor of the 1870 addition to the Saxton House, First Ladies National Historic Site

The Saxton House eventually ended up being owned by Mary. It remained in the family until 1920, with the last family residents being Mary’s daughter Katherine and her husband Henry S. Belden, Jr. (Mary died in 1917 and her husband Marshall Barber in 1918). The new owners turned it into a commercial building. The house was partitioned into multiple offices and store fronts and eventually became known as the Goldberg Building. By 1950, it had been renovated so many times that it didn’t even look like a residential house. It looked like a typical store or office building in a downtown commercial area.

By the 1970s, the house was in such poor condition that the Canton City Health Department had it condemned, and all residents were evicted. The house was to be torn down to make way for a new hotel, but it was saved by local businessman Marshall Beldon, whose grandparents were Mary and Marshal Barber. In fact, it was he as a young boy and his parents, Katherine and Henry Belden, who were the ones living in the house when it went up for sale in 1919. His fond memories led him to buy it in 1978 before it could be torn down.

Belden immediately began restoring the exterior of the house back to its original appearance by removing the post-1920s additions. He also did some work on the interior based on existing photographs. Keeping with the times, he did add modern heating and air conditioning. He also got the house listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. His ultimate plan was to open a restaurant inside to fund further renovations.

The restaurant idea never came to fruition, and in 1983 Beldon attempted to sell the house but could not get his asking price. He leased office space to the Canton Preservation Society, but that was his only tenant.

In the mid-1980s, Ohio congressman Ralph Regula began looking into the possibility of having the Federal government take over restoration of the house via the Historic Sites Act of 1935. He was an admirer of William McKinley, and his wife, Mary Regula, was a former teacher with a keen interest in the history of First Ladies. She would eventually start the nonprofit National First Ladies’ Library Association in the 1990s.

The National Park Service typically only considers acquiring property of national significance, and only after an advisory board has studied the acquisition. The Saxton House was of state significance, and thus no federal study had been done. However, as with the creation of many other national parks, none of this seemed to matter much to the politicians who pushed for their personal projects to become realities. Regula successfully inserted provisions for $800,000 in funds for the purchase of the Saxton House into a 1989 appropriations bill—typical pork barrel legislation—effectively bypassing the National Park Service’s review of the project. When it came time to purchase the house in 1991, it was appraised for $1.1 million, and by law, the government had to foot the bill for the additional $300,000. According to Regula, who was grilled on the matter by the media, the only cost to taxpayers was the purchase of the house. The restoration would be done entirely with private money.

The National Park Service then leased the property to the nonprofit group Stark County Foundation, which was now in charge of restoring the interior of the house and maintaining the property with its own money. However, by 1993, nothing had been done in regards to the renovation.

In 1995, the National First Ladies’ Library Association was founded by Mary Regula and some of her wealthy friends after gaining support from Hillary Clinton and other living former First Ladies. This was the first time that the concept of a national library dedicated to First Ladies was taken seriously. In 1998, the National First Ladies’ Library was officially dedicated, with its place of residence being the Saxton House. The nonprofit organization also officially incorporated as National First Ladies’ Library, Inc. Its initial project was to create an online bibliography pertaining to literature by and about America’s First Ladies.

The NFLL also took on the task of completing the renovation of the Saxton House with funds provided by the Stark County Foundation. The main problem was that the interior had been completely changed since 1920, and there were very few photos on which to base a restoration. Instead of trying to rebuild the interior as it once was, it was decided to furnish the house with Victorian-era furniture as it might have been when the McKinleys lived there. This work was completed in 1998, and public tours of the house started that same year, all led by members of the NFLL.

In 1999, Congress authorized funds for the National Park Service to study the possibility of the Saxton House and the First Ladies’ Library becoming a National Historic Site. Of course, this is all contrary to Ralph Regula’s statement that the Saxton House would cost the tax payers nothing beyond the purchase of the house. However, because there was no other park or museum of any type—federal or state—dedicated to the history of First Ladies, the study was approved in April 2000 by the National Park Service. Regula introduced a bill to create the park, it was passed by the Senate and Congress, and President Clinton signed the park into law in October 2000.

By this time the NFLL owned the City National Bank building down the street from the Saxton House, having been gifted it by Marshall Beldon in 1999. The NFLL raised $7.5 million to renovate the building, and work was completed in 2003. At that point the NFLL moved out of the Saxton House and into the bank building along with all of its artifacts and literature pertaining to First Ladies. In 2011, the City National Bank building was donated to the National Park Service, thus shifting the cost of maintaining a second building to the tax payers. The NFLL continues to own the parking lot and garden / picnic area next to the Saxton House, the First Ladies Garden.

Part of the bill to create First Ladies National Historic Site allowed the National Park Service to partner with the NFLL. The lease with the Stark County Foundation was terminated in 2003, and the NFLL was now responsible for the maintenance and operation of the park. The government would provide the funds, but the National Park Service largely stayed away from the property and daily operations. This agreement would remain in place for the next fifteen years. Today the National Park Service is more involved in the operation of First Ladies National Historic Site. The current cooperative agreement expired in 2024, and the new agreement may even further reduce the involvement of the NFLL.

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Last updated on May 9, 2024
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