Monday, April 26, 2010

James A. Garfield and his Hudson connections

On April 26, 1981, "A Shooting Star", a play about the life and death of President James A. Garfield written by WRA alumnus John Shaw '40, was presented at Hudson High School performed by a cast from Hiram College. The play had already been successfully staged in Hiram, in Williamstown, MA and in Washington, D.C. when the production came to Hudson. It came here because John Shaw was a Hudson resident, and because of Garfield's connections with our town.

Born in a log cabin in Orange Township, north on Route 91 to present-day Moreland Hills, Garfield was associated with Hiram College, first as a student, then as its President. When he and Lucretia Rudolph were married in April, 1858 their wedding was solemnized by the Rev. Henry L. Hitchcock, President of Western Reserve College in Hudson, and a personal friend. Garfield himself kept a diary continuously from 1848 until his death in 1881, so his visits to Hudson can be traced. We learn that on October 3, 1859 he came to Hudson for a speaking engagement and stayed overnight with Dr. George P. Ashmun, a prominent Hudson physician who at that time was serving in the legislature as State Senator for Summit and Portage Counties. Ashmun's son had been our student, and was soon to be named to the cadet corps at West Point. Ashmun lived in a house on Aurora Street near Christ Church Episcopal which was demolished many years ago.

The following day Garfield spent on the campus of the old college visiting with President Henry L. Hitchcock at his suite in the President's House on Brick Row, and then with Professor Nathan P. Seymour at his home on Prospect Street. There is no evidence that Garfield ever met Hudson's John Brown, whose Raid at Harpers Ferry took place just two weeks later, but he certainly was very aware of him and wrote some impassioned entries in his diary about him. When Brown was executed later that year, Garfield wrote in his diary, "Brave man, Old Hero, Farewell. Your death shall be the dawn of a better day." Garfield went on to a distinguished career as a general in the Civil War, then was elected to Congress in 1863. He was one of the most important members of the House until his own election to the Presidency in 1880.

It is not surprising to learn that in 1873 while he was serving in Congress, Garfield was invited to give the commencement address at Western Reserve College in Hudson. It seems likely that he might have preached at the old Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on Division Street at that time. Decades after his assassination and enshrinement at the impressive tomb at Cleveland's Lakeview Cemetery, Garfield's great grandson, Rudolph "Bob" Garfield '46 came to WRA as a student. He later served on WRA's Board of Trustees and was the winner of the Waring Prize in 2003. A copy of John Shaw's play, "A Shooting Star" can be found in the WRA Authors collection at the John D. Ong Library.