The name of the “Garfield Inn” is really a misnomer. The 20th President of the United States, James Garfield, did not build or own the landmark 1850’s Inn in Port Austin Michigan. But he was a rather frequent visitor. The fascinating history of the Inn really resides with the family that built the house Charles and Maria Learned. Information was found from an article published in 1884 which serves to give a fascinating story of the man who built the mansion.
Charles Learned started his career as a business man in 1835, at the age of 18. He took a contract in his father’s name to build one mile of aqueduct on the water-works of the city of New York, at Dobbs’ Ferry. When he became of age he had made his first $10,000. He was one of the builders of the Erie Canal, and constructed two tunnels on the Boston water-works; also five miles of the aqueduct. He invested in the building of the Harlem Railroad near Croton Falls, N.Y., and in other similar enterprises until 1859. In addition to his operations as a contractor, he was also invested for a period of five years in farming and lumbering at West Troy, where he owned lumber yards; he also controlled a sawmill in Rensselaer Co., N.Y.
Charles first knowledge of the pine tracts of the Huron peninsula was obtained in 1857, during a trip to Port Austin to buy lumber. Smith & Dwight, of Detroit, who were conducting milling operations in Michigan. The outlook impressed him as promising, and in company with his brother-in-law, Fredrick S. Ayres, of West Troy New York, he purchased several thousand acres of pine land. Later, he sold a fourth interest to Ebenezer Wiswall. A sawmill had already been erected on the tract purchased, and they entered largely into the manufacture of lumber, with yards for wholesale and retail traffic at Sandusky, Ohio. As the county developed, the firm extended their business relations, sunk the first salt well in this county and engaged in mercantile enterprises.
In 1871 Charles sold his business to E. R. Ayres but retained 2,000 acres, on which he raised various crops. He employed three general managers on his farms and employed about 20 men. His dairy herd included 30 cows including Jerseys, Short-horns, Holsteins and Ayrshires. He had a thoroughbred Jersey bull, registered “Exquisite,” which he purchased in Pittsfield, Mass. A fine grade of butter from his dairy was shipped to Detroit and Philadelphia.
The Inn’s beginnings started as an outcome from the profits of the lumber industry. The description from an 1884 bio of Learned noted, “The village property of Charles Learned at Port Austin includes an elegant residence with grounds attached, containing three acres and worth $12,000. (~$300,000 today), Adjacent barns are situated on an additional three acres and six tenant houses and a number of lots. He also owns 2,000 acres of land in Tuscola County, located in the neighborhood of the Halfway House, between Sebewaing and Bay City, where they keep a quantity of cattle.”
With profits from his lumbering and farming enterprises Learned enlarged and updated this house in the French Second Empire style. In the 1860s Ohio congressman, later president, James A. Garfield, a family friend, was a frequent guest here.
Garfield was a friend with Maria Learned, Charles’ wife. Garfield’s close association to the Learned family, and his devotion to Maria were documented in his personal diary. Garfield and Maria died within months of each other, she in January 1881 of tuberculosis and, he from an assassin’s bullet in September 1881 after only six months as president. As Garfield lay mortally ill, he asked to be allowed to travel to Port Austin and recover in the Learned home. That same month the devastation of the Great Fire of 1881 occurred in Huron County.
From 1931 to 1979 the house served as the Mayes Inn and Tower Hotel. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. It was bought by the Pasant family in 1989 who renamed the Bed & Breakfast the Garfield Inn in honor of the connection between the Learned’s and President James Garfield.