Sunday, November 17, 2013

Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site

When we pulled into the parking lot for Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site the other day, it seemed like there were a lot of cars. I was thinking, wow, pretty good visitation for a weekday in November. Turned out that initial assessment was a little off: everyone in the visitor center was either staff or a volunteer, and, going by the signatures in the guest book, the park hadn't exactly been mobbed in recent weeks. I have a hunch a fair number of the cars in the parking lot belonged to people who were jogging or walking Grant's Trail immediately adjacent to the park.
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.
If that was true, I hope at least a few of the joggers and bikers do stop by the park itself at least once. It's an interesting site. Ulysses S. Grant was the 18th president of the United States, from 1869-1877, and is a really nice example of how you never know what life is going to throw at you. In 1859 Grant probably thought his life was pretty much of a failure: he left the Army to try farming with his father-in-law, but within a few years he had washed out as a farmer and was struggling financially while working as a bill collector. Ten years later he was President of the United States. The country's bad luck -- the Civil War -- turned out to be a godsend for Grant.
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.  
The slightly less than 10 acres that today comprise the historic site are all that's left of what once was an 850 farm belonging to Julia Dent Grant's family. The Dents purchased the land in 1820, and it's where Grant met his wife, Julia Dent. Grant and Julia's brother Frederic had been West Point classmates. After Grant was assigned to Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, he visited the Dent farm frequently. After a long engagement, Julia and Grant married in 1848. According to the interpretive material at the park, both families opposed the marriage. Julia's father was unhappy about Grant being in the military; he knew promotions were slow and the life of an officer's wife meant moving from garrison to garrison. Grant's father was opposed because the Dents were slave owners and Hiram Grant was an abolitionist. Grant's parents refused to attend the wedding because the Dents owned slaves.

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.

1 comment:

  1. this was interesting. I never paid much attention to U.S. Grant other than what you see in the movies...he was an Indian fighter that took Vicksburg during the Civil War...He smoked cigars and drank heavily and was considered a failure as President.

    So much of our history has been exaggerated: it is hard to separate the facts from the fiction.
    the Ol'Buzzard


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