|Ulysses S. Grant NHS as seen from Grant's Trail. The large yellow building is the Park headquarters and visitor center; the long brown one is a horse barn built by President Grant. It is now a museum.|
Ulysses S. Grant NHS is a fairly new site within the National Park system. George H. W. Bush signed the enabling legislation for the park in 1989; formal establishment occurred the following year. At the time, the property had been out of the Grant family for over 100 years. It is moderately amazing that the house and a number of original outbuildings survived, although all required extensive rehabilitation. The masonry building shown to the left in the photo above, for example, housed the summer kitchen and laundry. At one point one long exterior wall had been demolished along with the interior wall separating the two halves and the building used as a garage. NPS reconstructed the building to bring it back to its original appearance so visitors today see the building the way it would have looked in the 1850s.
|Wall exposed to show construction details.|
Slavery is in fact one of the major interpretive themes at the park. The issue of slavery was a source of tension between Grant and the Dents, although Grant did acquiesce in its use while he was living in Missouri. The Dents relied on slave labor to operate their farm, and Julia Dent Grant's memoirs and other records do mention various slaves by name. The interpretive signage does a good job of contrasting the lives of the Dents' slaves with the lives of the Dents themselves. I had some quibbles about some of it -- at times it felt like they were laying it on a little too thick, like when the interpretive material asserted that the slaves working in the kitchen didn't get to eat until after the owners had been served and then they got what were basically table scraps. Pshaw. I've worked in restaurants. I also had a brief adventure as a paid domestic servant. Anyone that thinks that kitchen staff, whether they're doing it because they're forced to through slavery or they're working for wages, is going to wait to eat breakfast until after the master is served is living in a fantasy world. Yes, slavery sucked. In fact, it sucked enough that there's no reason to indulge in exaggeration. The bare facts are bad enough.
The horse barn at the farm, which Grant built, has been renovated to serve as a small museum. Part of the building is configured as it would have been as a barn with a box stall for a horse and a carriage and farm wagon on display. The remainder of the building is more typical museum with exhibits on the Civil War, the Grant family, and other topics. I'll confess I didn't see much of the museum. I had mentioned to the park guide that I had worked in the Midwest Region Office in Omaha; after we finished our tour of the house, she must have mentioned that to an architect working at the park that I sort of knew. He came into the museum and we had a good time talking shop while the S.O. and the younger daughter wandered around being tourists.
I liked Grant; we'll probably go there again. I'd like to see it during a different season, and I'd also like to take a closer look at the museum exhibits. If you're going to be in the St. Louis area, seek out the park. It's worth visiting.