WILTON — “Our historic sites are a study in human nature.”
That was the observation earlier this week of Ben Kemp, a staff member and volunteer coordinator at the U.S. Grant Cottage State Historical Site on Mt. McGregor.
Kemp was busy preparing for a luncheon offered there Monday to a group of nearly 20 volunteers who take pride in preserving the condition of Grant Cottage.
The former president and famed Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant chose to spend his final days there with family before succumbing to throat cancer on July 23, 1885.
On July 6, the Wilton Town Board voted to provide $5,000 to support a Civil War re-enactment called “The Yanks are Coming” scheduled for October 7 at Grant Cottage. The town is an official sponsor of that event, which may attract hundreds of visitors.
Wilton Supervisor Arthur Johnson said Grant Cottage, situated on a rocky slope just beyond the barbed-wire fences of the idled Mt. McGregor prison complex, “brings in thousands of visitors over the season.”
The town had previously approved a $3,000 contribution to Grant Cottage for this year. Johnson said the extra funds represent “a great economic development move.”
Tim Welch, president of the Grant Cottage Board of Trustees, explained that the town’s additional support helps defray the traveling costs of Civil War re-enactors who live in southern states but plan on attending the October 7 event.
According to Melissa Swanson, the historic site’s executive director, contacts with Grant’s descendants are still maintained after 132 years.
She said the writer Samuel Clemens—better known as Mark Twain—had convinced Grant to complete his memoirs for the historical record before he died. That project occupied most of Grant’s time at the cottage.
During a brief tour this week, Swanson called the cottage “a time capsule.” She pointed to the same two leather chairs facing each other in which Grant had found comfort because lying in bed to write his memoirs was too painful.
A bureau with Grant’s personal effects and garments stands close by, complete with a large glass jar on top containing a mixture of water and cocaine that was utilized to relieve the former president’s throat pain.
“It’s a love story,” offered Kemp, noting how Grant was a man of “simplicity” and solid moral character.
After serving his country and falling ill, Kemp said, Grant chose the peace and quiet of Mt. McGregor to write the memoirs and make the best of his remaining time with his wife Julia, their four grown children and grandchildren.
Kemp reported that the recent closure of the Mt. McGregor prison complex resulted in a noticeable increase in visitors to Grant Cottage over the last several seasons. The guides who give tours also play a crucial role in telling Grant’s story, according to Kemp.
“People need to feel the connection,” he said.
“We would not be open without our volunteers,” added Swanson, before heading back out to the cottage’s spacious front porch to arrange food and drinks for them.
A special information session is planned for Sunday, July 16, to recruit more volunteers. “They are the heart of our organization,” Swanson said.
For more information, call 518-584-4353 or visit the website www.grantcottage.net.