CANTON, Ohio — Birthplace of the National Football League and home of the Professional Football Hall of Fame, Canton, Ohio, may be relatively small in size (population 73,007), but it has an interesting trove of attractions.
If you’re wondering, like I did, whether this city 200 miles north of Charleston gets its name from the much larger Chinese city of Canton (aka Ghouangzhou), the answer is “maybe.”
Founded in 1805 by surveyor Bezaleel Wells, the town is named in honor of Captain John O’Donnell, whom Wells greatly admired. O’Donnell, the first person to transport goods from Canton, China, to Baltimore, named his Maryland estate Canton. As a tribute to O’Donnell, Wells named the newly founded Ohio city Canton. Or so the rather roundabout story goes.
Because of its numerous rail lines, Canton became a manufacturing center until a decline in the late 20th century. Since then, the city has shifted to a service economy and is now enjoying a downtown renaissance with a thriving arts and culture scene.
Following dinner at the 330 Grill, I walked along Market Street to the newly created Centennial Plaza and passed by the County Courthouse, an architectural gem, beautifully floodlit at night. Be sure to take note of the angels at the top of the tower of the Beaux Arts style building, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Centennial Plaza, adjacent to the Canton Brewing Company, was built to celebrate last year’s 100th anniversary of the founding of the NFL. In addition to a high definition TV screen, a café and a 5,000 person event lawn, the plaza features 11 stone slabs that recognize all the NFL players on active roster over the past century.
Directly across from the Doubletree Hotel, the First Ladies Museum opened in June 1998 in the former home of Ida Saxton McKinley and long-time residence of President William McKinley. The public rooms of the house have been restored to include period furnishings and historical wallpaper.
The museum’s education and research center, located a block away, takes a look at the lives and legacies of the nation’s 48 First Ladies and how their roles developed over time. The current exhibit, “First Ladies on the Campaign Trail,” spotlights their role in developing styles in presidential campaigns.
In addition to a small theater where films and documentaries of the first ladies are shown, the center has a collection of related artifacts and photos while a small library room replicates the first White House library created by Abigail Fillmore, wife of President Millard Fillmore.
According to Rebecca Knaggs, park guide, the museum doesn’t interpret the most recent first ladies, but the National Park Service does include an online biography of former First Lady Melania Trump at www.firstladies.org/biographies.
First lady connections to West Virginia include the marriage of Dolly Payne Todd to James Madison on Sept. 18, 1794 at the Homewood Estate in Charles Town. Martha and George Washington also vacationed in Berkeley Springs the summer of 1767, and Harriet Lane, acting first lady and niece of bachelor President James Buchanan, attended the Merritt Boarding School in Charleston.
Admission to the Research Center is free while the fee for the Saxton-McKinley House is $7.
For more history, have lunch or dinner at Bender’s Tavern, 137 Court St., which has been serving food and libations since 1902. Over the years, Bender’s has retained much of its vintage atmosphere (tiger oak paneling, marble wainscoting, stained glass windows and tin ceilings). In its early years, women and men entered via separate doors. A plaque on an exterior wall testifies to this practice of antique etiquette, and the building is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Beer lovers might want to add Canton’s new Hall of Fame Hops Craft Brew Trail to your itinerary. The fifteen breweries on the trail can be found on a mobile passport. Simply sign on for free, and the passport will be sent to your phone via text or email. No app is needed.
Present your phone passport at each location for available discounts and possible prizes. For more information, visit www.visitcanton.com/trip-ideas/stark-county-brewery-tour/.
At 800 McKinley Memorial Drive NW, the impressive and well-designed McKinley Memorial holds the remains of our 25th president along with that of his wife, Ida, and their two daughters. After McKinley died from an assassin’s bullet while attending the Pan-American Expo in Buffalo in 1901, his body was returned to Canton with the intention of having it rest in a fitting memorial. Construction of the imposing building was completed in 1907 atop a high rise now accessible via a lengthy staircase of 108 steps.
Entrance to the interior of the memorial is permitted April 1 through November 1 and allows visitors to see McKinley’s marble coffin perched high on a catafalque and the spectacular stained glass dome that tops the memorial.
To learn more about McKinley, visit the Presidential Library and Museum in a spacious building near the foot of the memorial. The second floor holds a Street of Shops to give visitors a feel for what it was like to live in the 19th century with looks inside a barber shop, cabinet shop, blacksmith shop, department store and more. The nearby McKinley Gallery holds the world’s largest collection of McKinley related artifacts.
Veering away from the McKinley theme, the museum also holds Discovery Center, an interactive science center, and the Hoover-Price Planetarium. For more information, go to McKinleymuseum.org.
Art lovers might want to visit the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., where the focus is on American works on paper from the 19th century forward and an emphasis on watercolors and ceramics from the 1950s on. Some of the represented artists include Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, John Singleton Sargent, Winslow Homer and Andy Warhol.
With more than 1,500 pieces, the museum’s collection is regarded as one of the best of its kind in Ohio. For more information, go to cantonart.org.
If you’re planning a Canton visit, special discounts redeemable at participating restaurants, attractions, museums and shops are available via a VIP Visitors Savings Pass at www.visitcanton.com/deals/vip-offers/. For more information on Canton and the surrounding area, go to visitcanton.com or phone 800-552-6051.