By Jelane A. Kennedy
Grant’s cottage is a small gem in the foothills of the Adirondacks. For years I have driven by the sign on I-87 while heading north. Finally this fall on a semi-overcast day we decided to go check it out. Before going, I thought about what I had learned in history class about President Ulysses Grant. All I could remember was hearing that he was a war hero having won the Civil War because of his well-planned strategies and that he was not much of a President mainly due to having a drinking issue. This pretty much summed it up.
Well I was to learn that what I had been taught in my history class was way off target. We started our visit by driving up a long road past the now closed McGregor Prison on top of McGregor Mountain in the Wilton area of upstate New York. It was a bit eerie to drive past the closed prison in it’s large gothic like presence. (The last time I had visited the prison was on a site visit for an intern. This was a number of years before the prison closed). At one time a popular hotel was on the site when Grant and his family came. The prison it’s self had started as a TB sanitarium in the early 1900’s and was repurposed multiple times, the last as a medium-security prison.
President Grant was the 18thPresident of the United States. He lived in the cottage for almost two months in 1885. He did not own the cottage. The hotelier that owned Hotel Balmoral lent the cottage to him and his family. His doctors’ had informed Grant that he needed a place away from New York City during the heat of the summer. President Grant was much beloved by the public in general and had been a popular president. Veterans of the Civil War had a strong affinity to him. He served two terms of office and probably would have served a third had he not been slow to decide on the third term process.
During his time in office he had put in place many pieces of legislation related to early civil rights and is considered by many the 2ndgreatest president after Abraham Lincoln to be concerned about the rights of people of color. The civil rights act of 1875 was enacted during his Presidency. It was an amazing piece of legislation that affirmed the rights of people of color and prohibited the racial discrimination in all public places. (It was deemed unconstitutional in 1883.) It has been said that he and President Lincoln were friends and spent time-sharing ideas. The night Lincoln was shot, Grant and his wife were to have attended Ford Theater with the Lincoln’s. The Grant’s had bowed out and had they not done so there was thought that Grant also would have been shot.
The cottage was where Grant finished the second volume of his two volume memoirs about the civil war. He was a reluctant writer. The memoir probably would not have been written at all had it not been for three events. One was he had been convinced by his son to invest in a Ponzi type scheme, and had introduced another investor to invest. When he found out what was going on he used the last of his wealth to pay back the other investor. He was considered an honest and honorable man. The second event was that around this same time it was discovered he had throat cancer. Not wanting his family to be destitute he felt a need to provide for them. Earlier a magazine had approached him about writing a piece about his experiences in the Civil War.
The third event centered on his friendship with Mark Twain. Mr. Twain was just starting his publishing company and encouraged his friend to write a memoir instead of the magazine article. Twain would publish what would be a two-volume book. He marketed the book through door-to-door sales. Twain hired veterans as sales men. They offered the book to consumers with different covers so that a consumer could select a price point that fit their budget.
Grant spent his time on the first floor of the cottage. He slept in two chairs pushed together up until his final hours where he asked to be moved into a bed in the living room area. His days he spent finishing editing the second volume of the book. Twain would visit him telling Grant the encouraging news that the first volume was selling well. When Grant could he also would visit the overlook nearby the cottage to look out over the mountains and valley below near the Saratoga Battlefield. He also spent many hours out on the porch in the fresh mountain air.
During his time at the cottage family and friends would stay up the hill at the hotel. Making it convenient to visit him. It also made it convenient for his fans to get a glimpse. His wife after a few days ended up abandoning the downstairs bedroom because she got tired of people peeking in the windows. She slept upstairs knowing he was well taken care downstairs by his doctor and valet. He must have had excellent concentration to be able to write with all the commotion going on around him. His book has never been out of print.
Before arriving at the cottage there is a welcome center to purchase your admission ticket. Inside you will find several great displays about his presidency, a movie and a museum shop. As a visitor you are able to walk out to the overlook (the path is not very wheelchair accessible), and the first floor of the cottage. The docent tour of the first floor was well done and very informative. The docents demonstrate that they have done a lot of research on Grant and you can tell that they love him. The only part of the tour I found odd was the space used to hold the now dead (dried) flower wreaths from his funeral. It weirder me out a bit.
I am now more curious about Grant and plan to read a biography that was suggested by one of the docents. After learning what we did about his human rights advocacy, I want to understand more.
It is well worth the trip to visit Grant’s Cottage. It is open from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. The days of the week they are open vary during the season but the hours are 10 am – 4 pm. The admissions fee for adults is $6.00 but you can walk the grounds for free (https://www.grantcottage.org/hours). Now that the prison is closed the site has seen an uptick in traffic.
© Jelane A. Kennedy