Marion, Ohio abounds with group-friendly attractions, including historical sites that spotlight America’s 29th president, Warren G. Harding
Had you been living in America a hundred years ago, Warren G. Harding would have been your president.
Warren G. Who? you ask.
American history buffs certainly have some familiarity with the accomplishments and foibles of our nation’s 29th chief executive, a Marion, Ohio, newspaperman who was elected president in 1920, assumed office in 1921 and died two years later of a heart attack that cut short his term.
But the outgoing and good-looking president, though popular in his day, has pretty much languished in obscurity over the past century. Scandals exposed after his death are one reason he is not highly rated by historians.
Yet Harding has grabbed the spotlight again with the recent debut of the gleaming new Warren G. Harding Presidential Library & Museum, located just steps from the Harding Home in Marion. He was the last of the seven Ohio-born Republicans who, within a 52-year span, were chosen leader of the land. (The “G,” by the way, stands for Gamaliel.)
A Sparkling New Museum
The stately white-brick library/museum building—three years in the making—was ready to open last summer before the pandemic changed things. It and the Harding Home, freshly restored to its 1920 appearance after being closed for three years, were primed for a centennial observance of the 1920 election that saw Harding beat Democrat James Cox in a landslide.
After viewing a 15-minute biographical film, museum visitors see exhibits that chronicle Harding’s personal life and public career, from boyhood to death at age 57. He had gained local prominence as publisher of the Marion Daily Star and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1914 after serving in state government.
Vintage newsreel footage on large-screen video monitors documents Harding’s 1920 campaign, inauguration and funeral. Giant black-and-white photo panels also breathe life into the galleries, and a touchscreen allows visitors to access details about artifacts behind glass, such as the president’s golf clubs and inlaid-wood humidor from Cuba. Other pieces on display include the suit and podium from the inauguration, collars and photos of his dogs, and his Senate desk and chair. (Only two other two sitting U.S. senators have been elected president—John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.)
One gallery covers Harding’s extensive tour of the West in 1923. Called the “Voyage of Understanding,” the trip was designed to let the president and his wife, Florence, meet people and hear their concerns. Photos depict the first couple in states like Idaho, Montana, Utah, Oregon, Washington and California. Harding became the first president to visit Canada and Alaska while in office. Displayed are gifts the Hardings received during their travels, including a giant papier-mache potato presented by the citizens of Idaho Falls.
The Hardings’ Western swing, however, was exhausting, and the president fell ill on the boat from Alaska to San Francisco, where he died in the Presidential Suite of the Palace Hotel. Vice President Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as president early the next morning.
The stunning news of Harding’s death shocked the nation, and mourners lined the tracks as the train bearing his body returned to Washington, D.C. Thousands paid their respects as Harding lay in state in the U.S. Capitol and at the home of his father in Marion. It was the greatest outpouring of grief since the Lincoln assassination. Film footage reveals that Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone attended the funeral in Marion.
Harding Home Tour
Guided tours of the Harding Home start on the front porch, which became famous in Harding’s 1920 “Front Porch Campaign,” when 600,000 citizens in a three-month period flocked to Marion, mostly by train, to hear the candidate speak (with no microphone) from the top step. Newsreel clips in the museum show crowds of supporters, marching bands, women’s suffragettes and celebrities who came to Marion, a town of 28,000 at the time. Townspeople delighted in the news coverage, and some neighborhood residents took in journalists and campaign staff as boarders. Harding had a small building constructed in the backyard to accommodate reporters. Today this Press House features rotating exhibits.
Harding’s campaign, you learn, was the first to use endorsements and appearances by dignitaries, sports and military heroes, and show business stars in a significant way. Al Jolson, the 1920s’ leading entertainer, sang the official campaign song, “Mr. Harding, You’re the Man for Us.”
The Queen Anne-style house, completed in 1891, was given to Harding’s bride as a wedding present. They tied the knot at the foot of the stairwell.
Before the restoration, the house displayed some of the artifacts now in the new museum. Peppy tour guide Shannon Morris, a retired high school teacher, said that without so many objects cluttering the rooms he can give more attention to the house itself. Items of note include Italian Carrara marble statues of classical figures purchased during one of the couple’s trips to Europe. In the study are Harding’s favorite rocker, a Victrola record player, humidor and meerschaum pipe, among other original pieces. (A heavy smoker, he also indulged in cigars, cigarettes and chewing tobacco.)
In the dining room, the table is set with original china, silverware and napkins, plus plates of faux waffles and bowls of faux berries. “He loved his waffles,” Morris said of Harding, “and he loved his berries.” One fake waffle is smothered in creamed dried beef, a family favorite. According to Morris, who has tried the combination, “it’s really not that bad.”
Harding’s Accomplishments and Scandals
When asked about scandals surrounding Harding, Morris said he confronts the questions head on. Harding’s legacy was tarnished after the public started learning about two extramarital affairs and corruption by two former cabinet members.
“People are often surprised we talk about that, but it’s the truth, so we cover it,” he says. “And that’s the way it should be.”
Exhibit text in the museum’s final gallery addresses the scandals. The Teapot Dome scandal involved bribes paid to Harding’s secretary of the interior for granting oil reserve leases on federal lands in Wyoming and California.
One of the romantic encounters was with Nan Britton, a Marion woman who in 1927 wrote The President’s Daughter, a controversial book about a six-year relationship with Harding that resulted in the birth of their illegitimate child. DNA testing in 2015 indicated that Harding was the father of Elizabeth Ann Britton (1919-2005.) He had no other biological children; his wife had two sons from her first marriage. (A family tree chart in the museum includes Elizabeth Ann.)
Museum-goers also gain insight into positive aspects of Harding’s legacy, learning that his economic measures bolstered the confidence of a nation weary from World War I and the post-war recession. Campaign slogans “Return to Normalcy” and “America First!” had clicked with the American public.
Harding drew up peace treaties with wartime enemies, helped war veterans find jobs and get medical care, and pushed for passage of anti-lynching legislation and equal opportunities for people of all races. In addition, he cut taxes and created a bureau to streamline the federal budget. Also, his administration established regulations for the new radio and commercial aviation industries. (Harding was the first president to have a radio in the White House and give a speech on the radio.)
The museum also recognizes the contributions of Harding’s wife, who was first among his political advisors and strategists. As a highly visible first lady, Florence Kling Harding worked tirelessly for disabled vets and abused animals, and used the White House as a forum for female scientists, athletes, musicians and journalists. (She suffered from chronic kidney disease, one reason that Harding chose to campaign from home, as he believed it would ease the stress on her.)
Harding Memorial: A Noble Shrine
A mile or so from the Harding museum and home stands the majestic Harding Memorial, the final resting place of the president and first lady. Ringed by 46 Doric columns, the circular white marble monument, open to the sky, is suggestive of an ancient Greek temple. The plan originally called for 48 columns, one for each state in Harding’s era, but money fell short and the design was amended.
Shortly after Harding’s death, the newly formed Harding Memorial Association started a nationwide campaign to fund construction of a memorial. Among the contributors were about 200,000 schoolchildren who gathered pennies for the effort.
In 1927 the bodies of Harding and his wife, who died in 1924, were moved to the memorial from a receiving vault in neighboring Marion Cemetery. President Herbert Hoover officially dedicated the shrine in 1931 before a crowd of 100,000.
The Harding Memorial, Harding Home and Warren G. Harding Presidential Library & Museum are managed by the Ohio History Connection.
Heritage Hall: Popcorn and More
Visitors to Marion also gain insight into the lives of Warren and Florence Harding at Heritage Hall, a former post office that makes a fitting home for the Marion County Historical Society. Old-school glass cases in one gallery of this excellent regional history museum features Harding memorabilia, including vintage photos and newspaper clips, campaign buttons and Harding’s newspaper office desk, complete with cigar burns. There’s even Florence’s waffle recipe card.
Heritage Hall’s signature allure is the Wyandot Popcorn Museum, which displays—inside a festive circus tent—the world’s largest collection of old-time popcorn wagons, trucks and carts, all 46 of them operational. Some of the machines were used in movie theaters or by street vendors, and many roasted peanuts as well as popped popcorn. The oldest relic dates back to 1892. A museum docent will activate some of the poppers for visitors.
The antique machines and other popcorn paraphernalia were collected by George Brown, who owned Marion’s Wyandot Popcorn Company. (The family-owned firm, today doing business as Wyandot Snacks, makes munchies under various brand names.) At one time it manufactured Cracker Jack and the Paul Newman-branded microwave popcorn Newman’s Own. A rare 1909 Dunbar wagon on display was used in the 1980s on a promotional tour to introduce Newman’s Own Popcorn Jars. A nostalgia-filled Cracker Jack exhibit contains old tins, advertising collectibles, and dozens of the tiny toys and games that came in boxes of Cracker Jack. Every visitor gets a small bag of popcorn on the way out of Heritage Hall.
The three-day Marion Popcorn Festival, held annually in downtown Marion the weekend after Labor Day, has been named one of the Top 100 Events in North America by the American Bus Association. It is the largest popcorn festival in the world, attracting crowds in excess of 250,000.
Other treasures in Heritage Hall include a stuffed Percheron draft horse, a fine specimen named Prince Imperial. Brought to Marion County from France in 1868 by a local livestock buyer, the stallion was born into the stables of French Emperor Charles Louis Napoleon III and once held the world’s record for the longest mane. Because of that impressive mane, the beribboned beast appeared at fairs, horse shows and parades during his lifetime and afterwards.
The Marion County Historical Society welcomes tour groups to register for occasional “Lunch with the Presidents” and “Dinner with the Presidents” programs that feature actors portraying various U.S. presidents. The buffet meals include their favorite foods. A first ladies luncheon is offered as well.
More in Marion
Marion’s historic downtown is called the Cultural Corridor, and its brightest gem is the Marion Palace Theatre. The beautifully restored 1928 vaudeville/movie venue showcases touring artists, community theater productions, second-run films and classics like Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas. An otherworldly space with stucco walls, statuary and wisps of clouds floating across a starry ceiling, the 1,430-seat atmospheric theater was designed to re-create a Spanish courtyard by renowned theater architect John A. Eberson of Chicago.
Groups can take in the Palace’s architectural splendor by booking “The Stage is Set” experience. The package (for 10 to 120 persons) includes a hot buffet lunch (on stage) and a concert on the Mighty Wurlitzer pipe organ that rises from the orchestra pit. Groups not wishing a meal can opt for organ music combined with a presentation on the showplace’s history and short tour of its lobby and auditorium.
Down the street from the theater’s grand marquee, Marion Union Station preserves the city’s railroad heritage. Groups can schedule a tour that features its collection of memorabilia and the Atlantic Crossing Tower, which was the main switching facility for the Erie Railroad, Marion Division. They will see some of the 100 trains that pass by every day.
At the Marion County Fairgrounds, the Edward Huber Machinery Museum has a collection of tractors and other antique farm and road-building machines. Among other itinerary possibilities are Lawrence Orchards, which has specialized in apples since 1921, and Shamrock Vineyard, a third-generation winery that offers tours and tastings.
The Marion Area Convention & Visitors Bureau can provide a step-on guide for seeing the sights. Call 800-371-6688 or visit www.visitmarionohio.com.
For more information on the Harding home, museum and memorial, visit www.hardingpresidentialsites.org.
Marion is located in central Ohio, about 45 miles north of Columbus.
—By Randy Mink, Senior Editor