Throughout our nation’s history, we have seen many powerful men occupy the top office of our government. Some are looked back on with respect and feelings of endearment, while others are disliked or even pushed right out of the limelight, almost forgotten. Behind each of these leaders, however, was a woman: The First Lady.
Simply defined as the wife of the president of the United States, this role is more than a title or an old-fashioned domestic role. The women bestowed with this title over the years were more than pretty faces; they worked hard to drive through their own initiatives—many of which were very political. Learning about them could take hours upon hours of studious research, but with a trip to the National First Ladies Library in Canton, visitors can glimpse into these women’s lives.
The library itself was brought to life by a politician’s wife. Mary Regula, the wife of a congressman, started the Library in 1995 with the goal of bringing the First Ladies to the forefront of history. Patricia Krider is the current executive director of the library. She was originally recruited as a volunteer by Regula herself. Regula went to Stark State College, where Krider happened to be teaching computer classes, looking for volunteers to help develop the brand new organization’s website. After three years of volunteer work, Krider became the first executive director in 2000. Though her initial involvement was technologically based, Krider says that it was just a starting point. “I got involved by creating the website and that grew into this love of history,” says Krider.
When many people hear the word library, they assume that it will be a silent home to thick tomes. However this is not the case with the First Ladies Library. “Well our name is a little bit of a misnomer because we are much more than a library,” says Krider. “We’re actually a national historic site. My organization, the National First Ladies Library, is a private partner with the National Park Service, and we operate and manage the site.”
Officially made the 380th unit of the National Park Service in 2000 by President Bill Clinton, this piece of history is comprised of two parts. First, there is the seven-story education and research center. This is where visitors can find the research library, exhibits based around themes, programs for the general public and school children, as well as living history presentations, author lectures and book signings.
The second half of the site is a home rich in its own history. “We have a historic home that was the home of Ida Saxton McKinley, and she and her husband William lived there longer than any other private residence.” A bustling home, its occupants included not just the McKinleys, but also Ida Saxton McKinley’s parents, her sister and her children as well. According to Krider, the home was built in two sections. “The original section was [built] in 1841, and then it was expanded in about 1865, and it’s been restored to look like it may have looked during the 1870s, 1880s, while the McKinleys lived there.”
A walk through the education and research center is more than just a chance to gaze at garments of the country’s leading ladies. Though there are beautiful gowns on display, the exhibits showcase much more than fashion trends. “We’ve done a lot of different themes,” says Krider. “We’ve done First Ladies in education, in health care, the causes of First Ladies. We’ve done exhibits on the artistry of First Ladies and talked about who had musical talents or talents with painting or a variety of different things.”
One exhibit even highlighted the forgotten First Ladies. These lesser-known women have slid from the limelight for many reasons—sometimes due to illness or death—but still have a tale to be told. “There are First Ladies where there is very little. It’s difficult with some of the First Ladies because there are not even photographs in existence or paintings or anything,” says Krider. Regardless of the limited resources, she says that they work hard to present a complete presentation of the woman in question. “You just have to use what you have and tell the story of her life. She still had a life and she still had a story, even if there is nothing tangible that you can show.”
Not all First Ladies are on exhibit at the same time. Instead, five to seven of them are highlighted within the theme of that particular exhibit. “You’re never going to see all 44 First Ladies,” says Krider. This allows visitors to have a detailed experience about the women featured in the current exhibit without being overwhelmed by information.
The current exhibit, running through February 26, is called “A Gift to Cherish.” “These gifts that are given by First Ladies are something that you would cherish because it is something very special,” says Krider. The upcoming exhibit, opening March 3, will highlight First Ladies on the campaign trail—discussing the details of campaigning for the Oval Office.
As the stories of the past unfold before a visitor, it can be surprising which ones stick. For Krider, there is no solid favorite. “I really can’t say that I have a favorite, but I have come to admire pretty much all of them.” Though each one has her own fascinating story, Krider says that one definitely surprised her. “Lou Hoover was an amazing woman. She’s a First Lady during the Great Depression, so her husband wasn’t a particularly popular president and [because of this] she kind of gets shuffled to the background.” A fascinating woman, Hoover spoke Mandarin Chinese, was an architect, was the first woman to graduate from Stanford University with a degree in geology and was an advocate for women’s physical fitness, Krider says. She was also involved in the Girl Scouts.
Discovering women like Hoover is one of the reasons that Krider encourages people to visit the Library. “There are just amazing stories and fascinating facts about these women that people don’t realize,” she says. “They were a major contribution to our country, and there are stories to tell, things to see and history to learn.” The National First Ladies Library Education and Research Center is located at 205 S. Market Ave. Canton, Ohio 44702. The Saxton McKinley House is located at 331 S. Market Ave. To learn more about the library, visit www.firstladies.org.
/ Managing editor Molly Gase has been pacing around the office non-stop since Christmas, trying to make her Fitbit happy with her daily step count.
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