Could the sound of footsteps on the spiral staircase at the Saxton McKinley House be those of Ida McKinley? Once in a while the footsteps echo late at night, and the light step is attributed to Ida. That seems quite possible as this was her family home where she lived for twenty-eight years.
Beautiful gardens connect the Education and Research Center to the Ida Saxton McKinley House, both part of the First Ladies National Historic Site in Canton, Ohio. Visitors were greeted by a young lady dressed in a replica of Julia Tyler’s gown. She was very knowledgeable regarding the history of the house and the family.
To add a little mystery, there are conflicting stories as to how Ida and William McKinley met each other. Some said Ida was a cashier in the bank where William transacted business for the law firm he joined when moving to Canton. Another story said that both Ida and William were Sunday School teachers at different churches, and passed each other on the way to church. Or perhaps they met during a picnic at Myers Lake Park. However they met, William indulged her every whim and was seldom far from her side, which turned out to be a major political asset.
The Saxton McKinley House was originally built in 1840 by Ida’s maternal grandfather, George DeWalt. Her other grandfather, John Saxton, was founder of the Canton Repository newspaper. Her affluent background made it possible to lead an extravagant lifestyle. Almost everything inside the house today is a reproduction, but based very carefully on the Victorian style used in the original 1800’s house – after extensive research at the Smithsonian. Fortunately, there are still original walls and woodwork throughout much of the home.
In the Formal Parlor you get a glimpse of a music box purchased on Ida’s trip to Switzerland as well as the piano topped with Victorian sheet music, which she enjoyed playing. The Library held William McKinley’s chair and a large collection of Ida’s fans, which numbered over 250. On the third floor, William had his office across the hall from Ida’s room so he could be close to her. Their second child, Ida, died at six months of age and two years later Katie, their three year old, contracted typhoid fever and passed away. Consumed by her grief, Ida’s headaches became more severe, accompanied by seizures and tremors.
To ease her migraine headaches, her hair was cut because the weight of the braids was considered a possible cause. Medication for her seizures often made her listless. These two problems made it necessary for Ida to sit as much as possible and this petite lady with a 20″ waist, 18″ when corseted, attempted to hide her afflictions as much as possible. If she had an attack out in public, William would put a handkerchief over her face so people would not glimpse her facial contortions during seizures.
Also on the third floor was the beautiful ballroom for entertaining. Today the walls of that ballroom display short stories and pictures regarding the life of each First Lady. Many interesting facts were given about various First Ladies, for example, Francis Cleveland happened to be America’s youngest First Lady. Grover Cleveland was a friend of the family’s and actually bought Francis her baby carriage.
The McKinleys only lived at the Saxton McKinley House for a short time between 1878-1895, while William was serving in the US House of Representatives and then as Governor of Ohio. During his presidential campaign, they moved to a more modest home, which more closely matched William’s background.
Often we hear stories about our presidents, so it was refreshing to hear stories about their First Ladies and catch a glimpse at their lifestyle. A friend wrote about Ida Saxton McKinley, “Her greatest charm was her perfect sincerity and thoughtfulness for others. No day passed over her head without her doing something for someone.” What a great tribute to this special First Lady!
The Saxton McKinley House is located off I-77 in Canton, Ohio right next door to the First Ladies Library at 205 Market Street South. All tours of the facility are guided and admission, which includes both the Library and the House, is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and $5 for children.