National First Ladies Museum Puts Taxpayers Last

Drew Johnson

March 28, 2012

Most people who find themselves in Canton, Ohio, first wonder why they’re in Canton, then make a quick stop at the Pro Football Hall of Fame and finally get out of the wilting rustbelt town as quickly as possible. 

Few of the town’s visitors are aware that Canton is home to a dubious federally-funded tourist trap. They’re in good company. Many Canton residents don’t even know that the National Park Service-managed First Ladies National Historic Site sits right in the middle of the city’s downtown.

Just because most Americans have never heard of the First Ladies National Historic Site doesn’t mean they’re not paying for it. Congress makes a habit of showering the failing museum with over $1 million in federal tax money every year. Since it opened in 2000, the museum has managed to burn through more than $10 million in taxpayers’ money while attracting fewer visitors than an Apple Store in Amish Country.

So why is there a First Ladies National Historic Site? And how did it end up in Canton? The answer to both questions, unfortunately, is pork barrel politics.

The Site is comprised of two buildings: a former bank building, which houses the National First Ladies’ Library, and a living history museum in the childhood home of First Lady Ida Saxton McKinley, perhaps the least distinguished first lady in American history.

Epilepsy plagued Ida Saxton McKinley, leaving her invalid most of her life. At formal dinners, Ida always sat next to her husband, President William McKinley. That allowed him to quickly toss a napkin over Ida’s head to conceal the temporary facial distortions that accompanied her frequent seizures.  Less than six years after the assassination of her husband, Ida was dead.

Needless to say, Ida’s résumé doesn’t stack up well against more notable first ladies such as Mary Washington, Dolley Madison, Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy. Still, the museum is in Ida’s childhood home, not one of theirs. This is because the National First Ladies’ Library is the brainchild of Mary Regula, wife of retired Congressman Ralph Regula (R-Ohio).

While in Congress, Rep. Regula, who represented the Canton area in the House of Representatives for 36 years, helped broker a deal between the Library and the National Park Service to turn Ida Saxton McKinley’s childhood home into the First Ladies National Historic Site. The arrangement was a coup for Rep. Regula, since the Site would draw visitors to his district, while housing and helping fund his wife’s organization.

Rep. Regula used his influence as an appropriator to flood the Library and the Site with taxpayer-funded subsidies. In 2000, the Library received a $2.5 million federal grant to turn the former bank into the Library’s headquarters. (State lawmakers later forced Ohio taxpayers to chip in $1 million to underwrite renovation expenses, as well.)

Shortly before he retired in 2009, Rep. Regula managed to snag one final $124,000 earmark for his wife’s organization. The pork handout was used by the National First Ladies’ Library to catalogue every book purchased by First Lady Abigail Fillmore for the White House during Millard’s presidency, and then purchase duplicates of those books for the Library’s collection.

If it doesn’t seem like a thrilling experience to schlep to a decaying northeastern Ohio town to visit the childhood home of one of America’s least important first ladies and thumb through duplicate copies of books read by Millard Fillmore’s wife, join the club. While taxpayers spent $1,021,000 to bankroll the federal government’s glorification of former president’s wives in 2011, only 8,254 people visited the complex.

In other words, taxpayers paid $124 in subsidies to the First Ladies National Historic Site for every single man, woman and child who walked through the door last year.

Despite the First Ladies National Historic Site’s track record of wasted tax dollars, measly attendance and shady deals, the Site received another $1 million from the pockets of federal taxpayers again this year. That means plenty of job security for Mary Regula, and her daughter, Martha Regula, who also works at the National First Ladies Library.

Sure it’s outrageous to squander more than a million dollars a year to finance a museum that draws 20 visitors a day so the wife and daughter of a former Congressman can have a job. Sadly, that’s just business as usual in Washington.

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