Group hopes to preserve Ulysses S. Grant’s last refuge
Monday, March 29, 2010
By ANN MARIE FRENCH, For The Saratogian
WILTON — Mount McGregor is well known as being home to a correctional facility but is often forgotten as being an important landmark in history. It was atop Mount McGregor that Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th president of the United States, spent the last six weeks of his life before succumbing to throat cancer.
It was June 1885 when Grant left his New York City home for a cottage in Saratoga County. Already given his cancer diagnosis and the grim outlook of imminent death that came with it, Grant was determined to complete his memoirs as a means to provide financial security for his family. Grant had been ruined financially when a junior business partner embezzled the invested capital.
The cottage was owned by Joseph W. Drexel, who offered it to the former president as a place to spend his last days. On the good days, Grant sat on the cottage’s front porch or was wheeled to an overlook for views of the upper Hudson and lower Champlain valleys, the Green Mountains, the Berkshires and the Taghkanic Hills. On bad days, Grant would remain in bed, looking out a nearby window at the same view.
Today there is no view from the cottage — trees have grown up to block it. But visitors can walk to the overlook and see the same vista, albeit with more development than Grant could ever have imagined in his day. Drexel’s cottage still stands in good structural shape but needs a multitude of repairs. The sun, wind and weather have damaged the building’s exterior. The trim is weathered, the paint is peeling and the chimney is just beginning to separate from the side.
“Nobody has kept their eye on this,” said Lance Ingmire, the president of the Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage. “We cannot let our historic sites fall apart just because of mismanagement of money at the state level.”
The inside of the cottage remains identical to when Grant took his last breath there on July 23, 1885. Family members stopped the clock then, leaving the bed, his clothing, and other personal effects just as they were when he was alive.
Ingmire said there is repair work to be done inside as well.
His own interest in Grant and the historical site is deeply personal. Ingmire said one of his ancestors served as the conductor, bringing Grant’s body from the mountain. The family has a piece of cloth that draped the casket and Ingmire possesses a photo of a healthy Grant on the steps of the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga Springs, said to be Grant’s initial introduction to the local area. Ingmire, well-known for his organization of the fall Civil War encampments, has only been involved with the Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage for about a year.
Asked to give a speech at an annual meeting, Ingmire was soon approached about taking on a more active role with the organization. He has responded with zest, embarking on a campaign of public education and fundraising to have the cottage repaired and maintained in the way it should have been all along. Additionally, he has high hopes for making some much needed and important changes to the visitor’s center associated with Grant’s cottage.
While the cottage is completely controlled by the state Department of Parks and Recreation, the visitor’s center is under complete control of the Friends organization. The building itself is an old garage donated to the Friends by the state Department of Corrections a number of years ago. Ingmire is currently working with the Department of Parks and Recreation, which also controls the surrounding property, to conduct an engineering study related to a severe drainage problem on the site.
Ingmire said drainage on the site is inadequate, resulting in water pooling on the floor of the visitor’s center. At times of heavy rain, the water reaches a height of 2 inches and flows through the center.
“This takes away from what we want to give to the visitors,” Ingmire said.
While tours are conducted at the cottage, the details of Grant’s life and death are found in the visitor’s center. Ingmire said the center is a place where visitors can take their time to view videos, read documents and see displays that will provide additional details not covered in the cottage tour.
Ingmire said there are a number of local people, himself included, who would like to offer their personal collections for public display at the visitor’s center but are prohibited from doing so because of the conditions of the center.
While the engineering study will likely be completed by the Department of Parks and Recreation, any repairs or construction to the center will be funded by the Friends organization. The organization works with an annual budget of about $40,000, most of which is paid out as salaries for the site interpreter, tour guides and gift shop staff.
To learn more about the historic site and its needs, go to http://www.grantcottage.org. The site provides a brief chronology of Grant’s life and information on how to offer donations or become a member of the organization.
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