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McKinley continued egg roll

Editor’s note: This is part of a weekly series marking the 120th anniversary of Niles native William McKinley’s U.S. presidency.

The White House will host its 140th Easter egg roll today. The event, started during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, is held on the South Lawn typically on the Monday after Easter.

It has been held every year since 1878 with the exception of during World Wars I and II and the renovation of the White House during the presidency of Harry S. Truman. The egg roll is the largest event held at the White House each year, and they expect 20,000 to attend in 2018.

Its origin can be traced back to after the Civil War. Families would flock to the Capitol grounds for the first spring outings of the year. Parents would bring a blanket to sit on and bring a picnic lunch. Children would bring their colored Easter eggs and roll the eggs down the hill on the west side of the Capitol. The egg that rolled down the hill the fastest without breaking was declared the winner.

Congressional leaders were upset the day after Easter Monday in 1876. The grass and the grounds of the Capitol had been destroyed as a result of the egg roll. Congress quickly passed the Turf Protection Law of 1876 that prohibited the grounds from being used for the egg roll.

The law was not tested in 1877 because it rained all day. The Washington community returned to Capitol Hill on Easter Monday 1878 for the usual spring outing, and Capitol Police chased the adults and children off the grounds.

Someone suggested the south lawn of the White House had hills that would be perfect for the egg roll. The 1878 participants sought permission from Hayes, who agreed, giving the event a new home.

President William McKinley followed the practice of his four predecessors and continued to permit the egg roll to happen. The president and First Lady Ida McKinley hosted five, from 1897 to 1901.

The event grew in popularity during McKinley’s presidency. As many as 20,000 Washington residents gathered at the White House for the event on a nice sunny day. The grounds opened at sunrise and closed at sunset.

The people on the grounds were a cross-section of Washington society. Whites and blacks mingled freely, with the Jim Crow Laws relaxed for the day. Children who were dressed in their beautiful silks and fine laces played with children who were dressed in shabby clothes with their toes sticking out of their shoes.

A picnic-like atmosphere prevailed. Blankets could be found throughout the south lawn with families enjoying packed lunches. Children brought their colored Easter eggs and rolled them downhill. Other children played games such as egg picking, egg ball, touch and catch, and egg croquet. There were brightly colored balloons and snacks offered by vendors just outside the White House gate. The Marine Corps Band, under the direction of John Philip Sousa, played lively patriotic music.

Patrick Finan of Cortland is the retired former library director of the McKinley Memorial Library in Niles.

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