National Park Getaway: First Ladies National Historic Site

By Lisa Meade, Park Guide, First Ladies National Historic Site

Two-story Victorian house
First Ladies National Historic Site is homed in historic buildings in downtown Canton, Ohio, including the home of the Ida and William McKinley.

NPS Photo

What exactly does it mean to be a first lady? The US Constitution is very clear about the role of the president and vice president but says nothing about the first lady. While there may not be any official responsibilities, there are plenty of expectations. The first lady has been expected to be the White House hostess, comforter to a grieving nation, activist, and more.

Given all these constantly changing expectations, being the spouse of the president is often one with challenges. Some of the women who have held this role have felt like a “state prisoner” in the words of Martha Washington, while others have loved it. But when you have the attention of the nation, and sometimes the world, without a clearly defined role, what do you have a responsibility to do? Visit us at First Ladies National Historic Site and explore this question and more.

Museum exhibit with a line of historical dresses in glass cases
Visits to the park begin in the Education Center, which has changing exhibits to feature the large museum collections.

NPS Photo

At the Education Center, our museum features a rotating collection of artifacts. In the summer of 2020, you will be able to see “First Ladies on the Campaign.” In modern times, first ladies have become crucial to presidential campaigns. First ladies sometimes have a higher favorability rating than the presidential candidate and their power is often used to sway voters. In 1964, Lady Bird Johnson used her influence on a tour of the south to convince many voters to support her husband after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Ranger-led programs and films help tell this story and many others to create a fuller picture of all the work of first ladies.

The main visitor experience is touring the ancestral home of Ida Saxton McKinley. You can step back in time when you enter the Victorian Era home. The oldest part of the house was constructed in the 1840s and you will see how the family’s wealth grew and the house expanded in the 1870s with grand formal parlors and ballrooms.

Docent talking to two visitors while showing them a paper
Docents lead visitors through the Saxton-McKinley House to give a glimpse into life in the past, sometimes portraying a historical person connected with first ladies.

NPS Photo

Entering the third floor puts you in the only remaining personal residence of the McKinleys. When you walk through the ballroom and into William McKinley’s law office, you can feel the closeness of the first couple. The many photos on the wall of political mentors to McKinley foreshadow the public to come for future First Lady Ida McKinley.

First Ladies National Historic Site was founded to add to our American Presidential History. Many of their stories have been forgotten despite some of their intense involvement. Add to your understanding of American History by visiting us in downtown Canton, Ohio. In just a few minutes from the interstate, you can dive into this important history.

Last updated: March 2, 2020