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Nation's first ladies find a home in Canton

Thursday, February 12, 2004

By Johnna A. Pro, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Three decades ago, U.S. Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio asked his wife, Mary, to fill in for him at a Lions Club luncheon. It was Lincoln's birthday and Regula, who was then a state legislator, wanted his wife to give a speech about the nation's 16th president.

The family home of Ida Saxton McKinley, wife of President William McKinley, in Canton, Ohio, is now a museum dedicated to the nation's first ladies.(V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)


Facts about first ladies

Mary Regula declined.

No, she said, she certainly would not talk about Lincoln. People with far more expertise than she could discuss the country's Civil War president.

She would, however, be happy to give a speech about Mary Todd Lincoln, a woman whom history had painted as a crazed mental hospital patient following the death of her child and the assassination of her husband.

Mary Regula had been a history major in college and she was an avid reader. She thought that time had maligned Mary Todd Lincoln. In Mary Regula's view, Mary Todd Lincoln was more ambitious and more politically motivated than her husband and was a fierce abolitionist.

Regula gave the speech that day, but what she learned in researching her remarks was that the country's history, especially as it relates to presidents, lacked information about the nation's first ladies.

Filling that gap would ultimately become Regula's life's work and lead to the creation of the First Ladies National Historic Site.

"There was a missing link," Regula said. "That was a void in our history."

Not only was it a struggle to find out about Mary Todd Lincoln; it was an exercise in futility trying to find primary and secondary resources on any of the women who served in the White House alongside their husbands, or in some cases, in their husband's stead.

For the next several years, even as she compiled information about the first ladies, Regula was nagged by the fact that the resources were limited.

Those that did exist were scattered around the country, and no central catalog detailed where they were or what was available.

She even urged her daughter, Martha, to do a master's thesis in library science on the fact that a bibliography of resources didn't exist.

Martha upped the ante, suggesting that her mother should take on the project, create the bibliography and put it online so researchers from around the world could access it.

"It was an idea whose time had come," Regula said.

Regula tracked down author and historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony, the nation's foremost expert on first ladies.

"What would it take, she asked, to build a bibliography?

The answer: One year. Two researchers. And $100,000 to fund the project.

Regula didn't balk.

Instead, the wife of a Republican congressman sought the support of Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the wife of the nation's Democratic president.

She also reached out to 13 of Canton, Ohio's most prominent females: activists, community leaders and business women. Over a hotel breakfast one morning in 1995, she shared her dream.

With Regula at the helm, and Clinton and the nation's other living first ladies giving the project national attention, the women raised the money to create the National First Ladies Library, which would consist of the bibliography Regula had dreamed of so many years before.

When Mary Regula discovered how little historical information was available about the wives of U.S. presidents, she began a journey that would eventually result in founding the National First Ladies Library Education and Research Center in Canton, Ohio.(V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette)

In 1996, Anthony went to work compiling the database, which today has 45,000 entries and is ever-growing as new material is discovered. It includes books by and about first ladies, magazine and newspaper articles, manuscript collections and other materials such as video and audiotapes.

In February 1998, with a stroke on a computer keyboard in the White House, Clinton dedicated the Web site.

By then, though, Regula's dream had mushroomed.

Regula and company, including executive director Pat Krider, were rapidly taking over the donated space they were using in a house that was the family home of Ida Saxton McKinley, wife of President William McKinley. It became readily apparent that a room or two for offices out of which the Web site would operate would not be enough. At the same time, materials about first ladies were pouring into Canton, including books for researchers and museum-quality memorabilia.

The National First Ladies Library, which at that point existed only in cyberspace, took over the home and in June 1998, the Saxton House was dedicated.

"It's been a bar, a brothel, a boarding house," Krider said. "Truly, it was condemned."

Today the home is completely restored and serves as a museum to first ladies, operated by the library. It features permanent and changing exhibits interpreting the lives and contributions of the women who lived in the White House.

Even as the museum took shape, plans were under way for a permanent home for the library and research center in a dilapidated six-story building that once housed Canton's City National Bank.

In September, all of the materials were moved into the refurbished 1895 building, which was dedicated by first lady Laura Bush.

The cornerstone of the library is the bibliography. It's a rapidly growing book collection of nearly 3,200 titles that represents about 70 percent of all the books ever written about or by a first lady, Krider said.

In addition, there are private study rooms, exhibits, a theater and a second library dedicated to other prominent American women.

From her office on the sixth floor of the library, Regula revels in talking about what has developed in just a few short years in terms of the library, research center and museum:

The nation's first ladies were so much more than their inaugural gowns.

They were artists and poets, librarians and teachers, journalists and writers. They were suffragettes, abolitionists, freedom fighters and warriors.

Above all else, they were socially conscious.

These were the women who stood a heartbeat from the presidency, and in their own time and era, shaped the men who would lead the country.

The search for their history is a search for the truth.

"It's important for us to have a complete knowledge of our history," Regula said, "if we're ever to hold on to this democracy."

The First Ladies National Historic Site, which is part of the National Park Service, includes the Ida Saxton McKinley House and the Education and Research Center. It is two hours from Pittsburgh in the heart of downtown Canton. Guided tours, which last 90 minutes, begin at the Education and Research Center, at 205 Market Ave. South, then continue at the Saxton McKinley House, at 331 Market Ave. South. Tour days and times are Tuesday through Saturday at 9:30 and 10:30 a.m., and 12:30, 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. Adults $7, seniors (age 62 and up) $6 and children (under 18) $5. Reservations are required for groups of 10 or more. For smaller groups, reservations are recommended but not required. Call 330-452-0876 for reservations and information. The library is open to the public by appointment. Call 330-452-0876 or visit www.firstladies.org for more information.


Johnna Pro can be reached at jpro@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1574.

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