I recently hit the road for the latest installment of the “Presidents at Rest” tour (the beginnings of which I detailed in a recent post). I needed to go to Washington, DC for business, and decided to make it a road trip this time. After being cooped up for the better part of the year, I was craving the opportunity to get out and see the country at my own pace. I’m a “planner,” so enjoyed figuring out how to make a big loop maximizing the number of presidential burial sites (and more). By the time I’d finished, it seemed almost like a “patriotic pilgrimage.”
Jump in, fasten your seat belt, and enjoy the Great Presidential Circle Tour!
James Garfield William McKinley
In my initial plans, I thought I could hit James Garfield (in Cleveland), swing down to McKinley (in Canton), and then over to James Buchanan (in Pennsylvania). Then I realized I had a problem: sunset in Lancaster would be at 4:40PM. I could reach that cemetery in time, but it would require giving only cursory attention to the two presidents in Ohio. I didn’t want to rush either one, so I ended up bypassing Garfield in favor of McKinley for a couple of reasons: (1) the McKinley memorial has a museum attached to it (Garfield’s does not), and (2) the Garfield memorial is among the grandest in the country, and has recently undergone a magnificent facelift / restoration, but the interior will not re-open until next March. I figured it made most sense to save Garfield for a springtime Saturday day trip, when I could take the family and really enjoy the memorial in its fullness. And, in the meantime, take some time with the McKinley museum so I could learn more about him.
I hit the road before dawn, and reached Canton shortly after the McKinley museum opened. First, however, I wanted to pay my respects to the President himself. To say that the tomb was easy to find would be an understatement. I knew it was pretty big, but was unprepared for what I found when I arrived.
Unfortunately, the tomb itself is sealed up for the winter. The exterior was still accessible, however, so I climbed the steps (dodging the locals who were using them as a workout site) to get a better look. I circled all the way around it, admiring the view of the surrounding area, and then made my way to the museum. I turned out to be their first customer of the day, and had the entire place pretty much to myself!
The one surprise about the museum was how relatively little was dedicated to William McKinley himself. The great bulk of the exhibit space was about Stark County, Ohio. I ended up learning a lot not only about McKinley, but also about what life was like for the pioneers who settled the area (including some of my own ancestors, who migrated from Pennsylvania to the neighboring county in the 1830s). There was even an entire walk-through, interactive small town Main Street. The more time I spent exploring it, the more I wished the kids could’ve shared the experience. When I told Mrs. Yeoman Farmer about it, she agreed it would be a fun family road trip for sometime next year (and we could also visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which I didn’t have time to even drive past this time).
Yes, he falls at or near [thank you, Andrew Johnson!] the bottom of virtually every historian’s ranking of U.S. Presidents. Yes, he fiddled while the Union burned down and civil war erupted. But James Buchanan did hold the office, and I still wanted to pay my respects. So I put Canton in my rear view mirror, set out across the rolling rural landscape of eastern Ohio, and enjoyed the many miles of quiet back roads that led to the Turnpike. Then it was easy sailing all the way to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
I wound my way through town, and made the final approach to Woodward Hill Cemetery with about a half-hour to spare before sunset. Driving down Chesapeake Street, I suddenly came upon an inconspicuous side gate with a tiny sign reading “Enter Here / Tomb of U.S. President / James Buchanan.” Had I blinked, I would’ve gone right past it. I’m just glad I didn’t cause an accident after slamming on the brakes.
Once inside the historic cemetery, the tomb itself was not easy to find. Directional signage was … sparse. I took more than a couple of wrong turns. (On the plus side, getting lost allowed me to see quite a few more really cool old burial plots than I’d been expecting to see!) I did have a general idea as to the location of Buchanan’s tomb within the cemetery, however, so managed to work my way in that direction. A pole flying the American Flag confirmed I was getting close. And then, there it was — in all the minimalist glory befitting the Buchanan presidency. This is the view from the curb:
A Quick Detour to Chester County, Pennsylvania
In recent weeks, I uncovered one of the “holy grails” of genealogical research: an ancestor who served in the Revolutionary War. My 5x great-grandfather, Hezekiah Davies, enlisted at the very beginning of the conflict and saw action as a lieutenant in Colonel Montgomery’s Chester County Battalion of the “Flying Camp.” He participated in the battle of Long Island, joined the retreat to Manhattan, and was taken prisoner when Fort Washington fell to the British on November 16, 1776. Once paroled, he married a young woman on Long Island, and eventually settled back in his native Chester County, PA. He and his wife, and the son through whom I descend, are buried at Great Valley Presbyterian cemetery in Malvern. Given how close this trip was taking me to the area, I simply had to add it to my itinerary.
I arrived at the cemetery early Thursday morning. Fortunately, I knew the Hezekiah Davies plot was “north of the church,” and it was clearly marked. I was able to find it without too much trouble.
His son’s burial plot, by contrast, was much harder to find because the headstone was so faded. It took a fair amount of searching, but I did eventually locate it in the same general section of the cemetery (about 50 yards away).
I spent the rest of the morning at the Chester County Historical Society library, learning more about this branch of my family tree. In preparing my application for the Sons of the American Revolution, I already had solid documentary evidence for all the lineage links from Hezekiah’s son (Nathanial) down to me. But I was aware of only one document listing Hezekiah’s children (and dates of their births): an old application to the Daughters of the American Revolution. It most likely came from someone’s family Bible, because I could find zero outside corroboration of it. SAR would accept that DAR application’s list as proof of lineage, but I was hoping to back it up with something more.
With the help of the CCHS librarian, I hit pay dirt: a probate document, buried deep in the Chester County archives, filed at the time of Hezekiah’s death. It listed the names of his surviving children — and all of those names matched the DAR list! As further proof, I found a newspaper legal notice Nathanial had posted regarding his father’s estate. I also uncovered some newspaper clippings, and magazine stories, that didn’t add to the documentary evidence but were nonetheless interesting to read.
With a huge smile, I turned the car south. And realized I had just enough time that afternoon for a quality visit to the home and burial place of Hezekiah Davies’ commander-in-chief.
I’d visited Mount Vernon a couple of times in the past, and even took a tour of the mansion a few years ago, but couldn’t remember having visited George Washington’s final resting place. Once I’d bought my ticket and cleared the visitor center, the family tomb was my first destination.
After waiting for the crowd to dissipate, and paying my respects, I asked the attending docent what that blue flag on the right signified. She explained that it was George Washington’s personal flag. A personal flag! How cool is that?
Sunny skies and comfortable temperatures made it a perfect afternoon to stroll the grounds of Mount Vernon unhurriedly. By the time the gates closed for the day, I’d managed to see virtually every exhibit outside the mansion. I then enjoyed a quiet drive up the George Washington Parkway to the District, where I spent the evening at a long-time client’s Christmas party / dinner (the original purpose of the trip). After this long year of isolation, it was wonderful to reconnect with colleagues face-to-face.
James Monroe and John Tyler
The next morning, I crossed the Rappahannock River and cruised all the way to Richmond on I-95. I think I had “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down” in my head pretty much all day. And for good reason: navigating the streets of the Confederate capital, the whole feel of the place gave this lifelong northerner the sense of being in a very different cultural milieu. That sense was “turned up to eleven” once I actually drove through the gates of Hollywood Cemetery. I couldn’t help slowing the car to a crawl, rolling down the windows, and gaping at all the historic tombs (many of them carved into hillsides). And then I spotted a Confederate States of America insignia on a gravestone. Then another. And another. Until I lost count.
I knew James Monroe and John Tyler were both interred on “Presidents Circle.” On the map I’d consulted before the trip, that section had looked like it would easy to find. But now that I was actually here, winding among trees and hillsides, I quickly realized I was lost – and my phone’s GPS was of no help. I flagged down a groundskeeper, and asked if he could point me toward Presidents Circle. I felt incredibly self-conscious, like I had a giant neon sign on my head flashing the word YANKEE. The groundskeeper soon put me at ease, though, with his super-friendly demeanor. His directions got me started in the right direction, but all the curves and hillsides again threw me off. Somehow I eventually spotted this pedestrian path leading to my goal, so I ditched the car and continued on foot.
And it was indeed a perfect morning to stroll through an historic cemetery: sunny, quiet, and with a comfortable temperature. Soon enough, I reached Presidents Circle itself.
James Monroe’s tomb sits right in the heart of the Circle — and is easily the most beautiful of all the burial sites I’ve visited. I’d read something about it before the trip, but the words (and even the pictures) didn’t really do the monument justice. The granite sarcophagus with Monroe’s remains is set inside an elaborate cast iron structure called “The Birdcage,” which apparently got a significant makeover in 2016.
John Tyler’s resting place took only another minute or two to find, back near the footpath I came in on. Tyler was notorious for siding with the Confederacy in the Civil War, and was the only U.S. President not buried under the American flag. When Tyler died in 1862, Jefferson Davis staged an elaborate funeral for him, and then Tyler’s Confederate-flag-draped casket was laid to rest here.
And speaking of Jefferson Davis … it turns out he’s interred at Hollywood Cemetery as well. Given that I was already there, I was curious to see how the Confederate States of America laid its own president to rest. It turned out to be a five minute or so drive away; thanks to another very friendly groundskeeper pointing me in the right direction, I was able to find it fairly easily. The site had a spectacular view of the James River, which I admired before taking a look at the monument itself. I’m not going to include a picture of it in this post, but it was actually fairly simple: a life-size statue of Davis, standing atop a pedestal, with the graves of Jefferson and Varina Davis in front of it.
Most of the drive from Richmond to James Madison’s Montpelier was incredibly scenic, especially once I left I-64 and started up US-15. Think “country gentry” rolling terrain and horse farms with white rail fences. But here’s some advice if you go: map the route beforehand, sticking to main highways, and ignore Google Maps navigation if it tells you to turn onto Route 639 (AKA “Chicken Mountain Road”). The pavement ended after about a mile, and it was soon so narrow that I had no way to turn the car around. I was quickly deep in the woods, descending a steep dirt one-lane path, praying that I not plunge into a ravine. For whatever reason, Google was taking me around to the BACK, staff-only, gate. Once there, it proudly announced that I had arrived.
Yeah, thanks for that. Now, how do I get in?
Eventually I was able to work my way around to the main entrance, using guesswork and intuition to figure out which country roads to follow.
I paid my entry fee, and learned that the next showing of a series of short films about Madison would be at noon. That allowed plenty of time to explore the property. My first stop was of course the family cemetery, fenced in at the end of a long winding path. The large obelisk marks the President’s grave; the smaller one is for his wife, Dolly.
Montpelier covers thousands of acres, including miles of forest walking paths. I didn’t have time for that much exploring, but did enjoy the long walk up to the mansion from the cemetery. I took a look at the handful of outdoor exhibits surrounding it that were open (the slave cabins in particular), but all in all the experience was a bit disappointing. Because of Covid, nearly every indoor exhibit was closed. I did make it back for the showing of the informational films about Madison, and especially enjoyed the one about his genius in designing the U.S. Constitution. It managed to present a “weighty” subject in a way that was simple, understandable, and also very entertaining.
I then jumped in the car, bypassed Chicken Mountain Road, and hurried south to Charlottesville.
I had wanted to visit Jefferson’s Monticello for many years, and was glad I’d reserved the bulk of the afternoon to explore it. After grabbing a quick lunch at the cafe, a shuttle bus whisked me from the visitor center up to the mansion grounds. Tourist traffic happened to be light that day, so there was very little waiting in line for anything.
A docent met me just outside the mansion’s front porch, and gave a brief orientation about Jefferson and how the mansion came to be built. She then led me to the main entrance hall, filled with historical objects as it would’ve been in Jefferson’s time. A pair of docents gave a quick overview of these objects, and the general design of the foyer itself. I then peppered them with questions, which they seemed to enjoy getting the chance to answer. From there I strolled naturally from room to room, making a grand circle of the first floor, asking more questions of the docents stationed at various places. My only disappointment was that the second floor was not open on this particular day.
Once outside, I took my time simply walking around and soaking in all of the Monticello grounds and displays.
As you might expect, I made sure to visit the extensive garden plots that are still maintained in Jeffersonian fashion. (At the gift shop, you can even buy seeds harvested from the heirloom plants grown there on the grounds. Guess what Mrs. Yeoman Farmer is getting for Christmas this year!) Should I ever have the opportunity to return to Monticello with the family, I’d like to go during the summer and get a guided tour of these gardens.
Once I’d seen pretty much everything, I started down the long footpath leading back to the visitor center. Jefferson’s family cemetery is along that route, so I of course stopped to pay my respects to the man who inspired this Yeoman Farmer.
The path continued through a pleasant set of woods, which I enjoyed having to myself as I hiked back to the visitor center. Once there, I ended up spending a lot more time (and money!) in the gift shop than initially planned. The selection of items (not just the usual books, t-shirts, and coffee cups — they even had preserves made from fruit grown on the property) was outstanding. The more I browsed, the more wonderful Christmas gift ideas presented themselves to me. The sun was sinking into the Blue Ridge Mountains by the time I turned the car toward home.
Warren G. Harding
I’m still not sure how I managed to stay awake all the way to Columbus, Ohio. From there, it was an easy jaunt to the little town of Marion the next morning — my final stop along the great Presidential Circle Tour. The Harding Memorial is right along the highway that goes through the heart of Marion, so it was impossible to miss. And it was even more amazing that I’d imagined.
If you look closely, you can see an iron fence preventing visitors from entering the interior of the memorial. That’s where President and Mrs. Harding are actually interred. I got this picture by holding the camera through the fence.
As an historical note: Harding Tomb was the last of the elaborate presidential memorials. Starting with Calvin Coolidge, final resting places became more restrained, and tended to be incorporated into the grounds of a presidential library (JFK’s grave at Arlington being the exception).
As I left Marion behind, and continued north toward home, I had some quiet time to reflect on the incredible variety of memorials I’d seen among the fourteen presidents visited so far. Some are relatively simple public cemetery plots (Tyler, Buchanan, Benjamin Harrison, Taft), some are stately tombs or private plots on the grounds of a presidential home or library (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Hayes, Ford), some are spectacular (McKinley, Harding), and still others are truly one of a kind (Monroe, Wilson, JFK). Not to mention that they are in all kinds of cities and towns and even rural areas. When I hit on this idea to visit presidential burial sites, I had no idea as to the extent of this variety. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed learning more about the men who’ve held this office, the places in the country that shaped their lives, and the obvious pride that so many of those towns still take in having been home to a U.S. president.
On the one hand, it’s hard to believe I’ve already visited more than one-third of the burial sites. On the other hand … I’m happy there are still so many more I get to experience!