Presidents: Warren Gamaliel Harding
Birthplace: Blooming Grove, Ohio
Visited in 2013.
Harding's birthplace. 200-foot memorial TK.
The shadow of Blooming Grove is mostly cast by this sign.
Admit it, you WISH your lawn was this cool.
There was an era in America where people dutifully erected metal road signs at historic sites. When a father spotted one through the windshield of the station wagon, there was no debate; he pulled over, and the children gleefully ripped off their seatbelts for the chance to study the threads of the rich tapestry of our collective past. Then the family would thoughtfully discuss the Civil War cavalry battle mentioned in the sign while driving the rest of the way to the anti-communism rally. Yes, our country used to be great.
You're going to see some of these signs if you're committed to the U.S. presidents, and some of these signs are not near anything fun. Thanks to the steady progress of our economy, some presidential birthplaces are now locations that the average person would not go to unless they were lost, visiting decrepit relatives or huddling in a trunk as they try to figure out who their kidnapper is. It's also very tough to plan a "visit" to a sign, since the actual visit shouldn't take more than five minutes. No one is going to come along for the ride unless you lie about the destination or sneak up behind them, throw a head bag on them, tie them up and throw them in your trunk.
The best bet is to get them "on the way" to something else. In 2013 I was driving from Cleveland to Cincinnati -- northeast to southeast Ohio. Warren Harding was born somewhere near the middle of Ohio, and I had no plans to vacation in Ohio at any point in the next five years, so a 50-minute detour seemed "on the way" enough.
Harding was born in Blooming Grove; his parents could probably be politely described as the 19th-century equivalent of dirty hippies. Only with more religion. His dad was a farmer, a teacher and a homeopathic medical practitioner; his mom was also some kind of licensed doctor. Homeopathic medicine was a deeply respected field in the 19th century, but as we look back on them now, they were quacks.
They weren't in Blooming Grove forever, as the family moved when his dad bought a newspaper in a nearby town. They didn't leave anything all that awesome to mark their stay, since dirty hippies very seldom live in 25-room mansions. Late in life, Harding acquired some of the land surrounding his birthplace, but he was too busy to do anything with the property before he died. So what's left?
It's a sign, on someone's front yard. There's a flag pole there. I don't know who has responsibility for maintaining this stuff, but maybe the Ohio Historical Society kicks the homeowners a few extra bucks a month to mow the grass and make sure the flag hasn't caught fire. I was loitering for a few minutes, and no one ran out of the house with a shotgun to chase me off, so I'm guessing they don't get hassled about it all that much.
Harding Home and Memorial, Marion, Ohio
Visited in 2008 (home and grave) and 2013 (grave).
The extremely pleasant Harding home, shown in 2008.
A stunningly accurate re-creation of the 1920 front porch campaign.
No pictures allowed inside, so here's another outside angle. It's GREEN!
Come and knock on his door. He'll be waiting for you.
What can I say, I'm a huge Warren G fan.
The kit house / press building / visitor center musem circa 2008.
Warren enjoyed any club where you got to wear a silly hat.
Harding Memorial: In 2013, just after a huge thunderstorm.
Harding Memorial: One of the most aesthetically pleasing presidential graves.
Warren and Florence, probably having a very long talk in the afterlife.
A throwback photo from my 2008 visit, because I miss that shirt.
Americans, in choosing the leader of the free world, usually pick the person they want to have a beer with, even when that person is a recovering alcoholic. That fun-loving attitude is why the terrorists hate us!
In 1920, it was a no-brainer: the country wanted to throw down with Warren Gamaliel Harding, who won in a landslide. You might think the country would have a beer with ANYONE in the middle of Prohibition, but not so -- after a visit to the Harding Home in Marion, Ohio, you can see that the guy was Mr. Personality.
Or at least, he had what passed for a personality in 1920. Harding was part of just about every club in Marion: the Freemasons, Elk's lodges, or anything else that involved wearing a fez. He loved baseball and golf; he played coronet and led the local brass band (which, like today, is considered the coolest thing possible). He owned the local newspaper, played poker, helped pump up the town's economy and gave a pretty good speech, while never really pissing anybody off. He knew how to straddle the fence, never really committing to any one viewpoint. And supposedly he was handsome! A lot of people say he had "movie-star" looks, which some speculate is the reason he captured the women's vote. (The 1920 election was the first under the 19th Amendment.) Of course, this is condescending and insulting, because any sensible person knows that no woman has ever chosen one man over another because he was good looking. No, they always go for the guy with a stable personality and a great sense of humor. Always.
He wasn't all peaches and cream, though. Harding cheated on his sick wife with at least one woman, possibly two, and maybe had an illegitimate child. But you'd still have a beer with the guy, right? He'd definitely know the bartender, so you'd drink for free; he'd probably have all the hookups for football tickets; if you were a guy he'd be attracting enough heat from the ladies that you'd definitely have a shot at his leftovers. Bam, 60 percent of the vote. Cake.
The Marion house is about as authentic as you could hope for. Harding bought it for his wife Florence as a wedding present, and they lived there (or in D.C.) until they were both dead. It turned into a museum right after. The whole thing is pretty modest. Harding was a journalist, and even owning the local paper he wasn't THAT loaded. His wife's dad owned the local bank, but her father disowned her when she married Harding, supposedly because Harding might have had black blood in his family tree. Or because the dad was just a jerk. One of those.
The inside has some definite personality, since it's decked out with the furniture from their marriage and the mementos he was able to pile up from his political years. Harding collected elephant statues, and Florence was a superstitious nut case. If you ask the guides they'll point out all the supernatural elements: an owl pattern carved into the bannister, a four-leaf clover from the White House lawn and a funky wooden chair for the mediums that would have visited during the seances (remember, no television in the 1920s). There's also a "haunted clock" that supposedly stopped at the exact time of Harding's death, but this is clearly a load of garbage, because no self-respecting spirits would be happy with stopping a clock. If the house imploded and got sucked into a pinpoint, then yeah, haunted. Stopped clock, not so much.
But the place isn't a mansion -- it's like my parent's house, but with a smaller kitchen and less closet space, and also my parents don't live there. The Hardings actually leased it out when they were living in D.C., meaning the people had the president as a landlord. This must have been awkward: "Yeah, I know you're busy negotiating global naval disarmament and all, but the kitchen faucet is leaking." Heh.
Historically speaking, the most important thing is the front porch, site of the last front porch campaign this country will ever see. People would walk four miles from the train station to hear Harding, wearing white pants, a straw hat and a dark jacket, yell things from his steps. Harding bought a kit house from the Sears catalog for $1,000, put it up in his backyard and let reporters use it as a pressroom, and as a journalist he would hang out with them. It was like a Straight Talk Express without wheels. (In 2008, it was being used as the gift shop/museum). Compare that with Ohio governor James Cox, who toured more than 30 states, was the first candidate to use a microphone at public rallies, and got his ass kicked. Hands down.
But it's tough to keep your reputation spotless when you're dead, and after Harding keeled over the wheels fell off. He had made about four awful cabinet appointments: his Attorney General took bribes, his Interior secretary took bribes (Teapot Dome) and his Veterans Bureau guy (who only had a job because Harding MADE the bureau) stole a few million dollars. It all came out in the wash after Harding's 1923 death, and by 1927, when his Marion Memorial was ready to go, no one wanted to touch it with a 10-foot pole.
President Coolidge wouldn't go anywhere near it, and President Hoover didn't risk attending a dedication ceremony until 1931. It's a shame, because the Harding memorial is one of the more distinguished presidential graves, even though Warren G was one of the least distinguished presidents. The thing is, if you keel over dead while you're the president, they give you a really nice looking grave. So if you're ever president, and you're really thinking your legacy is looking a bit iffy, remember that you always have an out.
Harding was a pariah just a few years after being one of the most popular presidents on record. There were documents more or less proving that Harding wasn't personally involved in any of the scandals, that he was just finding out about the situation at the time of his death ... but they were in the basement of the Marion house, and apparently no one got around to cleaning the basement for 40 years. If history tells us anything, it's that NO ONE WANTS TO CLEAN OUT A BASEMENT. Super-guide Beth at the Harding house put it this way: Harding was the boss we all want, the guy who picks you for the job and then only pokes his nose in your office when there's a problem. It can work great, unless the people you pick happen to be despicable human beings. Then you're boned.
But at least he's making time with the ladies in heaven. So here's to you, Warren G ... you were a regular dude, reaching for the stars, but in over your head. And when things got ugly, you had the decency to step aside. By having a heart attack. Regulate.
P.S. -- as I type this in 2019, the Harding Home is in the midst of a substantial renovation and expansion, with improvements to the home and the additon of a beautiful new presidential center.
Bon Voyage: Alaska and San Francisco
Visited in 2014 (The Palace) and 2016 (Alaska).
Ketchikan: Street life. It's the only life I know.
Ketchikan: Obviously, the greatest intersection in all of Alaska.
The Palace: The classy dining facilities that Harding didn't get to enjoy.
The Palace: Outside the presidential suite, where Harding passed away.
The Palace: Some day I will rent this room and it will be disappointing, for sure.
My standards for vacation hotels are fairly modest; if the room I'm renting has walls, a ceiling and a locking door, I can live with it. My wife likes the finer things in life, like the luxury of knowing that a determined meth addict would need more than 12 seconds to force his or her way into the place where she is sleeping. As my wife and I planned a visit San Francisco for 2014, we carefully weighed both philosophies. Then we reached a happy compromise and found exactly the kind of hotel she wanted.
The Palace is a grand building, in the great tradition of the Gilded Age. When it was built in 1875, it was the most extravagant hotel in the American West. This clearly angered God, who promptly destroyed it with the earthquake and fire of 1906.
Californians, to their credit, have never let God's will stand in their way. So a new Palace was built on the ruins of the old, and by 1909 travelers were once again wallowing in their own crapulence. There's plenty to love about the Palace. The location is grand -- it's just inches from Market Street, and public transportation, and high-end shopping. The restaurants seem grand -- the Garden Court is the kind of restaurant where it looks like you should be wearing a coat with tails, or at the very least a monocle. The service is grand -- at least five times a day during your visit, you will actively wonder if you should have tipped somebody. And in the grandest sign of luxury, you have to pay for Wi-Fi.
I cared about none of those things, but the Palace even had something for me. Warren Harding wasn't our greatest president: he was prone to nervous breakdowns, a bad judge of character and a relentless philanderer. Which is to say, people loved him. But the wheels were starting to come off in the summer of 1923, as Harding and his entourage were kicking off a West Coast tour. A few of Harding's appointees and buddies were stealing from the government, and the news was just reaching the big boss. Feeling betrayed, he started to sink into a funk.
Harding was looking haggard when his group reached the Seattle area, but his spirts surely were bolstered by his trip to Alaska: Harding was the first sitting president to visit Alaska, and they gave him a hero's welcome. The entire town of Ketchikan turned out, and why wouldn't they? With a thriving prostitution sector, Ketchikan was Harding country. To this day, Harding is still the only sitting president to visit Ketchikan, and this is still remembered as a big deal a century later. In a city where streets are at a premium, there are no less than THREE named to honor the 29th president. One is Warren Street. It ends at the intersection with G Street, which runs all of 60 or so feet to the intersection with Harding Street. They are residential streets, where the homes are built on a steep hillside. The homes look like they've been severely abused by the non-stop rain and snow of Ketchikan, and the general vibe is that someone might come out on their porch to shoot at you at any moment. They're probably fed up with the millions of Warren Harding fans trampling through their lawns, although we were strangely the only ones there at the time.
The clean air and dirty living of Southeast Alaska didn't fix Harding's problems, however, and he started complaining about cramps and indigestion. His doctors freaked out as Harding deteriorated further; they canceled an appearance in Oregon and hustled Harding to the Palace Hotel, where he could recover in style.
It was a great plan, right up to the point when Harding died. Some people have speculated that he was poisoned, either by bad Alaskan crabs or his wife. More than likely, he had massive heart attacks thanks to years of overeating, stress, and thinking golf counted as exercise. All we really care about: He died in bed in the Palace Hotel. They don't advertise this fact in promotional materials, and the concierge seemed reluctant to talk about it, probably because I didn't tip him. But Harding died in room 888.
If you have the money you can stay in that room overnight. I don't have the money, but I do have a camera. I was more than thrilled to stand outside the last door that Warren Harding ever passed through, and take a few pictures. My wife was asleep while I did this, because I still haven't taught her the true meaning of vacation. But we'll get there someday.
It should be noted that room 888 is known as the presidential suite, which tells us something. There's no way any living president would stay there; it would be bad juju. We can therefore only conclude that Harding still inhabits the room. If you ever scrape together the cash for an overnight in 888, don't take your special lady along. She will almost definitely be violated from beyond the grave by the ghost of the 29th president.
Of course, if you guys are into that sort of thing, go for it. You freaks.