Bringing History to Life: Working as a Park Ranger at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site

Over the past six months, I have been working as a Park Ranger at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site located in Mentor Ohio. The National Historic Site was designated as a National Park in 1980. Since then the site has been dedicated to preserving the life and legacy of our nation’s 20th president and his family. Although I had prior interpretive experience in the National Park Service, I was excited for the opportunities and growth that this new position could provide.

The main part of my job was to provide interpretive tours of the Garfield home to visitors that came to the site. In order to do this I had to read up on the history of James A. Garfield and his family and read quickly. Before I started to work at the site, I really knew absolutely nothing about him. Who Garfield was, what all he had accomplished in his life, how his family continued after his death, and how tragic his story was are all (just at a minimum) things that I got to learn along the way with my work. Applying all of this new knowledge to the historic home and making it entertaining for visitors created its own challenges. After a bit of practice I was able to give tours and answer visitors’ questions without any hesitation. After I got comfortable with giving regular tours of the Garfield home, I was even able to start learning more specific history about the site, and learn enough to lead some of the sites special amenity tours. These include our Behind the Scenes Tour, Behind the Ropes Tour, Architecture and Restoration Tour and Junior Behind the Scenes Tour.

Although this is the most public facing portion of my job, not everything is always on the front line and fabulous. In many instances I would spend good portions of my day at my computer working on digital projects for the site, checking email, and working on online trainings. It also was a time when I could work on our newsletter for the site, the Garfield Telegraph. In other cases I would continue to read about Garfield, finding out new information every time I had the chance. On a day that we were short staffed I also would spend a good portion of my time down at the front desk of the visitor center. Although this originally was challenging between having to learn two different registers and also working with visitors who come in and out of the site, it thankfully became much easier and is something I now enjoy doing.

The part of my job that I found the most exciting was being able to help contribute to and even help create some educational programing at the site. The main educational program that I worked on was the Every Kid in a Park program. As part of the national campaign, the Every Kid in a Park program is dedicated to providing fourth graders passes to their National Parks so that the kids and their families can enjoy these national treasures for free for a year. As part of this program I was able to participate in educational outreach, going into classrooms and getting to teach the kids firsthand about the ideals of the National Park Service. In addition to this, I also got to help create a program for eighth graders to teach them about the Civil War. The program provides the students the opportunity to work with primary and secondary sources, while learning more about the men and women who were directly impacted by the war. Being able to help create this program taught even me a lot more about the Civil War, as well as what are the best practices for creating an educational program for Ohio teachers.

Getting to work closely with the collections in the Garfield home has also been a very exciting part of my internship. Due to my previous experience in collections management, one of my responsibilities at the site has been getting the help clean and manage artifacts in the home. Having the curatorial resources established by the National Park Service as a guide for my work has created an amazing learning opportunity. The home has 85% original historic integrity in regard to its artifact collection, which is incredibly rare for house museums. Working closely with the pieces that are so historic is a truly priceless benefit.

My coworkers and supervisors were also integral in making this internship truly enjoyable. I personally find all of my co-workers very inspiring and appreciate the team mentality that our site offers not only each other but also our visitors. My supervisors are also truly amazing leaders. They are able to handle so many different tasks at one time, and always have a can-do attitude. I really enjoy the presence they have with park visitors, and how well they are able to lead the rest of us through the various types of situations that come from day to day. They also provide constructive criticism that is meaningful and helps me to become a better writer, and better Park Ranger. They embody what it means to be part of the National Park Service.

Overall, having this opportunity to work at the National Historic Site has been such a wonderful experience. I think my time here has made me an all-around better interpreter, historian, and National Park Service employee. The opportunities, freedoms, and additional responsibilities that I have been given as a Park Ranger have helped me to learn and grow more as an employee, but also aid in my professional development. I look forward to continuing my time at the site and what new projects and skills I will be able to develop over the upcoming winter season.

Questions like this one are an example of Audience Centered Interpretation. These questions are created to try and engage visitors on another level that come to the site.
This pietra dura is in the memorial library in the Garfield home and you learn more about its specific history on the Behind the Ropes tour.   

Part of my job also included helping with large events at the site. The Civil War encampment at the site is the largest event of the year and requires all staff on deck. 

This fire screen is found in Grandma’s bedroom in the Garfield home. The upkeep of the Garfield home allowed me to work closely with beautiful artifacts such as this one. 

Getting to be a uniformed employee has been such a wonderful experience!