It was the first presidential library I had ever visited. I thought I knew what to expect – rooms full of exhibits, collections of memorabilia, and presidential artifacts. You can imagine my surprise when I saw a giant dinosaur, talking animatronics, and an indoor street of buildings! It was unlike anything I had seen before, and that is precisely what made it so memorable.
Most people visit Canton, Ohio, for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sure, that was one of my stops while visiting the city, but it actually wasn’t the reason I stopped there. I wanted to visit the William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum, visit his tomb, and explore the First Ladies National Historic Site.
I found more than I ever could have expected.
William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum
Most presidential libraries are owned and operated by the National Archives and Records Administration – but not all. The William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum was built in 1963 as one of the first privately owned presidential libraries. The library and museum are owned and operated by the Stark County Historical Society.
It’s located on the opposite side of Interstate 77 from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In fact, you could take a little scenic drive along Stadium Park Drive between the two popular attractions. Stadium Park is a gorgeous urban park along the river with a few hiking trails and places to enjoy a gorgeous day. The presidential library is located at the south end of that park.
The parking lot was small – I don’t think many people visit the library and memorial at the same time. I was torn between walking up the unknown number of steps to the memorial or heading inside the museum – I chose inside first. It was a good choice because that’s where I spent the majority of my time.
Have Fun at Discover World
After paying for admission, I began the exploration of the presidential library and museum. I walked past the gift shop into the first exhibit space I saw – and was confronted by Alice the Allosaurus! Looking left and right, I found myself in a hands-on interactive science museum. What in the world?
Discover World was a science museum covering the history of Stark County. Dinosaur fossils and recreation of skeletons dominated one side of the museum. On the other side, a large device created a miniature tornado. Fascination Station included nearly a dozen hands-on exhibits for learning about physics, mechanics, and engineering.
When I left Discover World, I returned to the lobby to ask about the interesting museum space. “McKinley loved science,” the lady behind the desk explained. “When the historical association built this building, they decided to include a small science museum and some of the things that were happening around the time President McKinley was in office.”
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Explore the McKinley Gallery
At the heart of the William McKinley Presidential Library & Museum is the McKinley Gallery – the most extensive collection of McKinley artifacts. The permanent display is located inside a large gallery that visitors walkthrough.
The gallery chronicles the life of William McKinley. A display case was full of artifacts. Furniture from their home in Canton – including a gorgeous piano – stood behind a velvet rope. It was like walking through the McKinley’s home on a self-guided tour.
I had just about finished exploring the gallery when suddenly someone began speaking. I realized it was an animatronic version of William and Ida McKinley. Standing at the back of the gallery – well, Ida was sitting – they shared some interesting stories about the lives of the president and first lady. It was a bit odd, and the first time I had ever seen animatronic first family, but the stories were entertaining. How else could this amazing site surprise me?
Discover the Stark County Story
The Stark County Historical Association wasn’t formed just to tell McKinley’s story – but also the county’s story. In the Stark County Story exhibition gallery, I found the local region’s fascinating story spread throughout display cases and interpretive signs.
The gallery told the 200-year-old story of the county with fascinating artifacts, photos, and audio tales. Each moment in the county’s history was captured in a specific display, making it easy to walk through time. And the exhibits were downright fascinating!
Walk Along the Street of Shops
I thought the animatronic McKinley’s or giant dinosaurs were the most surprising thing I would see at the presidential library – and then I found the Street of Shops. The exhibition gallery had a literal brick street to walk with recreations of various shops and stores found in Stark County. It was my favorite part of the museum and one of my favorite parts of any museum I’ve ever visited!
A recreation of a gas station included an antique car, old fashioned manual gas pump, and a peek into all the items sold at one point in time. The fire station featured a wonderfully restored horse-drawn fire apparatus. The general store – which was open to walk inside – was packed with everything a person would have needed to live in the late 1800s.
See a Show at the Hoover-Price Planetarium
The Hoover-Price Planetarium is small – it has just 65 seats – but you’ll feel like you’ve left Earth behind with a show in the comfortable theater. The state-of-the-art projector accurately displays the location and brightness of stars, and the nearly five dozen additional projectors can create mesmerizing journeys.
The shows cover space exploration and discovery and more down to earth topics like scenic views over Canton. Each show lasts around 15-30 minutes, and there is an additional fee, but it’s well worth the time and money during a visit to this site.
Study at the Ramsayer Research Library
The Ramsayer Research Library hosts thousands of documents and books about William McKinley’s life and career. It is also home to the Stark County Archives – a vast collection of genealogy records and historical documents throughout the county’s history.
Visitors are allowed to conduct research at the library, but appointments should be made ahead of time. Digital photography is allowed of most documents, making it easy to take notes.
Visit the McKinley National Memorial
On September 19, 1901 – just five days after his assassination by an anarchist – McKinley was laid to rest at the West Lawn Cemetery in Canton. However, this was not to be his final resting place. Almost immediately after the services, close friends began planning a grand memorial for McKinley.
The McKinley National Memorial Association was formed with the intent to raise money for the project, purchase land, and oversee the construction of the memorial. President Theodore Roosevelt – the vice president under McKinley – named the people to the first board of trustees of the association.
Construction began in 1905 and continued at a steady pace for two years. The completed memorial stands on a grassy hill. The structure’s dome is 50’ in diameter, 77’ above the floor, and includes a stunning 12’ diameter stained glass skylight. After the construction was finished, William and Ida McKinley were interred side-by-side with their two daughters, who died in childhood.
Visiting the memorial takes a bit of effort. It’s easy to see the colossal memorial from the parking lot, but if you want to explore inside, it will require climbing 108 stone steps. There is handicap access at the rear – drive around the memorial to parking with level access.
About halfway up the steps in the front, a towering bronze statue of McKinley. Charles Henry Niehaus’s statue depicts McKinley giving his final speech to a crowd in Buffalo, New York.
Where to Stay in Canton
Interestingly, the only downtown Canton hotel is DoubleTree by Hilton. The gorgeous hotel offers an immaculate indoor swimming pool with skylights, conference center space, and comfortable rooms. It’s the hotel business travelers use most often.
Hampton Inn & Suites is located along Interstate 77, about ten minutes from downtown – and closer to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The hotel features a fantastic free breakfast and several room options for an overnight stay.
Red Roof Inn offers a more affordable option for lodging in Canton that is still comfortable and highly rated. It’s located on the same end of town as the Hampton Inn, where you’ll find plenty of chain restaurants – if you don’t like local food.