Canton casts a light on American presidential history as well as gridiron greats. The Pro Football Hall of Fame and William McKinley sites top the line-up.
As the home to professional football’s ultimate shrine, Canton is nicknamed the “Hall of Fame City.” Longtime fans know of its role in shaping the sport’s history, and just a casual stroll downtown reveals the city’s historical ties to football.
From the time the National Football League (NFL) was formed here in 1920, Canton’s love affair with football has never waned. Appropriately, the logo of Visit Canton—the convention and visitors bureau of Stark County, Ohio—features a football in place of the “o” in “Canton.”
But this northern Ohio city, an hour south of Cleveland, appeals to travelers with a broad range of interests. High on must-do lists are sites related to Canton’s own William McKinley, who served as the 25th president of the United States from 1897 until his assassination in 1901.
Centennial Plaza: Downtown Canton, Ohio’s New Centerpiece
Downtown Canton has really blossomed in the last few years, and a bold new gathering place mirrors that energy. Centennial Plaza celebrates Canton’s football heritage while projecting a bold vision for the city’s future. Unveiled on national television on September 17, 2020—the 100th anniversary of the NFL’s founding—the fun public space abounds with pockets of interest.
Its most striking feature: the vertical, stainless-steel sculpture comprising four gracefully curving, 65-foot-tall spires that suggest a four-seamed football. Called the Rotunda Spires, they are inspired by the rotunda in the original building at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, a short drive away.
Dominating Centennial Plaza is Centennial Pavilion, a sweeping steel structure that covers an event lawn capable of holding 5,000 persons. A performance stage and huge LED videoboard overlook the expanse of artificial turf. Nighttime visitors can catch laser light shows synchronized to music.
In another corner of the plaza, Jerzee’s Cafe offers indoor and outdoor seating. Near the sports-friendly eatery stand the NFL 100 Year Player Pylons, two-sided, internally illuminated glass panels that list more than 25,000 players from the league’s first 100 years. In addition, pavers recognize every city that has had a professional football team.
The plaza’s best photo-op is the “CANTON” sign, whose capital letters incorporate the domed McKinley Memorial (in the “A”) and a football (in the “O”).
Public Art Tells Football’s Story
Downtown explorers also pull out their cameras for the football heritage-themed art pieces that make up The Eleven, a $2.2 million, multi-year project of ArtsinStark and the Hall of Fame. Nine of the public murals and sculptures are already in place, with two more to come this summer.
One mural recognizes the four black players involved in the reintegration of pro football in 1946, a full year before Jackie Robinson broke big-league baseball’s color barrier. Another mural celebrates the introduction of TV’s Monday Night Football in 1970.
The Birth of the NFL sculpture was constructed near the site where the agreement was signed to form the American Professional Football Association, renamed the National Football League two years later.
A historic meeting with 10 professional team owners took place at the Hupmobile car dealership of Ralph Hay, who also owned the Canton Bulldogs, a football powerhouse at the time. Jim Thorpe, the first nationally prominent pro, played for the Bulldogs (among other teams) and was elected the league’s first president.
Arts District: The Place to Be in Downtown Canton
Centennial Plaza commands a prime position on Market Avenue, downtown’s principal artery, and lies within the Arts District, a lively area with shops, restaurants, art galleries and music clubs. For some old-school fun, drop in at Milestone, a new bar where board game enthusiasts congregate over gourmet hot dogs and local craft brews on tap. The Canton Museum of Art, one of the city’s cultural magnets, presents national touring exhibits and is known for its permanent collection of American watercolors and contemporary ceramics.
Ideally, your Canton visit will be timed to coincide with the first Friday of the month, when the Arts District stages First Friday. Guests can take in the musical entertainment and other festivities while walking around with an alcoholic beverage in a special cup purchased from a participating restaurant or bar in the Downtown Outdoor Refreshment Area (DORA).
Clustered on a block of Fourth Street NW, between Cleveland and McKinley avenues, are several one-of-a-kind shops. At Boomdyada, which offers all things earth-inspired, groups can make a terrarium to take home. Fromage du Monde deals in cheeses of the world and can arrange a talk with product sampling. Tour members can blend their own potion at Miss Larana’s Alchemical Apothecary, which specializes in “organic essential oils for face, lips, hair, body and soul.” Cantonology sells Canton-themed gift items.
The grand marquee of the historic Canton Palace Theatre, a cornerstone of the Arts District, looms just down the street from Centennial Plaza. An ornately decorated space with stucco walls and wisps of clouds floating across a starry ceiling, the atmospheric theater was built in 1926 as a venue for vaudeville shows and silent movies.
Designed to re-create a Spanish courtyard, the Palace hosts 300 events a year, including concerts, movies and ballets. Groups can combine a tour with a concert on the Kilgen pipe organ, one of few left in the country and the only one that remains in its original home.
Tastes of Canton
Just steps from the theater on Market Avenue are restaurants like Basil Asian Bistro and Grapes in a Glass, a wine bar/art gallery with live music. Canton Brewing Co., facing Centennial Plaza, is another popular spot.
Bender’s Tavern, also in the Arts District, is Canton’s oldest restaurant and one of its finest. Dating from 1902, Bender’s has been owned by the Jacob family since 1932. Three dining rooms and a bar, plus private rooms for groups, occupy three vintage buildings with tin ceilings, mosaic floors, and walls of oak and marble.
Murals, stained glass and old-time photographs complete the Old World ambience. The Hall of Fame Room derives its name from meetings held at Bender’s by Canton organizers of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Bender’s features fresh seafood flown in from famed Foley Fish in Boston. Menu favorites include Boston Scrod a la Foley, a light, flaky piece of fish coated in a buttery cracker-crumb crust, with melted butter for dipping.
Also available are Lake Erie walleye and yellow perch, Alaskan king crab legs, lobster tail, fried haddock and sauteed Dover sole, plus prime steaks, pork chops and pastas. Turtle soup, served with a side of sherry, has been a Bender’s classic for more than 60 years. For dessert, try the decadent white chocolate bread pudding topped with walnuts.
Canton Food Tours provides a delicious way to experience downtown. The typical three-hour walking tour makes stops for small-plate entrees at several leading eateries (enough food to make a meal, dessert included). There’s commentary on public art, architectural landmarks and local history along the way. Tours can be customized for groups of six and up. For details, contact Barb Abbott, email@example.com, 330-495-0929.
Presidential History Permeates Downtown
Abbott also markets a one-day, customizable motorcoach itinerary focusing on presidential history. It includes the only museum and library devoted to the wives of U.S presidents, a museum and memorial dedicated to William McKinley, and McKinley-related points of interest downtown. At the High Victorian Gothic church where McKinley was the Sunday school superintendent and where his funeral service was held, groups are shown the four stained-glass lancet windows honoring the martyred president and the pew where he and his wife, Ida, sat for worship.
Two National Park Service buildings, a block from each other on Market Avenue, comprise First Ladies National Historic Site. Its Education Center, housed in an elegant former bank, has rotating exhibits on subjects ranging from gala inauguration festivities to the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.
Currently on display are replica inaugural gowns worn by every first lady from Jackie Kennedy to Melania Trump. Another exhibit spotlights social causes that first ladies have undertaken. Pieces on display include Helen Taft’s embroidered fan and heeled shoes worn by Julia Grant, Edith Roosevelt and Mamie Eisenhower. A Smithsonian film about the first ladies plays in the 80-seat theater.
Down the block, park rangers give tours of the Saxton-McKinley House, the comfortable red-brick home where McKinley’s wife, the former Ida Saxton, grew up. She and William lived there during the years (1878-1891) he served in the U.S. Congress. Only a few of the antiques, like a music box, Ida’s piano and William’s pipe, were owned by the McKinleys, but all the furnishings are true to the period.
Downtown Canton in general exudes a vintage feel with its gaslight-style street lights, old stone churches, a stately courthouse, and portions of streets and sidewalks paved with bricks.
The sparkling new Doubletree by Hilton Canton Downtown, right across from the Saxton-McKinley House and steps from the Arts District, makes a good base of operation for tour groups. The 330 Bar & Grill, a full-service restaurant named for Canton’s telephone area code, anchors the spacious lobby and can accommodate groups indoors or on the streetside patio. Other amenities include an indoor pool and fitness center.
Multi-Faceted Museum Spotlights U.S. and Local History
In a pleasant greenspace not far from downtown Canton, the McKinley Presidential Library & Museum showcases items from the world’s largest collection of McKinley memorabilia. In addition to exhibit cases, the museum’s McKinley Gallery contains re-creations of the 25th president’s Canton law office, parlor in his Canton home and White House office, all with original furnishings.
A pushbutton kiosk allows visitors to activate animatronic figures of McKinley and First Lady Ida. Positioned in the parlor, the robotic couple converses on topics ranging from education to the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, where the president was fatally shot by an anarchist. Another kiosk has still photos and grainy movie footage that show McKinley reviewing the troops at the exposition, his second inauguration and his funeral train.
Of note behind glass is Ida’s diamond tiara, which the museum in 2014 was able to purchase for $43,000 from Rick Harrison of the Pawn Stars reality TV show. Artifacts also include the white shirt McKinley wore on the day he was killed; the rip down the back indicates some emergency procedure was undertaken.
“William McKinley is an often overlooked president because he is so overshadowed by his vice president and successor, Theodore Roosevelt,” says Ally Carlson, the museum’s education manager.
“Roosevelt, as we know, was big and brash, while McKinley was a quiet, reserved Victorian gentleman,” Carlson observes. “He was small in stature as well as quiet in his public persona, so Roosevelt was easily able to overshadow him just by his personality. However, a lot of the things that Roosevelt took credit for were things McKinley really set in motion.” (McKinley expanded America’s footprint on the world stage, added territories and started negotiations for building the Panama Canal.)
For groups, the museum can do a catered meal with a presidential history talk that includes photos and information not found in the exhibits.
The McKinley museum doubles as a science center and regional history repository, and even has planetarium shows. Everyone likes the Street of Shops, with its general store, pharmacy and other shops from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Also popular are the dinosaur replicas, including an animatronic Allosaurus, and the skeleton of a real mastodon unearthed in Stark County, the most complete such specimen ever found.
Canton Landmark Honors a Slain President
The McKinley National Memorial, an imposing domed monument containing the remains of William and Ida McKinley, crowns a hill next to the museum. The tomb can be reached by climbing 108 steps to the top. Huffing and puffing up the wide staircase, you’ll probably be passed by exercise enthusiasts who use it for their workouts.
Halfway up stands a bronze statue of McKinley delivering what would be his last speech, a pose based on a photograph taken shortly before his murder at the Pan-American Exposition. (The tomb also is accessible from a parking lot at the top, and there is an elevator inside the monument.)
The mausoleum, the nation’s largest presidential monument by volume, measures 79 feet in diameter and rises 97 feet from a platform set on a circular plaza. The double bronze doors at the entrance were the largest in the nation when installed. Above the double sarcophagus carved from one block of dark-green granite looms a stained-glass skylight with 45 stars representing the number of states in the Union at the time of McKinley’s death. (Group tours of the crypt can be arranged.)
A Football Fan’s Dream
The Pro Football Hall of Fame, one of America’s premier sports shrines, presents a kaleidoscopic look at football’s past and present, starting with the pioneers who played in the leather-helmet days of the early 1900s. A dream world for passionate fans, it can almost overwhelm with its vast array of artifacts, pushbutton displays and other interactive features.
The “Fantastic Finishes” touchscreen activates a video of dramatic game-ending plays. “Football as Popular Culture” shines a light on tailgating, prime-time TV broadcasts, electric football games and other things that have become a part of everyday life. Or choose a team in “Dynasties” and follow its history. There also are video accounts of record setters in categories like rushing, passing and coaches’ wins.
The Road to Equality exhibit recounts the struggles that black players have faced, and the Black College Football Hall of Fame gallery recognizes players and coaches who excelled at historically black colleges when opportunities were limited at state universities.
In the Super Bowl Gallery, fans relive memorable moments, see Super Bowl rings studded with hundreds of diamonds and come face to face with the sterling silver Lombardi Trophy, which stands in the center of its own room.
The Pro Football Today gallery has memorabilia from recent years, such as the Dec. 4, 2016 game ball that made Tom Brady the winningest quarterback (201 victories) in NFL history. Nearby is the jersey worn by quarterback Aaron Rodgers in leading the Green Bay Packers to their 700th win in franchise history in 2014.
Don’t miss the “Game for Life” multimedia theater experience. Next to a chalkboard in a locker room mock-up, a hologram of present-day Joe Namath introduces inspirational videos of players reflecting on how football affected their lives. The show ends with holograms of actors portraying legendary coaches George Halas and Vince Lombardi, who leave the audience with words of wisdom.
No visit to the Hall of Fame is complete without a walk through the hallowed Bronzed Bust Gallery, a dimly lit space that enshrines more than 300 of football’s all-time greats. Each bust, set on a glass shelf and outlined in light, is identified with the player’s name, position, teams and years played. Guests can tap on touchscreens for video biographies and the bust’s location in the gallery.
The Hall of Fame can arrange a catered or box meal for groups, with seating indoors or at an outdoor picnic area. Guided tours are available.
For more information on Canton attractions, log on to Visit Canton’s website, www.visitcanton.com.
by Randy Mink, Senior Editor