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Football Lovers in the Family?

Well Worth the Trip: Canton’s Pro Football Hall of Fame

You might not be able to score a ticket to Super Bowl LVI, set for Sunday, February 13, at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, but a good substitute is a visit to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. There, you can take in a movie review of last year’s Super Bowl, ponder a display of every year’s Super Bowl ring, and pose with the actual Vince Lombardi trophy.

Even if you’re not a die-hard fan, you’ll still have a good time at the museum, which showcases the impressive accomplishments of players – undeniably great athletes who dedicated themselves to a punishing sport. And if you’re traveling with family members who might not be willing to spend hours inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there are other activities in and near Canton to hold their attention while you wallow in football lore.

Some History, Please

Founded in 1805, Canton became a hub of manufacturing in the mid- to late-1800s, with companies making agriculture machinery, watches, and iron and steel. The town also attracted attention when Canton lawyer William McKinley was elected U.S. president in 1896 and 1900, bringing with him to the White House wife Ida, a Canton native. The Hoover vacuum was invented in what is now North Canton, and the town is also home to the Timken Company, one of the world’s largest producers of ball bearings.

In 1920, the idea for a professional football league, the American Professional Football Association, came to fruition in an automobile showroom owned by Ralph Hay – who also owned the Canton Bulldogs, one of the nation’s earliest professional football teams. The National Football League gained strength and prestige, and in 1962, additional meetings were held in Canton with the intent of persuading NFL officials to locate a hall of fame for the sport in the town where the league coalesced. The effort was a success, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame opened in September 1963, with a mission to remember significant moments in the sport and honor participants – players and coaches – who had contributed to football over the years.

When the hall debuted, it comprised two buildings and included 19,000 square feet. After multiple expansions, the hall is now 180,000 square feet and is surrounded by the Johnson Controls Hall of Fame Village – a campus that includes the National Youth Football & Sports Complex with turf fields and its own stadium, and the 23,000-seat Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium. Future developments in the village will include a hotel, water park, and retail shops. 

Every year, a class of retired football heroes is enshrined and celebrated in a week of activities ranging from a parade through downtown that includes past inductees; a casual roundtable discussion; a stadium event at which the bronze bust of each new member is unveiled; and the Gold Jacket Ceremony, in which new hall of famers receive the signature Haggar wool jacket that forever marks them as hall members.

Visiting the Hall of Fame

Enthusiasts will tell you the best time to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame is during Enshrinement Weekend, when thousands of fans, each decked out in their favorite team or player’s gear, descend upon Canton and the Hall of Fame Village for festivities.

Last summer, a friend and I were part of the massive crowds that came to celebrate the induction of the classes of 2021 and 2020, whose enshrinement was delayed due to the pandemic. My friend, a Peyton Manning fan, wore Manning shirts every day, and often found herself in cheerful conversation with other similarly minded folks. That’s part of the fun in visiting the museum: Everyone who comes is happy to be there and happy to swap stories about stats or brushes with football greats. One mom and son we spoke with talked about the son’s experience with Manning at youth football camps in Colorado. 

The crowds are also a downside to visiting during enshrinement weekend. My friend and I entered the museum close to its opening Saturday morning to find we weren’t the only ones getting an early start. By the time we reached the fabled Hall of Fame Gallery with those famous bronze busts – where the lighting is so dim, good pictures are virtually impossible – we were leery of walking in lock-step with other football lovers to see the exhibits. We returned that evening – during the ceremony for the class of 2020 – to find a much emptier museum, in which we could move at will through galleries and get the perfect picture with Manning’s display case. 

Canton Highlights

Whenever you go, make sure to visit on one of Canton’s First Friday weekends, celebrated monthly in the downtown arts district. August’s First Friday weekend coincided with our visit, bringing even more fun with blocked-off streets filled with live music, vendor tents, and food trucks. 

The heart of the arts district is the new Centennial Plaza, built to celebrate 100 years of the pro football league. The space has a performance stage, large grass lawn for sitting and dancing (we saw and did both!), nearby restaurants and shops, plus a fun Instagram-worthy Canton sign. 

Programming at the plaza and for First Fridays continues through the winter, with light shows set to music along the open steel roof that encircles the plaza. January’s First Friday is typically a winter festival, complete with ice sculptures. A large-format high-definition LED video board shows movies and – what else? – football games in season. 

Located just a few blocks from Centennial Plaza, Bender’s Tavern is a powerful draw for football fans. An upstairs room at Bender’s is where meetings were held to bring the hall to Canton, and the bar is known to be a favorite haunt of players. We didn’t see any of those coveted gold jackets while we were there, but we did meet friendly locals who thanked us for traveling from Virginia and handed over their bar seats as they moved on to dinner.

Later, we visited Taggart’s Ice Cream, another Canton favorite. Open since 1926, Taggart’s is known for the Bittner: vanilla ice cream, homemade chocolate sauce, and pecans. My friend, being restrained, got a Mini-Bittner, but I went for the Buckeye sundae, loaded with hot fudge, peanut butter, and mini buckeyes. (Hey, it’s Ohio!)  

Beyond Football

While the Hall of Fame commands much attention in Canton, other attractions deserve time, too. The McKinley Presidential Library & Museum is dedicated to our twenty-fifth president, with a richly detailed upstairs gallery that has the largest collection of McKinley artifacts in the world. You can see campaign memorabilia, McKinley’s piano and other home furnishings, the president’s wool top hat and cane, and Ida McKinley’s gold and diamond tiara. 

For me, the highlight of the McKinley museum was the Street of Shops, with 19th-century replicas of businesses, a pioneer cabin, and a one-room schoolhouse. I wandered through the general store, saw letters in the post office boxes, and cringed in the dentist’s office, thinking about what dental care felt like then. At the street’s end, a separate room holds a model train encircling a table roughly thirteen feet wide and forty-one feet long, passing through a variety of scenes from different times in Canton and Ohio history. Vintage train cars are on display in cases that ring the room. 

To marvel over different transportation, an easy fifteen-minute drive brings you to the MAPS Air Museum in North Canton. A military air museum, MAPS offers the chance to imagine the view from above while you sit in the gondola of a Goodyear blimp or at the controls of a
Vietnam-era helicopter. Aircraft fill a hangar as well
as outdoor tarmac space. 

If Canton is feeling too male-centric, head downtown to the old City National Bank, home to the education center of the First Ladies National Historic Site, managed by the National Park Service. Visitors can watch a film and take in rotating exhibits that showcase the contributions made by presidents’ spouses. An appointment-only research library is upstairs.

Less than two blocks away is the former home of Ida Saxton McKinley, who grew up as part of a prominent Canton family. Ida was born and raised in the house; later, she and husband William lived there when he served in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1878-1891. With period furnishings, the house reflects the style in which the McKinleys lived. 

Getting There

Canton is in northeast Ohio, south of Akron. The Akron-Canton Airport is ten miles north of Canton and is served by American, United, Spirit, and Breeze airlines. Cleveland, about an hour away by car, has a larger airport. 

Because I love a road trip, my friend and I drove from Richmond, taking roughly seven and a half hours, with frequent stops to stretch and switch drivers. We took the West Virginia route, which offers mountain scenery as well as a beautiful view of the gold-topped dome of the state capital of Charleston. If you’re up for a road trip anytime soon, this adventure in Canton was well worth the drive!

Photos: courtesy Mckinley Presidential Library & Museum, Visit Canton, Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Paula Chambers

Paula Peters Chambers has been writing professionally since college, when she joined a student newspaper’s staff in her first semester. A resident of Richmond for eleven years, she still likes to explore and learn with her three children, even though they are now old enough to offer their opinions on what to do.
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