MARION — The year 2020 was a moment in time that many Ohio history buffs have been looking forward to since April of 2016.
That was when the Harding 2020 project was made public, announcing plans to build the Warren G. Harding Presidential Center and the renovation of the Harding Home, both located in Marion. The entire undertaking, supervised by the Ohio History Connection, is dedicated to the life and legacy of the 29th president of the United States, a smalltown guy and local newspaper owner who became one of the most powerful men on the planet for a brief time.
Harding was born in Blooming Grove in northern Morrow County on Nov. 2, 1865. A marker reminds motorists driving along State Route 97 of his boyhood home.
This year was supposed to be a celebration of then-Sen. Harding’s landslide victory in the 1920 presidential election over fellow Ohio newspaper man James M. Cox, who was governor of the Buckeye State at the time.
But then along came the coronavirus pandemic.
The original timetable called for the 12,000-square foot Harding Presidential Center and newly renovated Harding Home to be open in May 2020 and be part of the Marion County Bicentennial Celebration festivities in July.
The first delay was announced in February, just prior to the outbreak of the pandemic in Ohio, due to back orders on materials. At that time, officials with the Ohio History Connection decided to push back the opening to September. In early August, officials decided to indefinitely delay the opening of the museum and home due to the ongoing pandemic.
Megan Wood, director of cultural resources at the Ohio History Connection, said while officials wait for the pandemic to subside, work continues to complete the displays in the museum’s exhibit halls and final touches on the renovation of the Harding Home.
”When I look at the whole site overall, we’re probably about 95% there,” Wood said. “Most of the things that aren’t complete have to do with finishing details. We can’t bring large crews to the site. We’re keeping it to a few staff at a time. We’re very, very close and everybody’s been working so very hard. A lot of people have put a lot of work into this project.”
The presidential museum features exhibits showcasing Warren Harding’s days as a newspaper owner and editor, his political career prior to becoming president, and his days in the White House with his wife Florence Harding. Another exhibit details Harding’s Voyage of Understanding train excursion that saw him visit large cities and small towns across the western part of the country during the summer of 1923. The goodwill journey was cut short by Harding’s death on Aug. 2, 1923, in San Francisco, California.
The final section of the exhibit hall features a study of Harding’s legacy, which, like all historical figures, has its share of good and bad. Following his death and the subsequent passing of Florence Harding roughly a year later, the job of telling the Harding story was mainly undertaken by his detractors and political enemies. Obviously, they focused squarely on his shortcomings and scandals associated with his presidency and the extramarital affairs in his personal life.
“It was the perfect storm for him after his death,” said Sherry Hall, longtime site manager of the Warren G. Harding Presidential Sites in Marion. “His reputation just drops to the bottom of the barrel, mainly because neither he nor Mrs. Harding were there to defend themselves against the accusations and mischaracterizations. Other politicians laid low because they didn’t want to be tainted. So, it was a field day for his opponents and detractors.
“And sadly, what I’ve discovered in my research, is that a lot of the Harding bashing started here, in Marion. Some of the people who jumped on the bandwagon when he was in power jumped off once he was gone. Maybe that’s just human nature.”
Hall hopes the research and information presented in the museum exhibits will give people a clearer, more accurate view of Harding and his legacy.
“It’s going to be fun when we’re able to open this exhibit gallery, because we’ve got the whole story that we can share with people now,” Hall said. “People are going to be very surprised at what they find in there. And it’s going to be fun to tell his story. We’re going to put Harding in his world and provide context for people now to help them understand what people in the early 1900s thought about him and his presidency.”
The Warren G. Harding Presidential Site is located at 380 Mount Vernon Ave. in Marion. For information, go to hardinghome.org.