19. Rutherford B. Hayes

  • Birthplace: Delaware, Ohio
  • Home and grave: Spiegel Grove, Fremont, Ohio

Signs of Those Times (May 31, 2013)

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. I was driving from Cleveland to Cincinnati, which takes me from northeast to southeast Ohio. Warren Harding and Rutherford Hayes were born somewhere near the middle of Ohio, and I have no plans to vacation in Ohio at any point in the next five years, so a few 50-minute detours 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 actually acquired some of the land surrounding his birthplace, but he was too busy being a stumbling moron to do anything with the property before he died. So this is what we're left with:

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.

Having made myself a slightly better American, I got back in the car and drove to the nearby town of Marion, where Harding eventually settled. I had been to Harding's grave before, but this time I had a better camera; I also had a pretty decent shot at a quiet, contemplative visit, since a huge thunderstorm ripped through town about 30 minutes ahead of me. With the park empty, I was able to use the auto timer on my camera, set it down, then do a wind sprint to get the wide shot of my dreams.

Hey, we all have different dreams. The Harding memorial is actually one of the more distinguished presidential graves, even though Warren G was one of the least distinguished presidents; by most accounts he wasn't smart, curious, loyal to his wife or a good judge of character. 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.

Driving from northeast Ohio to central Ohio takes a fair amount of gas, and I had heard about a great gas station in the town of Delaware. Well after the sun had set, I found myself tanking up at a BP. Through an astonishing coincidence, it also happened to be the birthplace of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1822.

It was a tough childhood for young Rutherford; his father had died 10 weeks before his birth, and at a young age he was forced to work to help sustain the family. There were many long days at the gas station, which struggled financially since the automobile had not yet been invented. Many townsfolk wrote in their diaries of a heartbreaking sight: a forlorn Rutherford, his childhood beard barely four inches long, standing by the side of the road and offering to squeegee their horse's face. Only sales of jerky and pre-paid telegraph cards kept the family from abject poverty.

Fun fact: Hayes isn't the only president whose birthplace is currently occupied by a gas station. Calvin Coolidge was born in a back room of his father's Vermont general store, and the filling pumps from the 1930s are still out front (though they are not functional). Hayes' family (seriously) came from Vermont, where his dad was a storekeeper. Is it sad that I can make this connection off the top of my head? Seriously, I'm getting worried.

Spiegel Grove, April 9, 2007

Rutherford Birchard Hayes was our 19th president, and he had a hellacious beard.

It was not always so. There was a time when he was clean shaven, before the war. But war changes men. For example, it can make them grow beards. Seriously, the thing was just huge.

Hayes was born in 1822, sans beard, in Ohio. He never knew his father, who died two months before his birth; Hayes was instead raised by his mother, who had no beard, and his bachelor uncle Sardis, who did. He went to Harvard Law, then returned to Ohio to be a litigator.

When the Civil War broke out, Hayes was so moved by the cause that he formed the volunteer Ohio 23rd Regiment, despite having a wife, several kids and a flourishing law practice. With no prior military training or command experience, his men saw little reason to respect or follow such a baby-faced dandy. Yet such was his love of country, so desperate was Hayes to defend the name of freedom, that he sat, concentrated, and in a 12-hour period, grew a foot-long table duster. It was called �Old Soupy.� History would never be the same.

Hayes was shot five times while fighting in Virginia, his beard in every case slowing the bullet and saving his life. The Republican party of Cincinnati, hearing tales of the beard�s heroics, nominated Hayes� beard as a candidate for the U.S. Congress in 1864. It served two and a half terms before moving on to the Ohio governorship, developing along the way a reputation for honesty, rectitude, and flava-saving. In 1876, Old Soupy was nominated as a compromise Republican candidate for the presidency. Voters, hesitant to trust the foreign policy of facial hair, actually favored New York Governor Samuel Tilden in the popular vote. But a dispute over election results in the South threw the election to a special 15-member electoral commission, and three days before the Inauguration, 20 electoral votes were awarded to Old Soupy, allowing it to best Tilden 185-184. To avoid any controversy or national strife, the gracious Old Soupy withdrew, and the vice presidential candidate, Hayes himself, was sworn in.

After four uneventful years in the White House, Hayes and his beard retired to Spiegel Grove in Fremont, Ohio, living in a house that still stands today. I checked it out last weekend and it�s a very nice display -- Hayes� family lived in the house for generations before turning it into a full-on museum. The house is three stories, with tremendously high ceilings and some swank decorating � it�s got more visual pop than most of the presidential homes I�ve visited. There�s also a Hayes museum standing about 100 feet away, which is only mildly informative but does have two chairs made out of animal horns, so that�s something. Hayes is buried on site, and if you want, you can stand in front of his grave, throw a rock and break a window in the residential subdivision creeping alongside the property. This is a huge selling point for those homes � �4 BR, 3 Baths, great view of a dead president!�

Hayes� beard continues to live in Fremont to this day; it is married, has four children and coaches basketball at the YMCA.

  • Hayes� wife Lucy began the tradition of the White House Easter egg roll, and also the less popular White House St. Patrick�s Day drunken unconscious immigrant roll.
  • The only man in history named Rutherford.
  • Though dubbed �Rutherfraud Hayes� by opponents following his controversial election, he fared better than Vice President Cassface Mutthole Smeckerhead.
  • Collected walking canes, which is why he ranks #2 on Pimpin� Magazine�s all-time greatest presidents list.
  • Hayes ended Reconstruction abruptly upon entering office, which explains why most of the South looks like it isn�t finished.
  • Instead of using the standard presidential carriage, Hayes prefered that all official trips be taken in the ZZ Top hot rod.
  • One of the troops under Hayes� command in the 23rd Ohio was William McKinley, and though the men were close, Hayes failed to teach McKinley the art of surviving a shooting.
  • The first president to have a phone in the White House. The first call was placed to Alexander Graham Bell, to bitch about the first long-distance bill.
  • Hayes fired future president Chester A. Arthur from the New York Custom House (the chief revenue collector for the federal government). Arthur returned the favor in 1882 by ordering Spiegel Grove burned to the ground and the earth sown with salt.
  • Campaigned on the promise to serve only one term, believing that it would free him from the political pressures of seeking re-election, and allow him an additional four hours a day on beard maintenance.
  • Ceilings in one wing of Spiegel Grove were put at 13� to accommodate a huge, 11� portrait of Hayes. So no, I don�t think it�s all that egocentric to have five pictures of myself on my mantelpiece, and why don�t you cram it?

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2013, Chris White