A Tour Inside Grant's Cottage

Jul 11, 2015

Atop Saratoga County's Mt. McGregor, in the foothills of the Adirondacks, is the yellow house known as Grant's Cottage. The building is where former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant spent the last six weeks of his life.

Sitting next to a complex that was most recently used as a prison, but was once mountain top resort, the building is now owned by the State of New York. A staff of volunteers runs tours and programs at the site.

Frank Varney, author of the book General Grant and the Rewriting of History will be speaking at the cottage on Sunday. We agreed to meet for a quick tour.

"When we take people through we usually talk outside for a few minutes..."

That's our tour guide David Hubbard, of the Friends of the Ulysses S. Cottage, speaking in the doorway of a building that looks mostly unchanged since Grant lived here in 1885.

"Grant came here because of his lack of money. He lost his money in a banking scandal in New York in 1884 and because of his health. He had cancer of the throat and the tongue and he needed some place where there was cool, fresh air," explained Hubbard.

And this is also where, at the advice and support of Mark Twain, Grant wrote his memoirs to support his family.

The inside of the home has also remained mostly unchanged. There's a cabinet of Grant's bedclothes, kerosene lamps, and even a jar containing a mixture of water and cocaine Grant's caretakers used to swab his throat in his illness.

Hubbard shows us where Grant spent much of his time writing.

"This is what we call the sickroom, or Grant's bedroom, he couldn't lay down because of the tumor in his throat. He would sit in one chair and put his feet up on the other. They gave him a board to put across here so he could use it as a writing desk."

Also in the rooms are a clock stopped at 8:08, the hour Grant passed away, as well as massive 130-year-old flower arrangements brought to the home after his death. Varney, who's visited the cottage a few times, said he's still impressed with the house and its story.

"You know, it's a very human drama . It took place right here. And a great man, regardless of what you think of him as a person. He was a great man, certainly, in terms of influence, and power, and notoriety. And that drama played out right here. I think that's just fascinating," said Varney.

Grant's memoirs were enormously successful. Finished just three days before his death, the two-volume set sold 350,000 copies. Grant's family received about $450,000 in royalties - in today's value that would be more than $10 million.

The memoirs would be used to help write history books for years.

"The problem is when you look at what Grant said in his memoirs  as opposed to what other people are saying about saying about some of the actions of which he was apart, you see a split in terms what Grant's saying and what everybody else was saying. But I don't think that's hard to understand.

"We have a tendency to look at history with hindsight. We're looking at it knowing that Grant is going to be one of the leading generals of the world and a two-term president of the United States. He didn't know that in 1862. This is a guy who was fighting a very real struggle. And when things when wrong he was not going to let it be his fault, if he could avoid it. So he indulged in some scapegoating and he tried very hard to shape the historical record, and again, that's human nature."

After a conversation on the porch, Varney and I walked to a hillside with views of distant Vermont and Massachusetts referred to as Grant's Last Stand.

"Grant used to like being to be wheeled out here. He used to sit over there. There was a gazebo, I think, that people dismounted for souvenirs."

Varney is now in the process of writing his second book on Grant. And as much as Varney has called Grant's memoirs into question, he still has a great respect for the man and his work.

"Can you imagine knowing - I mean we all know we're going to go sometime - but knowing you're going soon and you're trying to finish the memoirs because if you don't your family is going to be saddled with this enormous debt. That would have been probably well over a million dollars today.

"How he did...I mean the reason they were swabbing his throat with cocaine was they couldn't give him morphine - it dulled him too much, he couldn't write. So he used cocaine, which didn't help him as much, but it at least it enabled him to continue to write. And he couldn't even lie down, I mean, the poor man had to sleep sitting up just to try to do this. Working through the night by kerosene lamp, if you ever tried to work by kerosene lamp it's not too easy."

Varney will be speaking at the Grant Cottage on Sunday, July 12. For more information visit: http://www.grantcottage.org/index_UBFI.php