Article from April 2004 Newsletter


Brother of Martyred President Garfield

(Article from the Grand Rapids Herald  20 February, 1910)

Shadow of Mortality Quietly Settling About Thomas Garfield, the Elder Brother, at His Modest Farm Home But a Short Distance From Grand Rapids

On the sitting room wall in a comfortable old farmhouse down near Jamestown, in Ottawa County, hangs a splendid oil painting of one of the nation’s martyred presidents, while beneath it, of a winter’s evening, sits a feeble, worn, old man through whose spirit of noble self-sacrifice was made possible the climbing of the heights by the original of the picture.

From the opposite wall beams in exquisite pastel the face of the mother of these two, the humble farmer and his great brother.

James A. Garfield was cut down by the hand of an assassin just when he had arrived at the zenith of hi power, while Thomas, his elder brother, has lived on in his Michigan home, which he hewed out of the wilderness, almost unknown, save to his near neighbors, till he has attained his eighty-eighth year, and who, knowing the circumstances surrounding his early life, shall say that, when his final account is rendered, his name shall not stand as high in the roll of martyrs as that of his more famous brother.

Thomas was but 11 when his mother was widowed, and the burden of supporting the little family of four fell upon his shoulders. The little brother who was later to rule a nation, was but 18 mons old, and during all the years of his babyhood and youth, the slim boy Thomas was not only brother but father to him. The first shoes James got were bought with money earned by Thomas splitting rails. Together they slept, and often the youngster, kicking off the clothing and finding himself chilled by the cool of the night would waken his big brother crying, “Thomas, Thomas, cover me up.”

Years after when restlessly sleeping on the field of battle, these days came back to James in his dreams. General Rosecrans told the story of how, when he and General Garfield were occupying the same tent, he was aroused by this same old plaintive cry and when he aroused his tent mate to inquire the trouble, he was told: “Why, in my dreams I was back in the little cabin sleeping again with my brother, who to me seemed always more like a father.”

It is not surprising that this feeling prevailed since, in addition to the 9 years difference in their ages, Thomas so early took up the burdens of life that he may be said to have had almost no childhood.

At the age of 17, when things were dull in their Ohio home, he struck off into the wilds of Michigan, arriving in the Grand River valley in the fall of 1843. He spent one night in an old house which still is standing on what is known as the Dyke farm. In the edge of what is now the village of Grandville. That winter he spent working in a logging camp, returning in the spring with his earnings, $75, to build a more comfortable home for his mother.

He did not come to Michigan again till 1867 when his brother, already on the road to fame, through his services during the great war, took up the burden of caring for the little family.

Thomas had at that time a wife, whom he married in 1849, and three children, James, then 17, and Eliza Elmira and Florence Evangeline, two girls. The country was still a wilderness but with the old indomitable determination which had characterized his early years, he set about to clearing for himself a home.

The —— of his success is attested by the excellent condition of the old farm on which he has resided continuously ever since. In this, his old age, he is the idol of his son and daughter-in-law, and of his three grandchildren, Leslie S., aged 30; James, Jr., 27, and Florence Lucretia, 19 now studying to become a nurse.

“I have helped to clear up the wilderness in two states”, he said the other day, “and have tried to do my duty as a Christian, always. I can say little which has not already been printed of the life of my brother. He was a great man without a particle of false pride, and we always loved each other. Only three years before he was killed he came to spend the day with me here, coming down from Grand Rapids, where he made a speech in Powers Opera house, and he was just the same old “Jim” as ever. He sat in the doorway there, beside you, munching maple sugar, petting the cat and talking over old times.

“Oh, there have been few men like Jim, and if he had lived he would have been the greatest president the country ever had. But he little thought of his presidency then, although he was looking to the senate. At leaving he took my hand in both of his and said:

“Thomas, I almost envy you the quiet and peace of this life, but, fate has forced other conditions upon me and I must go back to the stress and —- the world and play my part manfully.”

“That was the last time I saw him till he lay on his bier in Cleveland. During many years before this our ways had lain far apart, and only occasionally I caught fleeting glimpses of him. Of his political life I knew almost no more than a stranger, as he never discussed matters of this kind in his home. There he was just the jolly, good-natured father of his family, and he entered into everything that was going on about him.”

“About myself? Why, there’s nothing to tell, I have lived just like any farmer, grubbing away and earning a living. Oh, yes, they were hard years of course, those early ones, and I worked hard just as anyone would, left in the same position. Sometimes I got pretty weary, but it is enough for me to know that I was able to contributed to the making of such a career. It is a great comfort to me now, that and my Bible, which I have read and tried to follow for over 70 years, and now I just wait here peacefully for the last call.”

And, so he fell asleep almost as he talked.

Well, may the old man’s soul be peaceful and his spirit fearless. To him it is nothing that he is the brother of a president, but it is much that he has always done his duty according to the teachings of the Disciple church, of which he has been a member over 70 years. When he goes before the recording angel, holding out his gnarled fingers, limping on his poor rheumatic legs, earned in the performance of the simpler duties which have fallen to his share, he will find awaiting him as great a glory as though his way had lain among the rulers of the earth.

The picture on the wall of the old house is a copy of the one which hangs in Windsor palace, a gift from the nation to Queen Victoria. It, with the mother’s picture, was painted by a Cleveland artist and presented to the old man many years ago.

Among the other more interesting mementos of the dead president are two canes, one a gold headed one the president carried. The stick is ebony and engraved on the name plate is the name “James A. Garfield”. The other cane is a plain stick of Osage orange, made from the wood of a tree set out under the instruction of Andrew Jackson when he was president, in what has since become Garfield park in Washington.

Among the stories of the martyred president which his brother states were overdrawn are those regarding his canal experience. “Jim just made one trip on the canal,” he said, “and not a round trip either.” He was taken sick and had to come home, and besides he never had occasion to earn his living in that way for he had a mighty good education for those days and easily secured better employment. He never sailed on the lakes, and his rail splitting experience was very limited indeed. The whole effort of our mother and all of us was to give James an education and while he had hard times enough, and suffered privations, such as the modern young men escape, he was not so badly off for those days. There was a lot of this stuff written for political effect during his lifetime and I know that he himself depreciated its use, but is has crept into the later books and now is commonly accepted as historically correct, I guess.”

The visits of his mother to his home here are the most treasured memories of this gentle, old man. The last of these was in 1882 after the death of his brother. His sister, too. Mehitable Trowbridge has been a frequent visitor here, stopping the last time four years ago, when she was moving from Cleveland to Lost Angeles, where she still lived at the age of 89.

Five years ago he with his son, James, and his daughter-in-law, visited the Garfield home at Mentor, Ohio. He brought home with him a picture of a family gathering taken in front of the old home there. James B., who is in politics in his native state; Abraham, an architect in Cleveland, and Harry, president of Williams college, with their wives and families are represented. That was what will probably be his last trip of any extent as he is now very feeble. It was his ambition, however, to get to Grand Rapids for the Lincoln club banquet, and take his place with the original Fremont voters at the table. “My ambition is as good as ever,” he says “but my body refuses longer to respond.”

Transcriber: Evelyn Sawyer

Created: 27 January 2004

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